I’m always at a bit of a loss what to say when I disagree with the prevailing opinion of the general population. I don’t mind disagreeing with critics–their job is to find excellence, and sometimes I’m not in the mood for excellence. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. The Kansas City Star, K.C.’s local newspaper, used to famously send Robert Butler to review all new film releases. Butler pretty universally hated genre films. You knew he wasn’t likely to review science fiction or horror films favorably, but that didn’t tell you if YOU were going to like them. The Star finally wised up (or Butler decided he’d suffered enough) and started sending genre fans to review the movies. Finally you could trust the reviewer to tell you if you were going to like the latest installment in the “Fluffy Invades Io” franchise or not.
My problem is, what happens when a movie or book is highly praised by critics and the population at large, and I think it’s grot? When “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” came out, the guy I was dating and his son raved. The critics loved it. The film was universally praised. I thought it was cute, sure, but it was manipulative and predictable. I never found it as compelling as everyone else seemed to.
I’ve been out of step more than once. I wanted to slap Anna Karenina (“Get a grip, woman!”), ditto the silly twit in The Thorn Birds. The Red and the Black strikes me as a soap opera. Hawthorn is a mixed bag, but “Young Goodman Brown” was utter crap (at least I thought so when I read it in college).
Which brings me to my latest read, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir. The critics seemed to have liked it, but a few of the readers on Goodreads were a little more aligned with me. I loved Wild, another book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had high hopes for Girl. Suffice it to say I was disappointed. But what makes critics and reviewers like this book so much? Some of the writing is good, even lyrical, but the book as a whole is rambling, repetitious, and disjointed. The author comes across as a really dis-likable person, but she is struggling with the aftermath of a rape, so does that make it okay? I can’t quite figure out what those who give it a five star rating are seeing. Did we read the same book?
My opinion is no predictor of greatness, because who the heck am I? But I am part of the reading and viewing public, so theoretically my opinion matters. It matters even more for my own work. If I can’t figure out what people will like, I may be wasting my time. Then again, I hope to avoid manipulative Steven Spielberg tricks. But writers are supposed to write for themselves. Uh huh, sure they are. Then maybe when we are long dead, someone will discover our greatness. I’m thinking that’s not the way to bet. So I suppose the line to tread is to give the people (if not the critics) what they want within reason, yet maintain your integrity. Now if only I could figure out what the people want….
Image: Chris in the woods, Colorado 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.