Sunday, December 2, 2012

Qualified to Criticise a Classic or Not?

A week or so ago Savidge Reads and A J Reads reviewed Trollope's 'The Warden' as part of their Classically Challenged project and afterwards Simon (Savidge Reads) wrote more about feeling qualified to criticise classics or not, I've pinched his post title but am sure he won't mind. I had meant to comment, then came down with some disgusting virus and am now feeling almost human again so thought I'd attempt a blog instead because it's something I occasionally consider.

I've never been very comfortable using the term 'Review' to describe my blogging about books, it feels like a loaded term, when I stop to analyse why I think that I come up with no very satisfactory answer, but it is in part tied up with a determination when I started blogging that I would only write about books that I was enthusiastic about. Broadly speaking this is what I've done for the last three years. I haven't absolutely loved every book that's appeared here, and have sometimes even made mild criticisms, but basically if I've put that kind of time into it it's because I thought it was interesting enough to deserve the attention. I would actually be hard pressed to write about books I didn't like having reached a point where I'm not prepared to read something if I'm not enjoying it, or at least finding it rewarding on some level. Beyond that my critical facilities come from studying History of Art (a long time ago) and wine (continuously), I imagine that broadly speaking the same techniques apply to literature, but again criticism as such is not what I consider this blog for as I read mostly for fun - any formal criticism is purely accidental.

When it comes to wine it's my job to sell it, so when I describe it I naturally want it to sound like just what you want so you'll buy it, more importantly I actually want it to be just what you want so you'll come back and buy more - that's why I'm good at my job. Now I know that everything I recommend is good, but I also know that not everyone will like it, when it comes to wine my palate might be more educated than my customers but that doesn't make my opinion more valid than theirs - I'm not going to be drinking the bottle, and education aside there are all sorts of excellent wines that just don't excite me that much (Pinot Noir - it moves some people to poetry, it moves me to a good Cabernet). 

That's basically my approach to the classics as well. If you've read it than your opinion is valid, and part of that is going to be whether you liked it or not, though what I'm interested in is why. I also like spoilers. Now neither AJ or Simon enjoyed 'The Warden' which is a shame - I think it a wonderful book and Trollope a marvellous writer (though I recognise he has his faults), I do take exception to Simon's comparison between 'The Warden' and Fifty Shades (How Very Dare He) but accept the point he's making. I can also understand why he didn't like the book - not everybody will care for knotty moral issues centred around obscure church practices (I happen to love that kind of thing... and it's occurring to me about now that Simon probably has a much better social life than I do). 

To answer Simon's question I really do believe that the only qualification you need to critique a classic, or any other book, is to have read it, to be able to maintain an open mind, and to be able to explain why you feel the way you do about it. Everything else is gravy.

10 comments:

  1. Very interesting subject. I liked that you said 'if you read it your opinion is valid.' It's true.

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  2. When I think about it in wine terms it's all about the consumer/reader, never before has a bookish rant made me want to open a bottle so much!

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  3. You capture the issue so beautifully succinctly. The 'explaining why' is so important, isn't it? There's that risky little jump after objective criticism (decent structure, solid plot, good writing) where the subjective can make things either very interesting or annoy the hell out of your blog-reader. 'Taste' is so tricky. My perspective is that I am primarily writing for an ideal reader, who is likely myself! ;-)

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    1. If I'm writing about stuff I'm usually writing with my father in mind, when it's books I too probably have a reader very like me in mind. I like all sorts of blogs and admire the ones that take a more rigorous and academic approach, but I also think taste is important - as long as you can measure your taste against the other persons it's as informative as anything else.

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  4. I love the expression " everything else is gravy". After having read your post and Simons I did question my own position on reviewing books whether they be classics or not.

    My aim a few years ago was to review every book I read, which I still do. But I think what I should say is that my aim is to write something about everything book I read. Good, bad or indifferent, I have read the book so that gives me a start. I am very wary of commenting on a book that I have never read, I feel that if someone is listening to me, then I am cheating them somewhat. As you say, I am giving them a load of gravy!

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    1. Jo - it sounds like we've got a very similar policy :)

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    1. :)smiley face is all I can think of in reply

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  6. Couldn't have put your last para better myself. Classic! :)

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  7. A brilliant post, Hayley, and couldn't agree with you more. Loved your point about the Pinot Noir!

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