The Critical Dilemma

January 19, 2009 at 1:35 am (Uncategorized)

I’ve been thinking about the role of the critic recently. First because I sometimes review books for Who magazine, and am therefore a professional though occasional critic, and second because I love films, and have been totally at odds with the critics on two recent motion picture releases: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I’ve already blogged about, and Australia, which I finally saw on Friday night. The critics praised the first and largely damned the second, and I can’t emphasise enough how much I disagree with them on both counts. Which brings me to a reader’s recent and staunch defence of Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes on DoctorDi. I imagine this was Sandra Hogan’s maiden and probably last visit to this blog, and I was really taken aback when I first read her  comment. Good heavens, I thought, this lady’s really angry with me. I felt a bit misunderstood: I wasn’t attempting to review Johnson’s novel in that post, I was actually talking about another book and mentioned Johnson’s by way of comparison. But I did review Life in Seven Mistakes for Who, and since this eventually all wound its way to the author’s own blog, I’ve been thinking and even worrying a little bit about the damage that reviewers can do. Especially after seeing Australia, but more about that in a moment. 

As one such reviewer, I’ve been going over and over my Johnson review, and was duly abashed by the certain knowledge that Susan Johnson herself ended up seeing my blog post, which wasn’t my review of her novel (her very successful novel, I might add – mine may well be the only review out there that wasn’t a verbal ovation). In the post, I said things that shat and irked me in Life in Seven Mistakes were deftly avoided by Charlotte Wood in The Children. First Sandra Hogan and then Susan Johnson understandably leapt on the unfortunate phrase ‘shat and irked’ – not exactly the usual parlance of the professional critic, let’s face it, and not what I would have said had I been in a professional forum. Still, I really was repeatedly, genuinely irritated reading Life in Seven Mistakes – I found the chief protagonist Elizabeth Barton stunted and infuriatingly passive. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and remind her that she was a grown woman, for god’s sake, not a child, and was therefore accountable for the condition of her own life. In my opinion, it was time to stop making everyone else responsible for her well being. By the end I’d completely lost my readerly empathy for the character, which was disastrous, and I worked hard to balance my review.

Now, on the other hand, I strongly considered editing the post. After experiencing the wrath of Sandra Hogan (I don’t doubt Johnson’s delighted to have Sandra in her corner!), I was embarrassed by my language, and I didn’t want Susan Johnson reading it, but then I thought, well, the truth is, I really was shat off. I was irked. And if I can’t admit that on my own blog, where can I admit it? And anyway, it was too late – it was out there, they both read it, and I stand by it. But don’t think I’m not sorry to have felt that way reading a book so many people love, and that Johnson worked so hard to produce. I don’t read books I’m reviewing looking to be annoyed or alienated. I pick up every single text with a sense of profound hope and anticipation, because books are precious to me, utterly precious. Books are holy to me. I never have any desire to write a negative review, and I take no pleasure from those occasions when my response is lukewarm or worse. I just try to be honest – as a reader. I love reading, I’m an involved, attentive reader, and I want to love every single book I read. It’s just not always possible, and sometimes I miss a boat that’s packed to the rafters with revelling readers. We’re all different, so it’s bound to happen, but the question of how much reviewers sway opinion is one that bothers me always (I worry about restaurants going under, I fret about first-time authors never seeing a second chance, I gnaw my nails at people bravely putting themselves out there only to be slammed and bloodied against the wall), and I take my responsibility as an occasional reviewer very seriously indeed, though I contribute to a magazine that is not serious at all. So. That’s all I can tell you.

Oh, except that I loved Australia. I can’t understand the critical response to this movie – so I completely get why Sandra Hogan can’t understand my response to a novel she obviously loved, and why she was so fired up about it. I feel the same way about Australia. And like Sandra Hogan, I’m not alone: there was a spontaneous burst of audience applause at the end of the Friday night screening I saw. I can’t remember the last time I was in a cinema and people clapped at the end. It was typical Luhrmann in the sense of melodrama and pageantry, and it was, as always, utterly gorgeous and made me want to drop everything and run off to Arnhem Land, but it was also very funny and loving, and, it seemed to me, wonderfully and deliberately Australian. No colonising Brits strutting about sticking Union Jacks in the red earth (Kidman’s character is an English aristocrat, but aside from using this to great comic effect – why is Kidman’s comedic ability so widely denied? – there’s scarcely a Pom in sight), no Yanks charging in to save the day – just some very recognisable Australian types. And I’d love to know what Indigenous Australians think of it, too, because more than anything, I came away feeling the whole film was a gesture of friendship, and that’s an incredibly hopeful thing. To hell with the critics (and that includes me).

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8 Comments

  1. Pete said,

    I can’t wait to see Australia too since I’ve loved Luhrman’s other films. As for the the negative reviews and the negative reading experiences, I suppose I haven’t read your review of Hogan so I’m in the dark here. But I do think that reading offers us a wonderful glimpse into our own minds. When I’ve picked up a book and I’ve hated it, it’s usually a book that other people (and people I respect) have loved. So then I do a bit of soul-searching and wonder about my own projections etc. Sexing the Cherry is a case in point. I couldn’t stand most of Jordan’s fantasising about living in houses suspended in the air etc. but I could relate to the Dog Woman, and I liked the fact that reading it challenged me to address my own perceptions.

  2. doctordi said,

    Pete, I do hope you enjoy Australia. I like Baz’s films too. They’re always thoroughly warm and ridiculously entertaining. Even the bad lines in Australia (there’s a REAL clanger towards the end) are part of the fun.

