Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Reluctant Critic

I can't remember why I decided to detail, at the end of each of these columns, the books that I'd read and the CDs to which I'd listened during the previous week. I think it was because I was often asked what I happened to be reading, or what I was listening to, so it just seemed like an easy way to answer those questions.

Recently, someone posted a message on the forum asking me why I didn't include my opinions on the books and CDs. It was easier to answer the question in relation to the music than to the books: I was worried that if I began writing lengthy pieces on the CDs then I might become distracted entirely by them. I love writing about music, but I do have a book to finish so it seemed like a good idea not to add any more distractions to those I already have (and, given that the World Cup has just commenced, I have some six hours of extra distractions to deal with for the foreseeable future).

The question is a little harder to answer when it comes to books. Some, but by no means all, of the books that I read are mysteries. Often, they've been written by authors whom I know, or whom I meet occasionally at conventions or events. One of the unusual things about the mystery genre is the degree of interaction between writers, and, in turn, between those writers and their fans. It's not something that is found in, say, literary fiction, where common ground between writers and readers may be harder to find.

On the one hand, that sense of community is to be cherished, but on the other hand it means that the act of criticism needs to be handled with diplomacy. I've learned from experience that to criticise a mystery author's work, or even statements made by an author on a related subject, even in the most general or respectful of terms, is to invite a response that, in terms of the sheer umbrage taken, ranks with questioning the author's parentage or his mother's sexual proclivities. Even when discussing the work of dead authors at bookstores I've been taken to task by those who perceive any criticism as an entirely negative act.

For example, I've never cared for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, largely because it seems to posit a "bad things happen to bad people for a reason, ergo if something bad happens to you it's because you're a bad person" view of the universe to which I don't subscribe. It's not common to all of her books, but it's there in my reading of The Nine Tailors. Neither am I a huge fan of Agatha Christie: I can admire the intricacy of her work but it leaves me cold, and I find in it an unwillingness to engage with the complexities of human behaviour, particularly in the way in which most of those who die in her books appear to have brought their end upon themselves through a perceived moral laxity. (As someone once commented of such books, what lies at their heart is not murder but contributory negligence.)

Both of those positions have, in the past, earned me the kind of finger wagging gestures of disapproval more commonly associated with maiden aunts who catch their nephews swearing. They were regarded as personal attacks upon the authors in question, rather than reasoned criticisms of their work. And those were dead authors! Imagine the furore that would arise if similar comments were made about current bestsellers. In fact, I don't have to imagine it: I've experienced it, and the results have made me very reluctant to even attempt to engage with the work of fellow authors in this way again.

In part, this can be attributed to the rather protective attitude that some readers have towards their favourite writers (and, to be perfectly frank, that some authors have towards themselves), but it is a protectiveness, and a sensitivity to criticism, that persists throughout the genre to this day and has undermined its claims to an equal footing with other types of fiction writing. After all, the ability to countenance, and support, criticism is an indication of the maturity of both a writer and a genre. It's an attitude that I think is still lacking in mystery fiction.

True, we have been ill-served by criticism: the tendency in most media outlets is still to relegate mystery fiction reviews to 'catch-all' columns, each book meriting a paragraph of consideration but rarely more than that, the space given over to it ever more limited. Yet the same could equally be said of fiction in general. Increasingly, serious newspaper coverage of books is dominated by non-fiction, in part because non-fiction reviews are perhaps a little easier both to write and to read, and have the benefit of an easily understandable 'tag' upon which to hang a review piece.

Still, the coverage of literary fiction tends to be a more robust affair than the consideration of mystery fiction which, with some exceptions, continues to err on the side of fandom. (And I remain unconvinced that everyone is a potential critic. Everyone has an opinion, which is not quite the same thing, and the Internet has rather blurred the distinction between serious criticism and the simple dissemination of a variety of opinions.) There is also a tendency to invite writers to review other writers in their field which, given the closeness of the members of the mystery community, rather suggests that objective reviewing could, at the very least, prove challenging in some cases. Many writers may feel a natural empathy towards a fellow author, a 'there but by the grace of God go I' belief that what they visit on others may well be visited upon themselves at some point in the future that causes them to pull their punches somewhat. Finally, even among quite respected mystery critics, there is a kind of "criticism by exclusion", whereby reviewers tend only to consider those novels to which they are sympathetic, or that they have enjoyed, excluding the rest from coverage and thereby avoiding the necessity of saying anything negative about them in print.

That's not to say that there aren't exceptions to the above, from intelligent Internet critics to fair and supportive newspaper reviewers, from columnists who feel no compunction about skewering authors with their disdain - sometimes confusing objectivity with hostility - to authors who rarely hesitate to stick the knife into the competition when the opportunity arises. In the end, criticism isn't a perfect science: it is rife with prejudices, a worthy effort to attempt to frame the subjective with objectivity, to make what is personal general.

So it's probably just easier for me if I keep my opinions about what I've read to myself, or at least refrain from putting them in print, even if it does make me part of the problem instead of part of the solution. And, to be honest, I'm getting better at setting aside books that I am simply not enjoying, leaving them forever unread, so the books I list are books that I've enjoyed enough or have been stimulated/ infuriated/ intrigued enough to finish, and that, in a sense, is a recommendation in itself . . .

This week John read

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
The Pusher (for the second time) by Ed McBain

and listened to

The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake
Has A Good Home by Final Fantasy
Aja by Steely Dan
The Warning by Hot Chip


Tom Hyland said...

I find the concept of 'not finishing a book' akin to mom's admonishment: "Finish your string beans!"

I do find something intrinsically wrong with not fully participating in the blood, sweat and tears of somebody's hard earned effort at getting some damned thing published.

That said though... the effort may be not worth much more than 'blood, sweat and tears'.

I've also dropped the occasional book after starting and stopping and then working through a couple of chapters (or even pages). And then... I do feel slightly sad (note slightly) and a tad neurotic (note tad) about abandoning the poor thing.

But seriously... bad writing is bad writing. And why waste the time.

klaire said...

I almost always finish the books that bore me to tears, because I want to give them a fair shake. Case in point was my mum giving me the Da Vinci Code a few years back. I had tried to make the book disappear. Unfortunately I found it after unpacking from Antarctica. Anyway, she inquired if I liked it or not, and it was basically guilt that led me to pick it up. I had no idea what the book was, nor did I have any notions one way or another if I was going to like it. I just did not have the desire to read. So I picked it up.

It took me so long to get through the bloody thing. I ranted almost nightly about it. The story, intriguing, the presentation just sucked. I still cringe when I think about it. That is a few hours of my life I'm never going to get back, and I'm not sure that I feel I was enriched by the suck it up, and get it over with idea. I would rather re-read books that I like, as opposed to torturing myself with something that I have no feeling for at all.

I understand what you mean about Agatha Christie. Amen.


JT Ellison said...

You've hit the nail on the head. Criticism within the community can be severely misconstrued. Whenever people are given a negative review (opinion based or otherwise) several people immediately leap to the rescue. I've done it myself. It's one of the reasons I quit reviewing -- it's exhausting making sure you don't say anything that could be used against you later.
Well said, John, as always!

Tzanerman said...

I feel the same about certain books, movies, cds, but in a different way: I refuse to watch, for example, classic movies (such as Casablanca, or Citizen Cane), because, knowing that they are superb movies, I'm afraid I'm not going to like them...