Qualified to Criticise a Classic or Not?

Now that I have updated you on kittens and winners, let’s get back to the serious business (so serious there is no picture in this post) of talking about books. As you may have seen, my recent reading of Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Warden’ didn’t really go too well. What I found interesting was that having finished the book and not really having enjoyed it, I didn’t mind saying exactly how I felt (though hopefully backing the up my reasons rather than lazily saying ‘I really, really disliked it’) because the author was dead and the book is a ‘classic’. AJ however, and I hope he won’t mind me sharing this with you, had the complete opposite reaction to me. He felt that because the book has been read, taught and learnt by so many academics out there he felt that regardless of whether he liked it or not, people would judge him if he slated it or not deem his opinion of worth if it wasn’t written to an academic level. These two polar reactions made me wonder if, because as bloggers and not academics in this field, are we really entitled/qualified/at liberty to critique ‘canon classics’ or indeed books in general?

I think we are. Not in an arrogant way or ‘I read so I can say what I like’ way, though there is an element of truth to that with anyone who reads no matter how little or how much because of our tastes, and not in an anti academic way either. I just believe, and my mother is an English teacher and agrees with this, that what qualifies you to have an opinion (be it at a book group, a random chat about books over a coffee, blogs posts or reviews wherever) is if you read and can compare and contrast, and most importantly back up and validate, your reasons one way or the other. An opinion is an opinion after all, I think it’s an informed critique if it is fairly backed up – be it pro or con. No?

It made me think back to the recent post I did after the whole ‘bloggers versus professional reviewers’ (though shock and horror some people do both, gasp!) and the argument that because – sweeping statement alert – bloggers appear not to be academics and haven’t trained for years and years  they don’t really know what they are talking about. Here I want to interject a recent thought I had that a lot of best selling writers didn’t go on writing courses, does that mean they can’t write? Anyway, back to the point I was making. Just because I didn’t study English Literature past GCSE (where I got an A* thank you for asking) doesn’t mean that I can’t decide if I think that Anthony Trollope is, in my eyes, a good or bad writer. I know he has sold thousands and thousands of copies, but so have Dan Brown and Fifty Shades of Grey? But this isn’t about bloggers vs. reviewers or indeed academics vs. non academics, it is more about if people really need a qualification to critics a book and in particular a ‘classic’ novel, though really I think novels overall should be included in this post, so maybe I have gone off on a tangent as usual?!?

I think I am really having a small internal argument with myself here, but one I thought I should discuss/brainstorm/therapeutically write out of my system. After all, no one has come down on me like a tonne of bricks and berated me for not liking him, which I am quite shocked at to be honest, up until now (and actually I would be interested in an academics thoughts on my thoughts – if you know what I mean) but there is still time, ha. So, as I have often skirted around this question over the past five and a bit years on and off, I thought I would ask you this…

What, if any, qualifications do you think someone has to have to critique a book be it a classic or not? I will be intrigued to hear your thoughts.


Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

36 responses to “Qualified to Criticise a Classic or Not?

  1. As long as you are engaging in a close reading of the text and not going off to some parallel universe of subjectivity (you know the type: ‘I don’t like this because I never read science fiction’ or saying how you would have written the book if you had been living at the time), why should it be a problem? In fact, particularly classical literature could do with more personal interpretation and blogging, to make it come alive again outside the often dull context of the classroom.

    • Hahaha I think I might have said something similar to ‘I don’t like this because I never read science fiction’ or maybe ‘as I don’t like science fiction I didn’t like this’ back in the early days of my blogging life. We don’t talk about those days… in fact posts like that may have vanished altogether actually.

  2. This is really interesting, as I am doing research that involves reception theory, i.e. the text changes with the reader, and its associated idea that the reaction of the “common reader” is as important – if not more important – than that of the critical reader. And I’m a book blogger. But I’m doing independent academic research. Argh – where do I fit in? Anyway, I’ll be interesting to see how the discussion unfolds!

    • I think you can be both. One of the things I love about blogging over lit-crit, and what I prefer, is that the emotional reaction to a book or text comes through and that to me is priceless.

  3. gaskella

    If you’ve read the book, you will have formed an opinion about it – whether good, bad, in between, or even undecided. If you want to share that – that’s your prerogative. Backing that opinion up, be it in an objective compare or contrast way, your emotional response to it, or any combination or other kind of analysis that validates that opinion. It needn’t be deep, lengthy, or the slightest bit academic either as far as I’m concerned – just yours.

