Considering Criticism

”The covers of this book are too far apart.” The quotation is attributed to Ambrose Bierce, although there is some dispute about this. Notwithstanding, it is a poignant quotation that leads me to consider criticism and its different faces. Talking about – or criticizing – books, art, movies, food is huge part of promoting the product and regardless of whether you are a professional critic or just voicing your opinion at the water cooler, criticizing something plays an important role in making up our own opinion, presenting ourselves and our values, and gaining position in a group.

However, Mama always said, that if you cannot say something nice, then you should keep your mouth shut. Mama has a point, but apparently, she does not visit the water cooler, the social media, or listens to news coverage in general. You are supposed to have an opinion about everything. Let me reiterate that. About. Every. Thing. Can you hear Mama patting my hand, saying: “Yes dear” and meaning, that does not mean that you have to have a critical or negative opinion? She is wrong.

Of course, you can be yes-person, nodding with a sincere smile, but in a group dynamic, that makes you an underling because the line between agreeing and not deciding on your own is as visible as a black cat in the dark. You are supposed to formulate a strong opinion for yourself and of course accept that you may have a dissenting opinion. In other words, a villain is more interesting than the hero’s nodding sidekick.

That leads me back to criticism and Ambrose Bierce, known for his searing critic. Controversy sells; strong opinions constitute a louder picture of whom we are and what we stand for. The correlation between ourselves and the book, art, movie, food, hotel or whatnot is strong to the point where we associate or dissociate ourselves with everything around us. We are standing, walking critics in all that we do and say.

This may be inherent to human nature and it is definitely inherent to material society, but that does not entail that we mindlessly must follow the trend. The abstraction is criticizing the art of criticism, taking a step backwards and considering the situation at a Meta level. Despite the pressure to formulate strong opinions, we act as the herd animals we are. If the world around us, our society, also called everybody, heralds an artist as a genius or gives an Ibiza hotel a high rating, well then, it must be true. In doing so, we do not consider whether the given criticism is based on strong opinion or nodding yes-people.


  1. bookarino

    Thank you for this thought-provoking and well-argued post! It reminded me of the discussion on the topic of reviewing books professionally vs. as a hobby that has been running around blogosphere, but also of Paul Kincaid’s blog post (from 2011; in which he stated that “[criticism] is the record of that exploration, it is the account of what you found there and, more importantly, how you found it.”

    Although I do consider myself able to form my own opinions on books, I still sometimes find myself looking around for “validation” from other readers. It’s curious that in Western cultures you almost need to have an opinion on everything, whether it is your own or the generally accepted opinion, whereas in the Eastern cultures the group is valued higher than the individual and thus the tendency is to agree with the shared opinion.

    1. amkaer

      Thank you for your comment and alerting me to Paul Kincaid’s blog post. I like and follow the idea of criticism as a record of exploration, written for oneself more than for anyone else. That said, it is wonderful, to be able to share one’s literary journeys. 🙂 I appreciate your view of the difference between Western and Eastern cultures, because I almost mentioned something of that sort in my post. I believe that we in Western cultures rely too much on rational thinking rather than a more holistic approach to reading, but I see your distinction as well. In a strong Group society, few wish to be the odd man out.
      Have a great weekend – hopefully reading!

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