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I don’t understand something, so it must be wrong.
It sounds funny when you read that, doesn’t it? Imagine a world where everything you don’t understand has no value and is disregarded. You can’t figure out how your computer works? Better get that pen and paper out. You don’t have the slightest idea about plumbing and running water? Better start digging that well. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Not everything we don’t understand is bad or wrong. Being a skeptic is a healthy attitude most of the time, but we can’t blindly go around the world saying this and that is wrong just because we can’t figure it out. The same analogy goes for taste: just because YOU think it’s bad, doesn’t mean it really is. It only means it’s not for you. Which is fine.
I could name tens or even hundreds of authors that were promised they will never get published, or artists that were told that they will never make it, all now renowned in their chosen field. In contrast, not everything you like is of real importance to the humanity (after all, ´´guilty pleasure´´ books didn’t get their nick name from nothing).
I once had a friend who, because he could not figure out how computers worked, thought it was a technology brought to Earth by aliens. Think I am kidding? Think again.
Just a couple of years ago I heard about The Flat Earth Society. I thought it was a pamphlet, a funny site, a joke, a critique to the society, etc. Well no, there is a group of people who really think the Earth is as flat as a pancake and won’t listen to any scientific explanation. On and on they go to prove that our lovely planet is flat, violently defying common sense and the law of gravity. Why do they do it? Because they don’t understand how to analyze and compute the evidence against it. (If you still think I am kidding, here is their site: http://theflatearthsociety.org )
Sometimes we read a book and we hate it. It’s just a feeling and so we put it aside. Some of us live with it, some of us go on and write bad reviews, or meet our friends and tell them what a piece of “#¤ it was. In either case, in my humble opinion, we should know WHY we didn’t like it and be able to articulate a good argument. Many a time I have been trying to tell my friend why I didn’t like a book, only to find myself mumbling arguments so weak I only sounded like I was constantly nagging. And so, even if the book turned out to be classified as bad by the most prestigious critics, my mumbling and inability to formulate a decent phrase about the things I didn’t like made me look like a fool, and my ´´opponent´´ won. Grrrr…and we all hate to be wrong.
It’s not about black and white, wrong or right, good or bad. It doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, the point here is that we need to be able to back up our claims. Trashing an author’s work because you don’t like their political views is not a good idea. Saying you think the book is bad because the main character reminds you too much of your mother is equally funny as it is infantile. Don’t put yourself in a position where the opponent of the discussion can easily prove you were being biased. Instead, focus on the content and the main issues you had with the book like lack of verisimilitude, poor characterisation, wrong historical facts, etc.
It was only today that I was trying to prove to someone that one book was, in my opinion, a very good piece of literature. I’m sure I made a strong point, pulling out all the arsenal I had in the defense of the author, everything I learned in school and from literary analysis books. But how do you make a point to someone who doesn’t speak the same ´´language´´ as you? How do you explain what quality is when the other person doesn’t share the same values as you? I’m not talking about ignorance here, or am I saying I am the only one that is right. I’m sure if I were to find myself at a quantum physics lecture, I would not stand up and say ´´I believe that theory is false, because it doesn’t sound right to me!´´. How would I argument that statement? How could I back up my claim? I can’t, so I won’t put myself in that situation. But when it comes to literature everyone feels that they have the right to put a stamp of good or bad on a book because…well…we can all read it, right? Yes we can all read it, but we don’t always read it in the same way. Seminar after seminar of analyzing literature proved to me that no two people spot the same things in a short story, and no two people analyze them in the same way. We were 10 students in our classroom when we analyzed American Psycho and we ended up with 10 strong, different points. How do we explain this to someone who just reads for pleasure and doesn’t think twice about the title, metaphors, and hidden meanings? It’s simple: you can, but not over coffee in half an hour.
In 1965, Joseph Beuys tried to explain art to a dead hare. I’m not here to explain why that didn’t work, but it was something that he said in his performance that was very powerful: ´´ the idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. Then, as I said, even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.´´ Some people can never be convinced of something because they just don’t want to be. They already made up their mind, thinking their reality is the only one that can ever be true. I don’t think art needs to be rationalized, but felt. If it makes you hate it, if it disgust you, and if it pleases you, then its good because it created an emotion, something so tangible and powerful, if not rare.
In my opinion reviews based on arguments such as ´´ the book is too sad´´, ´´ the story is linear´´, or ´´ the book has a great plot twist´´ say nothing. Nothing, as it turns out, can be hidden in 1000 words.
Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books. I can understand how it can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Brontë’s prose is, by today’s standards, very rigid, the action is populated by characters that are cold, bitter, and impossible to love, not unlike the places they inhabit. But I love it. I loved it from the beginning, but after a couple of lectures about it I was able to articulate why. In contrast, although I hated reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway, I still call it a good book because it’s a joy to wrap your head around the prose and the ideas behind it. However, it will never be my vacation book choice.
So, when trying to convince someone the book you are reading is good/bad, think about your arguments and how to phrase them. Put yourself in a good position by knowing what you are talking about. Don’t tell them it’s bad because it bored you, that doesn’t mean anything except that it’s not your kind of book. Speak their language, and if you can’t find common ground let it go.
In conclusion, I am leaving you with the lovely Richard Feynman, who, when asked to explain how magnets work, did a very poor job, in the end being forced to admit that he can’t explain it simply because he does not share a common language with his interviewer. This, of course, has nothing to do with books, but it does illustrate a small fraction of my frustration while trying to explain this morning why I like an author’s work (Hanif Kureishi, if you must know) to no avail.