    Too many people stop reading the classics after they leave education, so anything that helps to give them fresh air is good – whatever the results.

    BTW my highest qualification in English was Eng Language O-level back in 1978 – I didn’t do Eng Literature (they were 2 separate subjects then) and I got a ‘B’. That hasn’t stopped me from loving books and becoming the reader (or blogger) I am. 😉

    • And Annabel the blogosphere would be a much worse place without you and your thoughts in it.

      I think my problem with classics is the pomp and hype that comes with them as an adult and the endless dissection and boredom that I had with them as a student. I am trying to break those preconceptions up now though with classically challenged and the like and I think life and reading experience, which you mention between the lines, is really important.

  4. I think a key difference, one that isn’t usually mentioned in the critics vs. bloggers debates, is that one set of opinions is offered for free while the other is offered for sale. Back when I used to go to rock concerts I’d often find a big disconnect between what I thought of a performance and what the critic in my local paper thought of the same event. After all, what qualifies him to have a more important opinion than mine since we both saw the same concert and we’re just talking about U2 or The Dead Milkmen after all.

    Then the same local critic wrote a column on this very topic and made his case. He wrote that one difference between the two of us was that he attends every rock concert that comes into town and has done so for many years, while I go to a few and only to the ones I really want to attend. Okay, I thought. That’s a fair point. And one reason why his opinion is one the newspaper might pay for while mine is one they would not. He was also a serious scholar on the subject; he even taught a class at one of the local universities on the history of rock and roll.

    An opinion is an opinion, as you say, but some opinions really should be given more weight than others. Like MarinaSofia says above, why should we give the same weight to someone who doesn’t like the science fiction book they just read even though they don’t usually read science fiction that we would give to someone who exclusively reads science fiction? Both opinions are valid, in some aspect, and both may be useful to various people, but they both don’t deserve equal weight if we’re discussing whether or not the book in quesion should be considered a science fiction classic.

    And for the record, The Eustace Diamonds is much better than The Warden anyway. 😉

    • Well also with a critic at a concert, or reading certain books, they might not have wanted to see the concert or read the book… I know this because I do this as part of my day job hahaha.

      Thanks for the recommendation on the Eustace Diamonds, I will have to look that up, and thank you for such a considered and thoughtful answer as always CB!

  5. This is a really interesting question and I have enjoyed reading the comments above. I think that regardless of qualifications anybody can critique a book as long as they can back up their criticisms. But anybody who is going to put their opinions out there has to recognise that book reviewing is not a science, that there is no right or wrong answer. It’s for this reason that I’m not sure whether some opinions really do deserve more weight than others. I suppose there are some bloggers whose reviews I have been reading for a while and who I know share a similar taste to myself, and you might say that their opinions carry more weight with me or are more influential to me when deciding whether or not to buy a book. But that’s a matter of taste rather than qualifications.

    I love the community feel that book blogging offers but ultimately reading is an almost entirely personal experience. Even among lofty academics and established literary critics there are differences in opinion. If all the academics in the world told you that The Warden is the most magical novel that ever existed, nothing is going to turn back the clock and make you see it in a different light!

    • I like your points here Marie. It is about taking subjectivity and the reader into account. Blogging is great because you get the persons emotional response in reviews and hopefully have built up some of their personality too which I think makes good or bad reactions to their reading come alive all the more.

  6. literary travels and explorationskatrina

    I’m an English teacher, have a degree in literature and I’m currently studying for a Masters in English Literature but that doesn’t make me any more qualified than the next person to critic a blog. Yes, if I was to now go and write a blog about Antigone, which I have just studied for 2 months and written an essay on, my blog response may be technically more accurate and be able to encompass a wider view on the topic as I’ve read several versions and translations, but my opinion on the text would be as valid as the next person.
    A blog is just a personal response. And when I blogged I wrote about those books I read for pleasure and not those that I had studied.

  7. I feel I can only really cricise on books where I have a knowledge in depth of other similar books say german ,french ,italian or argentina lit where I ve read a number of books from there so can say what I like as for classics I always find it hard to be too critical as they have stood the test of time at least but that begs the question what makes one book stick and another not and what lost classics are there ? ,all the best stu

    • Really? I find that a bit bonkers Stu, I think having read your blog and your thoughts on the books you know well your thoughts would be just as just and valid on ones you may feel slightly out of your comfort zone or expertise?

