Why I Don’t Trust My Own Opinion

or, Why I’m bad at writing book reviews.

Books belong to their readers. – John Green

The writer side of my brain loves this quote.  It means that you, as the reader of my words, can interpret those words in any way you like. And that is absolutely fine with me.  In fact, I find it incredibly flattering that my lowly words would inspire a unique thought someone else’s brain.  Wonderful!

But as a reader, I’m not so sure I like the idea of taking ownership of thoughts inspired by a book.  Ownership implies responsibility, something I strive to avoid, constantly.

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I recently joined in a discussion about art appreciation and said: I find it easier to understand what I’m looking at if I know what the artist was thinking or feeling when they created the art. I have a really hard time forming an opinion about a painting or a sculpture when I don’t understand anything about its creation.  Is it good or bad? I have no idea.  Did the artist work really hard at it, or did they knock it out in an hour or so? Did the artist feel like it was the best thing they’d done, did they fill it with a decade’s worth of pain and angst?  If I don’t know anything about the creation of the art, how can I judge its worth?

The same is true, to an extent, with books. Books are easier to like or dislike because the elements inside are easy for me to pick apart. However, I still have a terrible time putting those feelings into words.

Who am I to voice an opinion? What do I know?  How can I know enough about the story to write anything meaningful about it.  I wasn’t there during its creation.

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Many years ago, I took an online creative writing class. One of the assignments was to write a review of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  I hated the story, and I hated the assignment.  Maybe because the experience was mostly anonymous, I never saw the teacher face to face, and maybe because I was angry, I threw out my uncertainty and I ripped it to shreds.

The teacher loved it.  She said it was the best review she’d ever read. Obviously, I didn’t just write the words “I hated it.”  I wrote carefully and thoughtfully, knowing I was going against popular opinion. I put a ton of effort into digging deeply and writing specifically about what I disliked.  I must have read that story backwards and forwards a dozen times to do what I did. What inspired me to that level of effort?  What enabled my honest feelings? Was it simply the anonymity of the situation?

I’ve never really been able to do it again.  (go ahead look at some of the reviews I’ve written on this blog – they’re pretty awful.)

I stumbled upon the following Tumblr post:

wittneyhancockisatlarge
Ok so I’ve been thinking about a thing John Green has said a few times.

“Books belong to their readers.”

While I understand the sentiment, I can’t help but vehemently disagree for a couple reasons.

1. Does anyone remember how Horton Hears a Who was used as pro-life propaganda? And Dr. Suess’s widow had to come out and basically say fuck you because pro-lifers were actually completely wrong? Books belong to their writers.
2. Y’know how words mean things? And when you put words into sentences, those sentences mean things? And how if someone decides that sentence means something that it actually doesn’t, that person should be corrected? Sentences belong to their speakers. Books belong to their writers.
3. Y’know how the guy who invented the .gif came out and said “it’s pronounced jif”? But we’re all like “no fuck you it’s totally gif”? Words belong to their makers. Books belong to their writers.

That is all.

This is an interesting (if poorly written – but that’s Tumblr for you) thought. The first and third points are specious, but number two is worth thinking about: “Sentences belong to their speakers.”  I think therein lies my problem.

A book is a whole.  And I can easily say, as a whole, I liked or didn’t like a book.  But it is down at the sentence level that I run into trouble. Do I really have the right to express my opinions of the thoughts or feelings contained in a sentence?  What if, as wittneyhancockisatlarge says, I decide “that a sentence means something that it actually doesn’t,” should I be corrected?  What if an author or a ‘qualified’ expert says to me, “I (they) meant it this way,” and that changes my entire experience of the book?  What makes a qualified expert and why do I feel so unqualified?

But is it a better, more valid, understanding?  I think John Green would say no.  In order to get any meaning out of a book, you must put meaning into it.  The reading of a book is a deeply personal experience.  You bring with you only your perspective, only your experiences.  My reading of this book at this moment is an intensely unique event. When I read a sentence and it sparks a thought, that thought cannot be wrong.  It is my thought.  My feeling.  It is real and therefore true.

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If I write any reviews for the books on my September reading list, I will try to remember that my feelings and opinions are valid, I am the qualified expert on them after all. But, if I decide to share those thoughts with the world, I must put in the effort to prove their worth.

Title: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I just finished listening to Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin on Audible.  I will talk about the book in a moment, but first I want to talk about the voice of the book, Alex Jennings.

