Thursday, March 26, 2009

Truth is beauty

If there’s one thing in the world that doesn’t seem affected by clogged credit lines, it’s the global overabundance of opinions. Everyone seems to have at least one, if not several, on just about everything under the sun, and the less an opinion is solicited, the more it tends to be forthcoming. So far, so good; opinions are fruitful, helpful, and sometimes even necessary. But have you noticed how market demand has become skewed in favour of strong, rather than considered, opinion?

You can see it on talk shows, where anchors summarise an intelligent paragraph of speech into one black and white soundbyte and use that repeatedly, shearing it of all its original nuance. Or in ad campaigns, where the virtue of a strong personality any day trumps the virtue of an objective one.

This makes things hard, and also annoying, when you’re reviewing books. My reviews tend to fall into four general categories: strong admiration, strong distaste, politely expressed mixed feelings, and mixed feelings expressed without mincing words. In pretty much every case, I’ve said what I thought, in the way the book made me feel like saying it.

The first two kinds of review generate no reaction at all: nobody seems to care that I really liked this book, or really disliked that one. But when it comes to a mixed review, everyone has something to say about it.

One author of a book that I’d given a politely mixed review rang the publication editor and complained that the review was aimed at sabotaging her career (assuming on my part much more time and interest in the success or failure of her career than I had). When I met the author of a book that I’d given a candidly worded mixed review, she complained, “But it was mixed!” as if I had no business having mixed feelings about her book.

Friends who’d heard me complain about the book, subsequently concluded that I “don’t write negative reviews” because the review mentioned something redeeming about the book. It was no point my saying that I mentioned it because it was my considered opinion. For the rest of the conversation about other books, they skimmed over me because they’d decided I would just be “nice”, and went on to talk approvingly about people who as a policy “don’t write positive reviews”.

In my opinion (like it or not), when your review of a book serves as an extension of your crazy little personality, as opposed to a considered critique—and this is best determined by you—you might as well hang up your keyboard and go home, because it’s become all about you, and not about the book.

Now, I realise that I generally live in a cloud of idealism that doesn’t always match reality, but really, has it come to this, that you aren’t allowed to have mixed feelings without setting off accusations of dishonesty? The implication that people write—and are expected to write—from a prejudiced position in order to fit with some image they have of themselves, is disheartening to say the least.

I know—shocker! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to objectivity, or as much objectivity as the fetters of subjectivity and grinding conditioning will allow. We seem to have reached a place in social interaction where agenda is all. It’s considered perfectly normal to cultivate friends because of what position they hold and what they may do for you in the future—what happened to hanging out with people because you like them? And it’s considered perfectly normal to slam—or not slam—a book, person, or event, because, well, that’s just how you are.

What happened to just saying it like it is?


Gradwolf said...

I totally agree! I am not sure about the print media but with blogs, this has become a norm. If you look at most of the "famous" blogs/bloggers, they are famous because they cultivated an image for themselves, characterized by the kind of opinions they have about various things. They mostly write with strong language as you say, very strong opinions, politically incorrect statements, ideas that ridicule popular culture or conventional wisdom and then you have some tens of readers applauding them. It is not about good writing anymore.

That was just an example and I can see what you're talking about. Everyone has come about to follow a "formula".

Anonymous said...

It's true (that the multiplicity of opinions gives passion precedence over nuance), but that's simply a natural way to categorize and deal with the sheer volume of voices out there.

So I guess you could take some solace in the fact that nuanced people will be appreciative of other people with nuance, and so at least you know who to keep listening to, right?

At least, that's what I try to tell myself after every venture into the AICN talkback boards.

Tara said...

An unapologetic positive review:

This column is WONDERFUL.

Esp. the last bit about what happened to telling it like it is?!!

Your idle cousin said...

This column sucked!

But on the other hand it was quite interesting.