Saturday, February 23, 2008

Open to Correction

Many thanks to Amy Welborn for writing a great blog post about an important topic - defensiveness regarding critique and criticism. This defensiveness she writes about makes it really hard for me as a reviewer because often even the littlest points or even clarifications can be taken for serious criticism or even condemnation - which makes me second guess whether I should mention this little thing, whether it will be taken too seriously, etc. I should mention that it's not just authors who can be sensitive, but readers don't necessarily make a big distinction between, say, some ideas for improving future editions of a particular book and grave reservations regarding the overall point of view of the author.

Ideally, a book review should be open and honest about various sorts of criticism. I know that I very much appreciate positive reviews that aren't afraid to give the potentially negative side of things as well (another fine line here, though - you certainly can get too nit-picky). When I read this sort of review it helps me in a number of ways.

1) The willingness to critique - as long as it's fair and reasonable - often gives the reviewer more credibility in my mind - because the review tends to be (or at least seems to be) more well-thought-out, balanced and objective. Somehow it gives more weight to the positive points made when the reviewer is willing to explore the negatives too - I get a stronger sense that they really mean what they say.

2) I have a better idea of the details of the resource I'm looking into - after all, I could just go to a book catalog to find the general, glowing details.

3) Finally, I think that a reasonable willingness to correct is more charitable to the author and even to the book itself than either ignoring the material or simply giving up on the details and condemning it. If someone is willing to take the time and bother to sort through the ins and outs, recognizing what is good and correcting the errors simply makes more of these books more usable, more worthwhile. And it doesn't tend to hurt the reviewer (sames goes for the reader, later on) to go through the process of making such distinctions.

I suppose the medium of the Internet makes this harder since, without the tone of voice, it's hard to get the sense of "Well, there's just this little thing I think I should mention..."

On the other hand, it takes a certain amount of gumption to stand up to the ideas in a book and not just write catalog overviews when there are other issues to be addressed. I have to admit that I'm not always up to the task myself.

Anyway, here's Amy's blogpost that I was referring to...

One of the most irritating thing about discourse, something that gets exaggerated, it seems, on the Internet (like anything else) is hyper-defensiveness. That is to say that to critique any aspect of any phenomenon amounts to a full-scale attack on that phenomenon.

For some, it seems, it is all or nothing.

Or perhaps there is just a fear that if one aspect of a phenomenon can be critiqued, that means that the whole enterprise is called into question.
Read the rest here

By the way this post isn't meant to be a rant about reviewing books, more a thinking through of some aspects and the challenge of keeping things in balance. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


Anonymous said...

You are right that it has to do with the INTERNET in general and blogging in particular. But even more relevant is the fact that for some time "we" have fallen out of the habit of WRITING about what we think - we sure enough TALK about it, but are not used to writing it. So often we write reactively... We are replying, we do not by any means express OUR thought but only react to what we THINK is the thought of another. And we may not have read correctly in the first place.

It may be silly to remind ourselves of such basic matters, but any kind of writing - if it is to be GOOD writing - requires (1) really knowing what it is we are thinking and (2) the ability to use words to get some semblance of that thought across to ANOTHER mind. Maybe we ought to READ more, and perhaps flip through a dictionary occasionally. Or even a Latin grammar.

When we get a blogg, we are in a sense ordained as newspaper EDITORS - not simply columnists. We have to decide our editorial policy, our editorial style and frequency of editorial leaders (the main column we write) and our handling of letters to the editor (the comment box). If we write "enough", people can get used to our style, even if they do not know us by non-electronic means... they will understand if we wrote in mere emotion, or in haste, or perhaps, like GKC, skip some steps in an otherwise well-considered argument.

Criticism is by no means the only form of writing to suffer - all others, from leading columns (blogg-postings) to letters-to-the-editor (comment boxes) - have the same problem. Managing this, and bringing it to a better overall state, will require patience, a good bit more attention to preliminary thought, and to our choice of expression.

Finally we really need to take a very forgiving - an open, tolerant, but honest view, especially when it comes to typos and mis-spellings. As I have cause to know in horrid detail, having handled most of GKC's books byte-by-byte, just about every one, whether printed in the early 1900s or the early 2000s, contains typos. Such things, unless truly egregious, ought to be handled by another means. It reminds me of the famous slip in Lewis's That Hideous Strength about trusting to CALVARY (not cavalry) in today's modern military conflicts.

Finally, let us try to be Scholastics - who always argued FOR their opponent's own case first before replying. But if that is too mysterious a reference, take GKC's famous words about his good friend and enemy, George Bernard Shaw:

"I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most
honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong." [GKC, Heretics CW1:46]

It is indeed possible to deal with a man's thought in bitter warfare - and yet respect him, praise him, even be friends with him. "Go therefore and do likewise."

--Dr. Thursday

Love2Learn Mom said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful commentary, Dr. Thursday! Lots to think about and I'll have to try to absorb the ideas over multiple readings - good stuff!

Yes, the typos are almost their own special case and that can be really tough. I tend to give books a bit of a "grace period" (if you will) since everyone has typos to a certain extent, but there are some that are much more serious - such as typos in a crossword puzzle or in a child's spelling book - whereas a handful of typos in a novel or a non-fiction work for adults tends to be much less serious.

Michele Quigley said...


I couldn't agree more!