A couple of nights ago, I attended a small gathering at a local university where we were treated to an evening with Maud Newton who happens to be a highly respected book critic, author and blogger. A friend of mine who is in the MFA program at this university invited me to attend and I was very delighted she did.
Being in the presence of actual* writers and MFA students is overwhelming and intimidating. Overwhelming because writers have a language all their own that I can’t understand. I suppose it’s not really a revelation since most professions have their secret languages with specialized acronyms and buzzwords. (I could mesmerize you with insurance jargon, but I’ll spare you.) Embarrassingly enough, I did accidentally discover that I had been using MFA incorrectly. It actually stands for Masters of Fine Arts and not Mother F@#$in’ Asshole. I’m a quick study though. I’ll get it.
Also, writers are really, really intelligent people. So, in addition to using their secret language, they can be intimidating by their effortless use of brain-scrambling words. Words that don’t come up in my daily life and would probably raise eyebrows at my dinner table. Words like hyperbolic and bucolic. I did make a mental note to look up bucolic as soon as I got home from the lecture. (It sounded like a terrible ailment. “Did you hear that Sharon is bucolic? Poor thing.”)
Maud was not what I had expected. She was maybe thirtyish (you don’t often hear the name Maud unless it’s shouted in a nursing home) and petite with a dark brown bob and smart-looking glasses. I found her to be interesting, witty, lovely, real, smart, impressive and introspective. She made me want to be a part of the literary world, to learn the secret language.
After her presentation was over, there was the usual Q&A session. She acknowledged someone in the back and he asked her the question, “What do you think the role of a book critic is?” Or maybe it was closer to, “What do you think your role is as a book reviewer?” It was something along those lines.
We all want to ask the brilliantly conceived question that makes the audience sigh with jealousy, but this was not that question. I’m not that knowledgeable of this new world that my friend has introduced me to, so maybe it was a good question (. . . nah, I still don’t think so). She gave it the old college try (a few times) only to leave the inquisitor dissatisfied. What did he really want from her?
In my mind, I stood up and provided this answer:
Begin scene, aaannndd. . . . . . .. ACTION!
A review of a book or essay is, at its core, an opinion. It’s usually a well-informed opinion, but an opinion just the same. It’s like a movie review. I peruse the movie reviews in my local paper, listen to Bob Mondello and Kenneth Turan on NPR, and follow Roger Ebert on Twitter. Over time, I have discovered that my likes and dislikes of movies are similar to Mr. Ebert’s (not always, but mostly) so I tend to lean more on his reviews for insights. “Will I or won’t I plunk down my ten dollars for this movie? What does Ebert think?” (I really should have WDET bracelets made.)
Regarding books, I would think it’s a similar process. You start by reading the pans and praises of multiple critics to find the one or two that speak to you. You read the positive review by the critic, read said book the critic recommended, and like it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. If these three actions frequently result in a happy reader (you), then you have successfully found a person that responds to the written word just as you do. (By the way, you can have more than one go-to critic.)
You may have to kiss a lot of frogs (or read a lot of drivel from both the critic and the author) in order to find your prince or princess. But, it will be worth it.
It’s a beautiful relationship because there are only so many reading hours in a day and who wants to spend them reading pure junk? Let your bookish better half do it (or multiple better-halves). Now, you are free to read only the good, the profound, the thrilling, and the poignant page-turner.
A book critic’s relationship to us as book consumers is not black and white nor should it be. Can they make us read a book of poetry or a novel? Of course not, but they can offer some sound guidance and then it’s up to us to either heed it or discard it.
[Standing ovation from the crowd and then Maud asks me and my friend to have coffee with her.]
End scene, aaannnnd….CUT!
The evening was fantastic and I’m glad that I’ve been introduced to this world of writers and avid readers.
Since I’m currently in the market for a personal book critic, I have gone to her website to investigate what she recommends in the way of authors and books. These are the books that I have added to my ever-growing list: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews.
Only time will tell if it will be a good match.
*I make this distinction because I don’t consider myself an actual writer. I’m a poser. I was a math major for crying out loud.