Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buffy meets Edward

In the interim before my next proper blog, check out this very clever video mash up of what might happen if Buffy met Twilight's Edward (thanks to Kirsten Tranter for the link).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reviewers versus critics

I’ve been thinking this week about the difference between reviewers and critics.

I suspect the same definitions or delineations can be made across a range of arts media, but for our purposes I’m going to talk about fiction.

For me, the difference seems to be in the context in which comment is provided on a novel.

A reviewer generally looks at the merit of a book in isolation, considering things like plot, style, characters, readability, and general appeal in a particular genre or market.

A critic, on the other hand, tends to look at a novel in a broader context, be it social, cultural or literary tradition – not only considering it on its own merit, but also how it fits in the wider canon of literature.
My pondering was prompted by an excellent article by Rosemary Sorensen in the most recent Weekend Australian Review, in which she critiques a new academic book analysing Australian fiction from 1989 to 2007 (After the Celebration by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman).

In considering the authors’ predominantly negative opinions on the topic, Sorensen also considers the value of critical theory. She comments critical theory works best when the critic respects the writing they’re analysing, and actually derives pleasure from reading.

Sorensen says traditional lit-crit has tended to imply that “reading a certain kind of fiction was the domain of the cultured person”.

There’s no doubt literary snobbery is alive and well in many quarters, possibly bolstered by the sheer numbers of online reviewers (such as myself!), and the need to ensure there are still academic and purely intellectual approaches to fiction analysis.

In her criticism of a book about criticism, Sorensen says the Gelder and Salzman often critique the book they believe writers ought to have written, rather than the books they have written. They consider each novel as an ideological document, rather than a piece of fiction in its own right.

She says the two authors also regard readers generally as lazy, who “consume books without thought, and the best novelists are those who force or trick them into confronting their own unpleasant selves”.

This type of attitude assumes people are either consumers of mass marketed paperbacks or refined readers of quality literature.

I read both. And, in 18 months of blogging, I’ve discovered there are plenty of other book lovers who do the same.

Sorensen hits the nail on the head beautifully when she says readers often “enjoy novels because of the energy in the writing, the stylistic flair and the powerful attractions of the plot, as well as the way it opens us up to the thinking about the world and our place in it”.

Good books should do that regardless of where they are found in the book store. And surely the role of both reviewers and critics is to help us find those books?

My questions this week: Do you read reviewers, critics or both? What do you think the differences are, and which is most likely to influence your reading choices?

(And yes, I know the pic is not really relevant, but it makes me smile.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Eat, pray, love...

It’s fair to say women in the Western world are increasingly confused, frustrated and unhappy, when a book about throwing aside convention and heading off on a journey of self discovery has more than five million copies in print.

Eat, pray, love: one woman’s search for everything, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was first published in 2006 and has since gone to be one of the most talked (and blogged) about books of recent years.

After a bitter divorce, volatile love affair and a general realisation at how miserable, stressed and unhappy she’d become, thirty-something Liz Gilbert sets out on a journey for the three things missing in her life: pleasure, devotion and balance.

A seasoned traveler, the New Yorker decides the answers to each lie, respectively, in Italy, India and Indonesia.

Her journey, told in a journal format (although structured as 109 “beads” to reflect the Indian string of prayer beads known as japa malas), is a deeply personal account of self discovery.

But – aside from some metaphysical moments in India – it’s not overly self indulgent, nor is it instructive. Gilbert writes with a raw honesty and self deprecating humour that makes her writing engaging, intelligent and funny.

She has a wonderful turn of phrase, and is unashamed to talk about her failings and her deepening hunger for spirituality.

Gilbert does find her pleasure, devotion and balance, but it took a year out of her life and break from a “normal” routine”. Fortunately, it seems, her circumstances enabled her to continue a life less ordinary beyond the pages of the book. Not all of us have the means, or courage, to do so.

I suspect it’s easier to find stillness away from the pressures of every day life, so it seems the key to finding and maintaining “balance”, you need to change your life – and sustain that change.

I don’t care how serene and balanced you are, if you go back into an office environment with a hundred emails a day, endless phone calls, staff to supervise, issues to manage, tight deadlines and personality pressures, you’re going to slip back into old habits.

Surely even Ghandi wouldn’t cope in the modern office environment?

(Just before uploading this post, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s website, on which she quotes a friend as saying: “To change your life, the important thing is not necessarily to travel; the important thing is to SHIFT” (as in shifting your perspective) – which makes sense.)

But back to the book … the Italy and Bali experiences have a heavier focus on Gilbert’s relationship with others (in the context of her self-discovery), while India is much more focused on her relationship with herself and dealing with her past.

The Italy section resonated most with me (looking for stillness and balance while indulging in fabulous food and wine, surrounded by history and passionate people with a more relaxed outlook on life), which probably says much about where I am in my journey!

The great thing about reading a book like Eat, pray love, is that it makes you question your own faith. It prompts you think a little deeper about who you are, how you relate to the world and what's really important in life. It certainly left me craving stillness, and wanting to grab my husband and run away for a year to get away from all the pressure (which, yes, I generally bring upon myself).

For readers not inclined to self analysis, Eat, pray love probably seems like a self-indulgent, post modernistic self-love fest, but anyone who’s even remotely stopped and thought about who they are and what they believe, will probably find something to think about.

I’m guessing quite a few people reading this post have read this book. What was your take on it? What sorts of things did it make you think about?