‘This is good coffee.’
I hear this or a similar sentiment, everytime I stop in at a café (be it from someone at my own table, a stranger conversing with friends, or Al Pacino shouting at me through a Vittoria advertisement). I have no problem with the statement itself, but I do take exception to the way it has evolved to carry no real human opinion. It’s said purely out of habit. It has joined the ranks of ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘Good to see you.’
The person making the declaration doesn’t know that said coffee is good. A lot of the time the cappuccino in question is lost beneath a layer of confectionary chocolate and carries the stench of burnt milk. This coffee is not good. But my problem isn’t even that the judgement is underqualified. It’s that the speaker hasn’t truly evaluated the coffee – they haven’t tasted their caramel latte and ranked it against every other caramel latte they’ve had in the last month of regular brunches. They have simply said ‘This is good coffee’ for the sake of saying it. They believe these four words let those in their company know that they 1) drink coffee regularly, and, 2) have some level of expertise in the understanding of coffee.
There’s a similar superficiality about critiquing literature.
Reading is a hobby older than most. We all have favourite authors and favourite books. Some of us may be in workshopping groups, comparing our prose with other writers; others may attend a book club regularly, discussing the pros and cons of published works.
We love books.
We read regularly.
Yet, so often, when discussing a book or short story with someone they pour their sentiments into exclamations such as ‘It was boring’, or ‘Nothing happened.’
That’s not good enough.
If this is one of your main passions in life you need to have more to offer than ‘Nothing happened.’ If you pay a repairman to have a look at your broken dishwasher and all he says is ‘It’s broken’, you’re going to feel a little disappointed, and rightly so.
‘I’m entitled to my opinion.’ It’s well worn, and it’s true. But it needs a qualifier: everyone is entitled to an educated opinion. If you have a strong, aggressive stance on an issue without spending time to understand it you’re not proving you’re intelligent. All you’re proving is that you’re an opinionated arsehole.
Writers are storytellers, and they employ an unfathomable range of tricks to tell their stories. That’s what makes the best writers stand out from the plethora of published authors out there. David Foster Wallace could turn a story about buying milk into the most hilarious anecdote imaginable; the lonely, old woman who runs the milk bar would absolutely butcher To Kill a Mockingbird given the chance.
The only time you can get away with summarising a story by saying ‘Nothing happened’ is if you’re talking about a Nicholson Baker novella or a Samuel Beckett play.
If you really didn’t enjoy a book spend some time thinking about why that is. There are so many reasons a piece of literature might not appeal to you. And not just because ‘It’s boring’; maybe because the pace was too slow to maintain your interest, or that you couldn’t connect with any of the characters’ morals or sympathise with their predicaments. Was there too much telling and not enough showing? (Be careful with this one; it’s a problem that’s all too common, but the statement itself is almost as bad as ‘This is good coffee.’)
If the vocabulary used in a book is beyond you, or if a stream-of-consciousness style proves too confusing to follow, say so. There’s no shame in it. Don’t flag someone’s work as boring because it didn’t cater to you as an individual.
It works the other way as well. If you enjoyed a novel spend some time trying to understand why. Was there a sensibility in the protagonist’s decision making that really appealed to you? Or perhaps it was just the author’s use of language: their error free construction of clauses, conjunctions and semicolons really rocked your boat.
Don’t just read a book to tick it off a list. You can read one hundred books in a year, but if you don’t spend the time to enjoy or understand them, what’s the point? What have you achieved?
We understand coffee; why not prose?