Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sweet Words: What is the point of an opinion?

LK Hunsaker December 2010

"Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words."
Plautus


Sweet words are always lovely to hear, such as when an author receives a glowing review for her latest work. We all want to hear what we’re doing right. Child-rearing experts will tell to to be sure to let your kids know when they’re doing good things, along with whatever corrections you need to give them. They do need both, however. What happens to children who are never corrected? Scary thought, isn’t it? We’ve all seen the results of that.

There has been a discussion among some authors recently about book reviews, with many of them saying reviews should always be positive, that criticism is “mean” and doesn’t belong in reviews.

I was left scratching my head over that thought. Has our culture seriously become so “politically correct” that contradicting opinions are not okay? That things we don’t like should be swept under the carpet instead of pointed out in fear of hurting someone’s feelings? That’s as scary as uncorrected/undisciplined children, of which there are way too many these days. It leads only to worse and worse behavior. In the same vein, authors who never get the bad along with the good will never improve; they will keep sliding. Even the top authors tend to slide after a while. Why? It’s too easy to get complacent without enough criticism.

I pay little attention to book reviews these days, unless they include both good and bad. If a reviewer finds no constructive criticism to offer, I figure he’s not well-versed enough in the craft to know the things I’ll find that could have been done better, and so it doesn’t mean much. Am I too critical? Maybe. But I am with myself, as well. I want to know what isn’t quite right in my work, what bugs readers as they enjoy my stories, so I can try not to do it again. I do know full well my books are not perfect. I don’t imagine they’ll ever be. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep trying.

I’m not sure I have ever done a book review without pointing out something that wasn’t quite right or didn’t hit me well. Maybe I have. I think Marilynne Robinson’s and Mark Twain’s books fall in the “no criticism” category for me. They are the only ones I can think of at the moment. Of course, other people would find plenty to criticize in each. We all have our preferences.

It’s human to have an opinion. Only in recent years have we been told it’s not okay to have an opinion that may disagree with what we “should” think. Who says we should? Who gets to choose which thing is okay to think and which isn’t? Why? When we stay quiet about our opinions, whatever they may be, we stop growing. We stop learning from each other. We stop understanding.

Isn’t that completely opposite what we’re trying to do?

I am pro life-sanctity. I am against using abortion as birth control. I have every right in the world to say so. You have every right in the world to disagree. Who knows which is “right”? No one, actually. It’s opinion. I’m also against people having 6-7 kids when population is already such an issue and I have every right to say that, as well, especially since I realize that overpopulation leads to disease growth, hunger, crime… and those things affect me and those I love even when we’re not the ones contributing to it. Why shouldn’t we stand up and say so?

The novels that do stand up and say such things are the ones that last through the ages. Something to consider.

As my last post for 2010, I’m standing up and saying that controversy and criticism is okay. In fact, it’s good. It opens communication instead of shutting it down behind sweet words and wine. There is a place for that. That place isn’t everywhere. 

(There is indeed a difference between criticism and meanness, however. That’s the line we should watch.)

Thumper’s mom did him, and a whole generation (or more) of people, a disservice when she said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Thumper was right, after all. Bambi was wobbly. Better would have been, “It’s okay that he’s wobbly since he has to start somewhere, and he’ll do fine as he practices.” That would have taught kids both acceptance and the idea that we all need time to grow.

I don’t believe the purpose of reviews is to help sell books. I believe the purpose of reviews is to guide readers and keep them from wasting time reading something they won’t enjoy. If authors are savvy enough, they’ll take full advantage of bad reviews, or of good reviews with a touch of criticism, and use them to grow. Who among us thinks we don’t need to grow?

Here’s wishing you both good and bad reviews of whatever kind you need throughout the coming new year, as well as the ability to grasp both in your hands and make good use of them.

Have a beautiful, creative, productive 2011!
Best Wishes,
LK Hunsaker
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5 comments:

Dorothy said...

I'd never thought about anyone being able to improve on Disney, but you did. I like your answer to Thumper much better. You're right, that response does promote understanding, while it doesn't squelch the truth.

I also have a huge problem with a few telling the rest of us what's "ok" to say and think. It's not only self-righteous on their part, but it does encourage mediocrity, and that kind of thing can turn into nazism in a heartbeat.

I really like the notebook format of this page, too.
Sorry I couldn't think of any criticisms ;) but I just really enjoyed this blog.

karabu said...

I'm one of the people who disagree with you on a least a few issues (although not all) but I like how well you state your arguments, even when I don't agree. I like that, even if you don't sway me, you give me a new way to look at things. There's a big difference between being critical and being mean. Meanness isn't helpful but criticism can be. Maybe that's the line that confuses some folks.

LK Hunsaker said...

Re: notebook format.. thank you! And sometimes no criticism is okay, too, lol. ;-)

Kara, and I love that you'll say you disagree when you do, and I appreciate how you do it. :-)

thewritegardener said...

I think there's a difference between review and criticism. In my opinion when you review something you're stating an opinion, either subjective or objective. A criticism is a literary evaluation of a text based on its relevance to culture, society, politics, etc. A criticism deconstructs, a review retells.

LK Hunsaker said...

Ah, I agree TC, except a review should do more than retell. I skim or completely skip the part of the review that tells the story. For one thing, it often tells too much. Also, that's what the book's blurb is for and I don't need to have a reviewer tell me what it's about when I already read the blurb.

Isn't stating your opinion a form of criticism, though? Where's the difference? There is a difference between a personal review and a scholarly review. Granted. It's like art students reviewing each other as opposed to the teacher criticising. It's all still opinion. And it's all subjective, sometimes mixed with the objective.

;-)