Crawling from the abyss of hypocrisy: Liberate your inner literary critic

I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

Mark Twain

One of the most enjoyable things about learning the discipline of writing is studying those you admire; following the authors who inspire you and whose writing you would walk on fire to be able to emulate. Reading acquires a new dimension as you study their methods, their choice of language and themes, and begin to understand why you love their work.

You might also want to talk about it. Heaping praise on Australian author Tim Winton, at least for me, is easy. I identify with his settings and characters, and I think his prose is magic.

But when may a new writer stand up and level harsh criticism at an ‘acclaimed’ work of fiction with impunity? Which credentials are required? If Mark Twain says he has no right, then who am I to say that I loathed [insert book title from Man Booker prize nominee here]? Who am I to judge?

Some may take comfort in Twain’s irony and declare that, they too, found Austen to be a pretentious bore, and to hell with what anyone thinks. This I believe is the healthy attitude, so long as you have something interesting to say afterwards about why. Yet you could place a safe wager on the presumption that there are many novice writers who still hesitate before taking a novelist to task in public forums, even when armed with eloquent rhetoric, for fear of being seen as unlettered ignoramuses. The fear of  hypocrisy is debilitating .

“You’ve missed the point!”, or “The themes were there, you just failed to appreciate them, you dolt!”, are examples of the vapid responses waiting for those who dare to make negative comments about a prize-winner author. I could scrape many more from the dungheap of Goodreads comments. If the internet has achieved one thing, apart from allowing us to purchase Yanni CDs in our underwear, it is that it has provided everyone who can turn on a computer a platform to air their views, and flame the views of others.

The most difficult thing for new writers to do is to liberate themselves from the straight jacket of  previous, and often under par, work, and to permit themselves to view works of art with attitudes gained from experience. As recent as twelve months ago, I would have preferred to vomit over my keyboard than admit that one of my favourite authors, Ian McEwan, had written a book (well, two), which I found diluted, superficial and… well… boring. Already, I can hear the groupies flapping noisily in the background. Back then, a single “You’ve got no clue what you’r talking about!” would have been enough to make me want to delete every single social media account I own out of shame.

Why does your opinion matter?

Well, the bad news is that is doesn’t, at least to everyone else. The good news is that matters to you, and it will make you a more comfortable with your work and help you overcome feelings of intellectual inadequacy. It’s important for us to articulate why we think something,  be it art, food, even people – is good or bad, because it removes the veil of mystery; only when we believe we truly understand a subject, do we have the courage to voice our opinions about it.

I find that as you grow, gain confidence with your voice, read more novels and, if only in the confines of your home, continue to ply your trade with some degree of diligence, you slowly become aware of the receding shame, and feel less and less hypocritical critiquing the work of established authors. I guess it’s like getting older: sooner or later you realise that everything adults tell you is not always necessarily true, and that there are very many of them who are just as clueless and stupid as they make you feel.

So I say, ‘yes!’… everyone possesses the licence to declare, ‘I don’t like Y because of X’. People will disagree with you, and they will agree with you. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make yourself happy.

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