Alex Jennings is one of those English actors that you’ve seen a million times, but never remember.  His list on IMDB is long and varied as is the list of his theater work in London.  A search for his name on Audible brings up 68 titles.

(An aside… Is it just me or does it seem that British actors work a lot harder than American actors. When an American becomes a famous actor, it seems they get a pass to put their feet up, feast on caviar and champagne and wait for brilliant roles to fall in their lap. The more famous a British actor becomes, the harder they seem to work.  It is as if they take their jobs a lot more seriously than our actors do.)

There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mr. Jennings voice, but it is most decidedly male.  You’d think it shouldn’t matter that a man reads a book written by a woman about a man, but it does.  Every once in a while the tone of the words being said and the voice saying them become discordant.  It knocks the listener right out of the flow of narrative and into a sort of nether realm where you think, for a moment, that the English language has shifted slightly and left you behind.  (Did you ever see the Twilight Zone episode where that happens?  Scary.)  This mostly occurs towards the end of the book, when Ms. Tomalin’s real obsession comes clear.

You see, I believe that the whole reason Ms. Tomalin wrote the book just so that she could gossip about Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan.  Am I exaggerating a little…  Maybe.  (Ms. Tomalin did write another whole book about Nelly after all.)  The part about Nelly Ternan is the only part where the author shows any passion about her subject. And that is where the voice/words weirdness comes in.  She wrote that part of the book like gossip over a fence, “so and so said this, but so and so said that, and who knows what really happened, wink wink,” but when read by a renowned British actor, in that polished english accent, it sounds absurd.

I know, I am really awful at these reviews.  I did enjoy the book – I listened to the whole thing.  I’ve only read a few of Dickens’ books, I mostly find them dull, (the only book I really like is Nicholas Nickleby but I do like all the movies made from his works.) but Dickens did have a truly interesting life.  Should you read this book?  I don’t know – do you like hearing about the intimate details of the life of a writer who died a hundred and forty years ago?  I did.  But I’m weird like that.

Luckily for me, so is Claire Tomalin.  I think I will read her book about Jane Austen next.

Title: Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Title-TuesdayPern is a world where telepathically bonded humans and dragons battle with a mindless spore that has an insatiable appetite for all organic life. The first few books of the series introduce the readers to the centuries old conflict amid the trappings of a feudal society through the lives of the planet’s leaders.  The books fit nicely inside the Fantasy Fiction genre.

But then things get a little more sciency. It happens slowly, a hint here or there as a few of the main characters, contrary to non-curious previous generations, decide to dig a bit, sometimes literally  into their planet’s past. The readers trail along as one discovery after another reveals the forgotten origins of Pern.

And then we come to this book, Dragonsdawn, one of my favorites of the series. It can easily be read as a standalone novel, but a large part of its charm is the way the author ties the present era of the previous books to the 2000 year past of this one.

Cover of "Dragonsdawn (Dragonriders of Pe...
Cover via Amazon

Turns out Pern was settled by a bunch of humans from earth who arrived in huge colony ships that are still orbiting the planet.  Turns out they didn’t know about the life eating spore when they picked the planet to move to.  Turns out the dragons are totally bio-engineered from a native species of flying lizard to help the humans combat the deadly spore when it arrived and killed off a bunch of the settlers.  Bam! – take that fantasy genre! Now the books are classified as sci-fi.

The so amazing part of this genre transformation is that it very clear that when the lovely and talented Anne McCaffrey sat down at her kitchen table back in the late sixties to write the first Pern book, she had no thoughts of sci-fi at all.  Well, I don’t really know that – she might have had an idea way back in her mind, but the first three books at least read as straight fantasy.

I love Anne McCaffrey for many reasons. Her greatest skill as an author is in her ability to create characters that you really care about.  In a way similar to Dave Duncan, who I wrote about last week, I re-read her books to reunite with old friends.  (Their writing styles are different, McCaffrey summarizes parts of narrative to move the story along which can feel jumpy, whereas Duncan’s stories flow at a smoother pace.  McCaffrey’s female characters are more believable at times, and she has more of them in heroic roles.)

I highly recommend this book.  It is a fast read and there is something exciting happening on every page. Although you would enjoy it more if you read the six books that precede it first, it works well enough on its own.

Title: I’m a Stranger Here Myself

Title-Tuesdaypineapple

When I grow up, I want to write like Bill Bryson. I love his tone, I love his insatiable curiosity, and I love that he lives in England. Not that living in England has anything to do with writing. I’d just like to live there some day.