    Sandra (Hogan) is a supporter of Life in Seven Mistakes, not its author – if you can remotely be bothered, check the comments on the ‘Best Room in the World’ post for both her scolding and my response, which eventually included the text from the Who review. Yes, I completely agree, that’s just what’s happened. I’ve gone over and over my part in my reaction. Reading a novel is no passive thing, we don’t just take what the author gives us and absorb it uncritically, we respond, it’s a very active process. So I’ve been wondering about my responses and why I felt the way I did. I’ve never forgotten a lecturer at uni when I was an undergrad failing an essay of mine because I argued Alexander Pope wasn’t a misogynist. It was one of the better essays I wrote in my entire degree, and I was devastated. Another lecturer stopped me as I fled the building crying, took the essay, read it, agreed that it was certainly the best thing of mine SHE’D seen in three years (!), and marched off to do something about it. The whole thing kicked off: the acting Head of School felt unable to make a decision about its worth (the second lecturer being convinced my failed essay was in fact a High Distinction submission), and ultimately sent it to another university for remarking, whereupon it was awarded a nice middling Credit. Anyway, the whole point of telling you this (Yes! I was completely scarred! As you can see!) is that once the whole fracas was done, the original lecturer apologised to me because she was ‘having a very bad day’ when she marked my paper. I’ve tried recalling my mood and circumstances when I reviewed Johnson’s novel, but I can’t, it’s too long ago, although interestingly, I’m still quite clear on the things in the book that gave me the pip, and I suspect they would continue to annoy me even if I tried rereading the novel while lying by the azure sea of a tropical island with a man-slave feeding me grapes and plying me with Gin Slings. Just one of those things, I’m afraid.

    I read Sexing the Cherry about the same time I wrote my Pope essay – I enjoyed it, but couldn’t relate to it at all.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    I think that it takes courage to review books–the courage of knowing that your opinion is subjective and putting it out there to be received or damned, just as writers put their own work out in the same way. More so in a blog & other forums where people have the chance to reply. Just as you never set out to damn a book and hope to love it, I’m sure you know that writers set out to write a good book, not a bad one. The publishers that I’ve met and the agents and editors also love books and set out to make, what they believe is a good book, a better one. That’s why I (being a writer) don’t review books. Because I may not like it but someone else will love it and I know how vulnerable writers are. But it takes courage to review books and reviewers are the primary way that books get known. Otherwise readers won’t even know that the books are out there and nobody will get the chance to read it and decide for herself what she thinks about it.

  4. doctordi said,

    Welcome, Lilian Nattel, Canadian novelist! I feel like I should plump a cushion and tidy the pile of old newspapers… I feel VERY peculiar about two esteemed novelists (first Susan Johnson, and now this!) dropping in here. Well, thank you very much for sharing your perspective from a novelist’s point of view, Lilian. I wonder if my recent thinking is related to my own authorial ambitions – I do want my manuscript to one day turn into a book that people like to read – because yes, there’s no question I asked myself how I would feel in Susan Johnson’s place, and the answer’s easy to find: really disappointed. Lousy. And that makes me want to shrivel up and disappear, because yes, I know precisely what she must have gone through to get the book on the shelves in the first place. I should add it’s not just a profound sense of hope and anticipation I feel when I pick up a new book, it’s also one of thanks.

  5. Pete said,

    Di – Firstly, huge congratulations to you, high-fives etc! That’s brilliant. I’m enjoying reading about the process of producing this novel. Then I also read the post and comments that you referred to. That phrase was a bit unfortunate but I think the sentiments and the comments thereafter were well thought-through. And I loved the description of that room. My parents are renovating their beach house for their retirement and I can’t wait to see my dad’s study when it’s finished. I think this house will be great as a writer’s retreat and I’m hoping to retreat there as often as they’ll let me!

  6. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Pete! I’m very, very pleased. Just worried – yes, already – about making the final cut. Gulp. But for today, I’m just going to enjoy this for what it is and what it’s taken to get here.

    Re. the phrase – yes, agreed. I was APPALLED once I realised Susan Johnson had seen it, really genuinely aghast. But it did spur some interesting thinking/discussion, so hopefully enough good has come out of it to offset my thoughtlessness.

    Ooooh, a whole beach house….how lovely! Lucky them – and by extension, lucky you!

  7. litlove said,

    It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? I guess academics is a useful discipline to fall back on when reading gets tough because it suggests that a personal value judgement isn’t ever worth mentioning. Instead, if you, as a reader, are hating something, then it’s time to get curious about what provokes that reaction. What sore point is the text needling? Or is it a question of a kind of genre, a sentimentality, a credulity, a perspective that makes us uneasy? I recently read a book whose style bothered me, and I realised it was because I fear that I write like that. I aim for something different myself – doesn’t mean this was good or bad, and lots of other reviewers had really liked it – but it was a kind of nemesis for me, where what I think I dislike about my style was writ large. The personal reaction will always be there, and it’s important because it contains so much information, but the real question is what you want to do with it. I don’t like reviewers who slag books or films off (and I’m sure you didn’t do that in any case) because I think they’ve only told half a story.

    And of course never forget that writers are awful that way. I know that someone could tell me they loved what I did – apart from maybe that sentence at the end of the third paragraph…… and then I can’t think of anything but that sentence. So reactions are often disproportionate.

  8. doctordi said,

    It is tricky, Litlove, and I would love to know what it is about your own style you don’t like. No, I didn’t slag off the book in my review – I would never do that. I always look, as you say, for the other half of the story, and I always include positives.

    And yes, I think all writers are the same. My MS had the best day of its journey so far yesterday, but all I could think about last night was an email I got in the afternoon in which I was told that I haven’t fixed the narrative arc and structure – a shortcoming the last draft was specifically meaning to address. Llew said “Short list, Di, short list, just enjoy that for a week,” but already my mind was off and away, worrying about where and how badly I’ve failed.

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