Thursday, February 9, 2012

Literary Blog Hop: On Criticism

It's been a while since I've done one of these but as a book blogger, this month's Literary Blog Hop question was particularly compelling.  It's inspired from a quote by Chuck Klosterman in the epilogue for Fargo Rock City:
"It's always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they're really just writing about themselves."
The folks over at The Blue Bookcase ask, "Do you agree?"

Literary Blog Hop

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!  I think that true objectivity is impossible.  Sure, sometimes you can objectively identify poor writing, like repeated misspellings and dangling participles, but does that really speak to the quality of the work?  Particularly if one considers the context - maybe it's narrated by an uneducated child in an inner-city.  Wouldn't that make poor spelling and grammar acceptable and even more believable?  I am the first to admit that it's distracting and it may limit my ability to engage, but that's my problem and oh wait I'm getting autobiographical.

Yes, a reviewer could get all in-depth and talk about the use (or misuse) or various literary techniques, any innovation, the complexity of the characterization, but could she divorce that from how she feels about it?  And would it be interesting if she did?  I think that the Harry Potter series is highly flawed but that doesn't make me love it any less.  The ending may be unrealistic and the justification behind Death Eaters ever using anything other than the Unforgivable Curses is nonexistent, but I still love the story because it's compelling and emotional and because I grew up with Harry and oh wait I'm getting autobiographical.

There's a reason that I don't bother searching out book reviews in magazines and newspapers anymore - I want the reviews I read to be autobiographical.  I want to know who's telling me what to read and build a relationship with the reviewer, because how else can I trust her?  I would never have read the entertaining The Eyre Affair if I hadn't read a dozen other reviews by Alley at What Red Read that helped me understand what she liked and what she was like to know that I could trust her.  Likewise,  The Balkan Trilogy (which I have yet to read) would not be on my shelf if I didn't know that Ellen at Fat Books and Thin Women was so similar to me both in literary and life choices.  The list goes on.  I think we're all more likely to trust recommendations, literary or otherwise, that come from somebody we know and respect.

As a reviewer, I like to inject some personality into my reviews not only for this reason, but because I think it gives them more personality and readability.  Sure, I could go on and on about the style of discourse and technical "good" qualities, but without a little bit of me in there, would you still be reading?


  1. Oooh, we're getting some varied responses to this prompt! I like it.
    I generally agree that reviews are never truly objective, and personal touches are what I love about blog posts. But then, of course, I also detest my own tendency to write something like "I liked/hated it because ME ME ME." It's a difficult balance to find, something between book journaling and academic analysis.
    Thanks for participating in the hop!

  2. One thing I didn't think about while I was writing my response, and that keeps coming up as I read others', is what Klosterman means when he uses the word "autobiography." Depending on how we're using the word, our responses to that quote can change so much. When I wrote my response I was thinking of autobiographical as meaning some insertion of ourselves into our reviews, behind what's necessary or reasonable. But then, I agree with you that the ways we read and write reviews, what parts of a novel we look at most closely while we're reviewing, are the inevitable result of our lives and our reading histories. I think you're correct that a sort of academic analysis wouldn't interest many readers the same way a more (I don't know what to call this) blog-style review would. Whether we're open about making ourselves a part of our reviews, or try to avoid that, some element of our own story makes it into everything we write. I guess it's largely a matter of how obvious that history is - whether it's evident to the reader of our reviews, or just to us.

  3. There's a lot of different angles to approach the prompt, not least trying to figure out exactly what Klosterman meant! I agree with your post entirely (AND it was fun to read!) The books I've read based on blogger recommendations are much more enjoyable for me than those from people whose reading preferences I'm not as familiar with.

  4. Just wanted to let you know that I have included a quotation from your post on my own blog: