How do you write about your experience as a reader with authenticity, when one's experience as a reader is intensely personal?
I spend the large majority of my not-work, not-sleep time either reading or writing about reading (or thinking about reading or thinking about writing about reading). This question is personal to me, especially as one prone to question my right to review books and my place in this bookish community. When I talk about books, I am very conscious of the fact that reading is inherently personal; it is by looking at that personal experience in the context of the larger world--of readers, of writers, of stories--that my experience with a book feels valid and worth sharing.
Take, for example, Stephin Merritt's controversial judgement in the zombie round of this year's Tournament of Books. Merritt read An Untamed State and All the Light We Cannot See, and objected to both novels as contenders for any sort of prize in vitriolic, insulting ways. I won't re-hash the entirety of his reaction (that's been done), but I'd argue that his piece was intensely personal, revealing more about him as a reader and as a public figure than the books themselves. In this instance, Merritt could not go beyond himself--his dislike of uncomfortable subjects, his preference for novels that stay away from violence and brutality--to see that these novels were both qualified, in many ways, to be acknowledged as excellent pieces of writing.
That is not to say that Merritt had to love both books, or even like them. Some people read to see the world they wish existed, others to see the world as it is or as they never knew it could be. It seems Merritt falls into the first camp; he states a strong preference for reading books that do not mention rape or gang rape in any way. In writing about his experience with both of these novels, he failed to account for those other groups of readers, though: those who want to open their eyes to horrors they know or do not know exist, and face those subjects head-on. His response felt inauthentic, like a ploy for attention or clicks or controversy or maybe honest conversation. It felt like a slapdash attempt at snark and witticisms that fell flat among an audience that saw both books in the context of that larger group of readers, and in a world where these brutal things are actually, unfortunately, a reality.
Luckily for the Tournament of Books, the Morning News commentary on Merritt's reaction gave us a more nuanced, reasonable analysis of both books, lacking precisely the context they criticize Merritt for failing to provide:
What I see lacking here is an “empathy of intention,” where we grant the best possible motives to the writer and the story being discussed, where we seek to understand the author’s intentions, and offer criticism in that vein. This doesn’t mean we automatically approve of all choices, but neither do we reflexively disapprove of choices because we can’t imagine taking them. -John Warner
But how do we avoid falling into that same trap? What makes our opinions about books worth sharing? When we write about books--or talk about them, or caution our friends against them, or push them into the hands of our families--we will always be reflecting on our individual experience as a reader. There's no way around that, and there's nothing wrong with that. But without the context of my personality, my experiences, my preferences--especially as they relate to the much broader, much more diverse, and much more varied set of personalities, preferences, and experiences in the world--my, or any, opinion about a book or a story or a work of art is nothing more than that: just an opinion.