  8. one thing I feel about bloggers vs critics is that because bloggersare not paid for their reviews, and are often doing it in their spare time just because they are book lovers – then i often feel their opinions are really trustworthy. Of course everyone has differing opinions in life – and so this applies equally to books.As readers we have a perfect right to express our opinions – even if they do go against the majority. Sometimes I have read a book I didn’t like – but been able to see that the book in question was well written/researched or whatever – it was just not for me, when I read/review a book I didn’t like – I hope I am not saying it was rubbish! Sometimes I might think it is rubbish : ) – but I can accept other people might like it. This is one of the interesting things about sharing our enthusiasm.

    • I think as long as no one is saying ‘I didn’t like this book and therefore you must hate it too because I said so’ any review, in this example a negative one is valid. Positive reviews do win me over to books more, the enthusiasm is contagious. Though some really snarky, honest, funny and backed up negative reviews oddly make me want to read a book too, classic or not.

  9. I’ve always found arguments that claim that one person’s opinion is more valid than another’s to be borderline fallacies; especially the whole “x has read more than y” or “x knows more about books than y” therefore x’s opinion is “better”. Obviously if you take that to its logical extremes (Reductio ad absurdum), then the only person in the world who’s fit to judge literature is the hypothetical individual who knows more about books, or who has read more books, than anybody else.

    As for why some books become “classics” whereas others don’t – who knows? Surely there are myriad cultural, political, moral and aesthetic reasons all tied up in a giant Gordian knot with history and taste and luck (parchments surviving, etc) that’s just impossible to untangle. Very early “classics” for example (I’m talking pre-Chaucer here, so Ancrene Wisse, Mankynd, The Owl and the Nightingale etc. etc.) are studied by academics not because they’re the best writing of the time, but because they’re all that’s survived. (Obviously it’s possible that they survived *because* they are the best – but maybe they were just written on the sturdiest paper, or kept in the driest libraries etc?). Did you know that all Greek Tragedies were written in trilogies, but only *one* complete trilogy has survived (Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”)? We have loadsa Greek plays, but only one complete set. Something to think about, etc. Sorry, going off on a tangent here…

    So, yeah, don’t worry – you’re more than “qualified” to comment on any book you feel like. And you know what, if somebody better informed about a particular topic gives you a different way of looking at a book that makes you change your mind about it, then great; changing your mind is a beautiful thing.

    • (oh and p.s.: on “bloggers vs. critics” (which is what people seem to be calling it) – I wrote a ranty diatribe about that when the whole Peter Stothard thing happened a few months ago. Shameless plug imminent :): http://tinyurl.com/cctk7ot )

    • “Obviously if you take that to its logical extremes (Reductio ad absurdum), then the only person in the world who’s fit to judge literature is the hypothetical individual who knows more about books, or who has read more books, than anybody else.”

      All I can say amidst giggles is that Tom, you are a genius. I might get you to secretly write Savidge Reads, I would be so much cleverer then!

  10. Well, you/we might not do an academic pulling apart of the text, but a book comes alive through interaction with its reader(s), so all opinions are valid, and even if it’s a classic you don’t have to like it. I think if you read one book and slag it off that’s one thing, but if you read a lot, and widely, then you form intelligent opinions.

  11. There is a film reviewer here who dislikes everything so he has no credibility. I think if a person’s statements are backed up as to why they liked or disliked something then I am happy to consider it. Will it stop me from reading/watching something? No, probably not if I am already interested in the genre. Interesting discussion.

    • Ahhh I have found that with some, who will remain nameless, bloggers. Constant negative reviews bar one or two blazing reviews of joy, the negativity just ground me down. I stopped reading.

  12. Interesting question! I was actually thinking only yesterday how nice it was that some reviewers (like Harriet Devine, Litlove, myself) have doctorates in English literature (well, hopefully mine will come soon!) whereas other bloggers’ lives have taken them in very different directions – yet our opinions are all treated equally in the blogosphere. That’s how it should be. I definitely don’t use the academic apparatus on my blog that I’d use in an essay, although if I think it helps I might drop in a bit, but I think since we are blogging as readers, rather than literary critics, that puts all bloggers on an equal footing.

    • I like that actually, the whole those who have done degrees and those who have not all coming together and not being judged on the blogosphere – that is nice. Yes, well done Simon T – being cleverer than me and showing me up again with your big old doctorate hahaha. I am joking 😉

  13. Great post. I would say that just as most bloggers haven’t trained for years and years, the same argument can be made for most readers. The reason I began reading lit blogs is to discover what an average person thought of a particular book. Provided a cogent argument is given for one’s opinion, I think there is no reason to ask for qualifications (apart from giving an idea of the reviewer’s assumptions and background).

    • I think if any argument, pro or con, is backed up then it is fine and dandy. It’s when people simply say ‘dross’ or ‘amazing’ that I myself turn off something. I don’t think I did that with The Warden thankfully.

  14. Such a compelling topic! Whenever my fellow grad students and I (I’m currently pursuing my master’s in library and information science) have this conversation, I always find myself coming back to the fact that so many of the authors now considered “canon” didn’t write for academics; they wrote for the ‘common reader’. So to say now that only an academic has anything of worthiness or import to say seems backwards and hubristic.

    Furthermore, I am firmly of the school that a text speaks to each of its readers differently, and by sharing these different opinions, we are able to come to a fuller and more fulfilling understanding of the literature at hand. That’s mostly why I believe all blogging voices have worthy opinions (supposing you’re able to decently support your opinion) that deserve to be heard. There are a number of blogs I read because they’re more ‘academic’ than mine, and as such they offer me insight I wouldn’t normally have otherwise. However, as a reader, I also have something to add to a book’s conversation – even without this higher level academic training!

    Thanks for offering such a great discussion starter, Simon!

    • Awww a pleasure and thank you so much for reminding me that “so many of the authors now considered “canon” didn’t write for academics; they wrote for the ‘common reader’” I wouldn’t even have thought of that and now I feel much, much better about it all.

  15. AnnieB

    I read book blogs (academic or otherwise) for one simple reason–to learn about new (to me) books to read. I read paid reviews in The Economist for instance, and also have about 25 book bloggers on my Favorites list. Whether you are paid, or not, or have impressive credentials makes very little difference to me. I read books about books and reading all the time and don’t care who writes them, Susan Hill or Michael Dirda. I want suggestions of books to read. Once upon a time before the internet, I could find books through my friendly librarian or bookstore. That is no longer the case. I live in a city of almost 60,000 with no bookstores and a library that is seriously overcrowded and understaffed, not to mention underfunded. No discussion of books there. I also have approximately 300 books in my personal library, many not read yet, but maybe someday. My policy is simple, I give a book 50 pages and if it doesn’t interest me I quit. Perhaps I miss out on a gem but at almost 69, how much time do I have to waste on one book. Even with that rule I have finished and enjoyed almost 200 books in 2012, most recommended by book bloggers whose credentials I have no clue about. If I like an author I often seek out all of their writing. I like your blog (and the 24 others in my favorites) but do I feel compelled to read everything you recommend or don’t? No. But that doesn’t change my enjoyment of your writing one little bit.

  16. There’s such a vast pool of books to choose from when reading the classics that you are bound to come across some that you won’t like. I certainly do. And offering an opinion once you finish a book is totally valid regardless of your background. Even academics have varying opinions regarding the classics and we shouldn’t be put off. As Annabel says, if it makes more people read them, ’tis a good thing!

    • I think actually one of the things with blogging I have spotted is how often the classics are ignored, because they are the classics. I want to focus more on them, and indeed modern classics, and less on shiny new books in 2013.

      Lets see how long I manage that though hahaha.

  17. Such an interesting topic. I have degrees in English Lit (BA and MA) and yet, when I blog about books, I tend to leave my academic background behind. I always hated dissecting books in academia, because I often felt like we left the book in tatters and stripped it bare. I focused on women in color’s literature and tended to align myself with their format of academic style, which included bringing the personal into the discussion. I feel that if you have an emotional connection with the book and post about that, there is no reason to not consider that post a valid critique. I always feel that people tend to give more weight to the critique that reads more academic for some reason – I’ve been guilty of that in the past. At the end of the day, we all love to read and if we feel compelled to write about what we have just read, then we should just go for it – regardless of what degrees we do or do not have. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, just like we are free to blog about what we liked or disliked about a book.

    • Do you think this is because as a blogger its a much more personal take on a book? That is what I think it is with me, and I think I personally read blogs for that reason.

      I also think bloggers don’t mention classics as often because a) they have read them or b) they are slightly worried they might not like them and be judged. This could just be all in my head.

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