I’ve read almost all his books. The ones I didn’t read, I listened to. I listened to a Short History of Nearly Everything twice because I know I missed a bit the first time through. The important bits like… how gravity works. (Knowing how gravity works is not supposed to be a requirement for walking without tripping over invisible rocks, but it can’t hurt, right?)
I have just re-read I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. It is still funny, even for now sounding a little dated. He at one point goes on about telemarketing as if it is a new thing, and I really wonder, haven’t they had telemarketers for as long as they have had telephones? But you have to forgive him because even though he is an american, he’s spent the majority of his adult life overseas.

coma

This book is a collection of essays he wrote for an English newspaper over a period of eighteen months while back living in America. While he does spend time poking fun at our odd American habits, like driving everywhere, for the amusement of his English readers, throughout the essays there is a sense of nostalgia for the things he’s missed:

skunk

He attributes much of his writing skill to his time working as an editor for a newspaper, that paring down other people sentences gave him the ability to write with concise clarity. But he also weaves subtle humor through every sentence. You don’t even realize that you are being led to a punchline until it hits you. Always when I’ve just taken a sip of milk, of course. My day is not complete until I’ve had milk shoot out of my nose from laughing. And that is something Bill Bryson would completely understand.

 

Rewatching The Hours

movie night!
(Photo credit: ginnerobot)

This isn’t a review of the movie, because I suck at reviews. It is just a list of thoughts prompted by the watching. It is really hard to write a review when everything you write is invariably about yourself.  Except for my fiction of course, none of that is about me.  I swear.  Ok, maybe the one about going back in time to observe neanderthals is a little bit biographical, but that’s the only one.

Thought #1: The movie The Hours is almost exactly ten years old.  The last time I saw it was probably 6 or 7 years ago. But the first time I saw it was as a Blockbuster movie rental probably soon after it came out on DVD.  You remember those days, don’t you, when you had to actually leave your house if you wanted to rent a movie?  I remember that night we were all at my Dad’s house for ‘Tuesday night dinner,’ a tradition he started when he and my mom divorced and which lasted for over a decade.  It only ended when he and my step-mom moved to North Carolina.  I don’t know of any parent of adult children who managed to get them to gather for a family dinner once a week – for ten years.  It amazes me that he had so much power over us, even after we’d all moved out.  I mean that in a good way. Really.  Anyway, every time I’ve seen the movie since then I get a little nostalgic for those days.  For being with my family, sharing meals and watching movies and playing games with them.  Sounds cheesy, but it is all true. And none of this has to do with the contents of the movie at all.

Thought #2: I can recognize a movie set in New York City before 9/11. The city is only a casual backdrop, something to set the place or mood, easily recognized and easily ignored. That nameless relative who’s in all the old family pictures. But then, tragedy. Now, its past is part of every story. Whether the story has anything to do with the event or not.

I wrote that statement above and then I looked up the facts. I am really good at this. The movie premiered in December of 2002.  Wasn’t released in theaters until Jan of ’03.  I know that the scene in New York is set in 2001, presumably in the spring of that year, it says so right on the screen, but when was it filmed?  Probably after 9/11.  But there is nothing of that ‘a tragedy occurred here‘ feeling that I sense so often in post 9/11 NYC set films.  I find that very interesting.  Watch Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and then watch The Devil Wears Prada (2006).  As a ‘character’ in both of these films, the city has a very different feel in each.

#3: There is a scene in the movie that reminded me how much I’ve changed in the years since I last watched it. It doesn’t matter which scene, it was simply a moment of truth where a character is learning something about themselves. I realized that my reaction to that scene is different now than it was back then. I don’t think I really understood that scene the first time. Or if I did it was a very different sort of understanding, a sympathy not an empathy. I love those unexpected moments of self-realization that a book or movie you’ve seen or read a hundred times before can give you.  Just a reminder that you never stop learning or changing.

#4: I always identified with the ‘middle’ woman, the character played by Julianne Moore. Even when I saw it all those years ago, I knew I was the type choose escape over self-destruction. “What does it mean to regret when you have no choice?” she asks.

Final Thoughts: I didn’t cry, although I remember crying the first time I saw it. I’m not sure why I didn’t this time. Perhaps I wasn’t in a teary mood. I’ve had a good couple of days, good writing, good conversations. The movie only added to my sense of productive introspection.  And that is all I have to say about that.  Now, stop obsessing over your view count and go watch a movie.