Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Trusting one's opinions

I don't really trust my opinions about books. I get all self-conscious about my responses and begin to question them, and then I don't really know what I think anymore. Iliana wrote about getting the impulse to start nitpicking at a book when it's gotten a lot of praise, and I can do that sometimes too. Or sometimes if one person doesn't like a book, I'll read that book ready to be critical too. And then I often am. And I can be very influenced by book reviewer's opinions, at least those of book reviewers I know and like, or those whose reviews are very well written. But why should I trust a book reviewer? Intellectually, I know better than that. But I'm influenced anyway.

I guess part of the problem is that I don't really know what criteria I'm working with when I judge a novel, at least a contemporary one. You could say I should just go with the criteria of personal pleasure -- if I liked the experience of reading a book, it's good. And I try to trust those feelings; I've become more and more convinced that they are important and should be trusted. But I know quite well that a pleasurable response is a complicated thing, not least because I know I can feel pleasure reading a book if I expect to, if I'm set up to, if I decide I'm going to. It's not, at least for me, like I simply enjoy something or I don't. Well, sometimes it's like that, but often it's more like, hmmm, I'm kind of enjoying this but I have no idea why, and I bet my friend who's also reading the book isn't liking it, and how can I be right when she's generally right? Or, I'm not sure I have an opinion about this at all. Or, I'm not liking this because I'm all distracted and not being a good reader, and if I could simply concentrate I'd love it. Or, I'm liking this, but am I liking it because I read a good review about it? Would I like it if I'd read a bad one? Or, I like this character, but what about the plot? What about the larger ideas of the book? What fantastic things are going on in this book that I have no idea about?

I wrote some negative things about Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black yesterday, but I've been feeling all this ambivalence as I've been reading. Really, some things are great about it -- she catches the depressing sordidness of modern suburbia so well -- but I did feel bored in the middle section. But I was also distracted and not reading very well in that section. Now, was I not reading well because I was distracted, or was I distracted because the middle part wasn't very good?

And who the hell cares about all these complicated judgments anyway?

Do I read novels because I have to write book reviews? Because I am responsible for coming up with an opinion for someone else? Because I have some sort of duty to be smart about it? No, not at all. I read because I love it.

But there's an ego thing involved. Maybe part of the problem is having studied literature formally. Because of my training I'm supposed to be equipped to give intelligent, logical reasons for why something is good or bad, and to get it "right." People write reviews and criticism as though they are "right." But there really isn't a "right" judgment about these things. One thing I need to do, definitely, is to stop thinking that because someone can say something forcefully and in print, that they are right about it. And I certainly am glad I studied literature, don't get me wrong, but I'd like to remember better that having some kind of expertise in literature doesn't mean having all the answers to what's "good" writing and what's not.