Saturday, December 17, 2016

Quick Thoughts - Owning Your Opinion

This post is about reviewing. Then it rambles a bit. Then it gets back to reviewing. So, yeah, be warned.

When I look at my writing, I'd say that I'm a reviewer first. Before a poet and before a fiction writer and before just about everything, I am a reviewer. And by that I mean that it comes first. I write fiction and poetry, yes, but I normally have to find time to squeeze that in. I prioritize reviewing. Which, when people ask how I find the time to review so much, that's largely it (well, okay, I also read fast and I have advantages that others likely don't, but still). Other people write novels. I review. So when I talk or write about being a reviewer, or about reviews, it's something that's rather deeply personal to me. And I want to think a bit about that.

I have a style. Some people would characterize it as overly positive. And some, in so categorizing it, probably reject it out of hand as not useful. Not valuable. Maybe they wouldn't say this to my face. Maybe they would even try to dissuade me from thinking that. Okay, fine. The thing is, my style is full of me. It is my perspective. My opinion. I believe this is the most valuable and honest way to review, and so I attempt to reflect that by using a lot of qualifiers and being very open about what I think, what I feel, and what seems to be to me. Unfortunately, I think that some interpret this style as indecisive or wishy-washy or, interestingly enough, dishonest. Because I think that we have a tendency, as a society, to distrust people framing their opinions as opinions because it's too…feminine, perhaps?

Certainly how we approach opinions and feelings is very loaded, especially at the moment. Because, for some, not pretending at access to objective truth is terrifying. Some people seem to need there to an objective truth behind their opinions or their actions because…I guess because they can't handle the responsibility of being a living human being. They need something or someone to tell them that it's okay, that they aren't bad, that in fact they're right. And not just as a person trying to reassure another person, but as a conduit to the divine and unimpeachably objective. And this is how patently fabricated information gets passed along and is strengthened in the face of vast amounts of evidence to its falseness. And this is how you end up with people (usually men) coming in to "explain" how things are and why people with mere opinions are wrong.

So wait, I had a point there, right? Yes, actually. People mistake opinions for uncertainty. And uncertainty for falseness. People who think or feel a thing can't possibly be as legitimate as people who know it, right? This is how people end up in a "but you have to listen to both sides" argument. Because I admit that I have no access to objective truth, people think that means that all opinions have equal merit and potential veracity. The trouble is, that's pretty fucking awful. It ignores the fact that we do have ways to strive to do good and to own our opinions in a way that is not uncertain at all. For many things, this way is called the scientific method, and it works pretty fucking well but is also open to change and refinement. For other things, things for which there can really be no systematic trial and error, hypothesis and experimentation, it's still completely possible to act and to hold opinions and for those to be completely fucking valid.

So yeah, sorry, this has gotten a little far afield of reviewing. I want to touch on two things, mainly. The first is something I see reviewers doing that…irks me. And the other is something that authors do with regards to reviewing that equally irks me. Both are related. And both stem from this misunderstanding and distrust that I mentioned above.

So what do reviewers do that really grinds my gears? Gatekeep. And by that I mean try to define terms (What is a story? What is science fiction? What is literary?) in an effort to dismiss works that are different or difficult or that a particular reviewer just doesn't like. This kind of review is presented with a work and instead of engaging with it decides to just cut it out of the discussion by claiming that it doesn't fit. That it doesn't belong. That we shouldn't talk about it. Which is the opposite of what a reviewer should be doing, in my opinion. Not that reviewers need to review everything, but if they're going to review a thing, they should at least not seek to use their review as a sort of unreview in order to delegitimize the piece or project. This sort of attack leans on an objective definition of "what something is" and then shoves the work into "something else" so that it can be ignored.

And again, this is a way of running away from owning your own opinion. It's trying to insert some sort of objective reason why the work shouldn't be considered that has nothing to do with the reviewer's own discomfort or bias. To me, this sort of review is not helpful. It is the opposite of helpful.

And what do author's do that I find so equally egregious? Tell reviewers that their opinions and reactions are wrong. Now let me make one thing clear. I am fine with reviewing reviews. I'm even fine with authors reviewing reviews of their own work. But there is a wide difference between reviewing a review and attacking a reviewer, just as there is a wide difference between reviewing a story and attacking an author. Just as reviewers probably shouldn't seek to invalidate or belittle author's lived experiences or perspectives, so should authors probably not seek to invalidate or belittle reviewer's lived experiences or perspectives.

Again, at the heart of this seems to be the misconception that all opinions are equal. They are not. Some opinions are, indeed, quite well thought out, reasoned, and sound. Some opinions are backed by experience, by deduction, by rigorous testing and challenging. When people think that human-driven climate change exists, that is an opinion. But that is an opinion with a fuck ton of weight behind it. Yes, people can have the opinion that it doesn't exist. It is equally an opinion. That does not mean it is equally valid or should be given equal time.

So an author writes something. A reviewer reviews it. They have different opinions on the same text. Who is right?

My answer: Stop looking for fucking objective rules that will somehow make this all simple. Life is more complicated than first grade math class.

Who is right? If it's all opinions then how do you make decisions? How do you know what to do? What the fuck is the point anyway?

Hey. It's okay. These are difficult questions. Uncomfortable questions. They are, however, vital questions. Questions that we answer by living, by trying to act consciously and compassionately. The question isn't really "who is right?" The question is what opinion prompts us to think harder? What pushes us to question the opinions we hold blindly, to strive to be decent human beings sharing a brief window of time and space together? Because, like the scientific method helps us to shape scientific knowledge and policy, so a more social method of hypothesis and experimentation, of creation and discussion and revision, can help us to shape our social knowledge and policy. It can build our empathy and strengthen the parts of us that can make the world better.

So reviewers, before you dismiss a work as not worthy of a seat at the table, try to think about why you feel that way. And try not to conceal and obfuscate your own opinions by presenting them as truths people would have to be stupid to disagree with. If engaging with a work makes you uncomfortable, examine that. Talk about that. That seems like it would be an incredibly useful review to read, and you might find it's an incredible useful review to write.

And authors, before you decide to tell someone reacting to your work that they are wrong, try to think about why you feel that way. And try not to conceal and obfuscate your own opinions by presenting them as authorial truths that cannot be questioned. Yes, your own intentions and interpretations of your work can be valuable and interesting to know, so maybe take the time to write those down. Instead of telling a reviewer they're wrong, consider writing your own reaction and reflection on their review without harassing them or encouraging others to harass them.

I believe in the power of words. In the power of stories. But also in the power of reviews. If I didn't then I'd be spending way, way too much time doing this. I believe that thinking about stories, how they're told and what they might mean, gives us great insight into our world and into ourselves. It prompts reflection and growth, compassion and empathy. That's my opinion. I own it. I'm not saying that it's some sort of objective truth that I could never stop believing in. It's something I question all the time. But so far that questioning has only strengthened my belief. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. I do think it's useful to know if something is an edge case which could be interpreted as completely mundane. But that's different then implying that anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot.

    If a reader has a different take on a piece than the author intended, who is right? Both of them. Authors do need to accept that once they put their work out into the world they have no control over how it will be received.

  2. "I think that we have a tendency, as a society, to distrust people framing their opinions as opinions because it's too…feminine, perhaps?"

    Dude you typed that a sentence after I thought it. Eerie.

    But yes, a thousand times yes. Life is more complicated than math and the appreciation of art is the very definition of subjective.

    You're exploring something very important here, and it is complex.
    "The question isn't really "who is right?" The question is what opinion prompts us to think harder?"

    I want to quote all your article but it won't fit in a tweet that way.