I’ve been hanging fire starting a blog for what amounts to years now and what has finally prompted me to take the plunge is an ongoing infuriation and frustration that some people think they know how clever other people are, and this it seems they think gives them a right to dictate what those people can and can’t read, do, think, basically conflicting pretty much every human right and standard of living that so-called western free society has fought over centuries to defend. This may all sound a bit pompous and melodramatic, and I’m not saying that one little instant leads to another, but I do think that even with the increased access to information, to literature, to facts that we now enjoy, particularly through the internet, there’s also a parallel tendency of allowing someone’s opinion to be substituted for their knowledge, and putting forward an informed viewpoint.
If such a tendency does exist and we do allow a minority to dictate what the majority should be exposed to, have access to, through a privileged position in the media, filtering facts through a veil of their opinion (and it is a veil, an up their own bottom, bloody, blinkered veil), then we have a catch-22 situation here: information is dumbed down, people are less able to process information, information has to be dumbed down. What a huge cost to autonomy and freedom of thought.
My thoughts along these lines all started when my oldest daughter asked if the Complete Works of Shakespeare were too old for her (she is 8 years old). I said, “No, you might not get too much out of it, from the first reading, but you’ll get something. If you just take your time, and enjoy the words, and let them flow over you. Even if you can’t pronounce some of them, and you certainly won’t know the meaning of a lot, it’s still the joy of reading, and you may return to it, and each time you’ll get something more.“
My message to anyone is that engaging with something is important.
Now, the reason she asked about the works of Shakespeare is because she asked about Hamlet, and I mentioned that it was indeed written by William Shakespeare, and that it alluded to a statue that our family knows very well, it is the Affe mit Schädel by Hugo Rheinhold (also known as the Darwin Monkey), and that means the statue acted as a prompt for her to pose questions about the scene referred to by the statue.
We find motivations to explore knowledge through a myriad of cues.
So when my book Darwin in Scotland received a review that ended, “Not accessible enough for the general reader” I was bemused and bemuddled that anyone should think they can dictate what others may read. What “highbrow” ignorance. I stood there frozen, my lips only able to mouth “WTF!” over and over again.
I can only conclude that basically whosoever uses that term to categorise a piece of literature is saying, some of you may read this and some of you just won’t be able to cope with it. How bloody patronising! “Don’t worry little reader, I am a reviewer and I am more intelligent than you so I am able to assess that you will not be able to handle reading this book.” Oh, and by definition, “The author is more intelligent than you too!”
Other than the blatant insult, it’s essentially also a form of censorship and we have a long history in our society of fighting against censorship, so why do we welcome opinion-based news and reviews.
Why are we happy to be spoon-fed our politics, literature, all manner of culture, through an inherently negative process of filtration? That’s not to say all criticism is bad. Reviews can be helpful on the whole. Without them we would undoubtedly be faced with a mass of opportunity that would be overburdening and panic inducing just through the sheer volume of things that we could engage with on a daily basis, to appreciate, to experience. But, to say outright, “This is crap”, or “Don’t go there”, or “Don’t bother with this” is ostensibly insulting to the human intelligence. In fact, it’s “obscenely insulting to human intelligence”, to coin one of Stephen Fry‘s phrases.
So reviewers and critics, let other people decide the value of something. In denying someone that, you are worse than a teacher or parent or any other authority figure telling a child that they are worthless.
By definition, all art forms, whether they be performed arts or written arts, graphic art, are subjective. They pamper to a personal side of us all. They are not purely evidence-based, nor fact checklists, even non-fiction. There is some thing more, an emergent quality which speaks deeply to each of our psyches, and because it’s personal, no-one has the right to delve into that innermost treasure chest that makes you, you.
Reviewers should offer a guiding hand by all means, but not hold one up in your face. That’s just plane rude.