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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

A Reader's Responsibility

I hope I don't give Bookstooge a heart attack with this one, but I think the notion of reader responsibility is an interesting one. I don't think anything I'm about to say should cause controversy, but I've been wrong about that before, so I guess we'll see.

I see reader/reviewer responsibility as a matter of intent. In other words, there's no magic level of responsibility that applies to all situations; rather, it changes depending on what you're trying to do. So let's break it down.

If my intent is to:

Tell you whether or not or how much I liked a book, then my responsibility really ends with my rating. If I one-starred it, you know I hated it; if I five-starred it, you know I loved it. Objective complete.

If my intent is to:

Give you a sense of what the book is about so you can make up your own mind about reading it, then I have to start writing, or at least copying and pasting if the blurb is sufficiently descriptive. Most times it isn't, though, so my responsibility here is to understand the book, as best I can, and then to distill that understanding into something comprehensible to others.

If my intent is to:

Tell you why I liked or didn't like a book, then I have the responsibility of trying to put my feelings about it into words. This responsibility actually doesn't include the need to understand the book because how I feel about it may not be dependent on that. And my only responsibility in this case is to try to tell you how it made me feel in such a way that you can empathize with or understand me.

If my intent is to:

Make a judgment as to the relative merit of a book...well, now we're getting into some heavy responsibility. My responsibility in this intention is more than simply saying A is better than B -- even if that's all I say. If I'm reviewing A I certainly have no responsibility to also review B. But if at one point I mention that A is superior to B (for whatever reason), then I've made a comparison and that carries with it a certain burden of responsibility. Whether I spell it out or not I have to know why I believe this. I have to be able to defend it, even if only to myself.

This, of course, is where we enter dangerous water. For some reason, a lot of people reject the notion of responsibility, even though all (or nearly all) of them obviously feel it. I've read a lot of "for fun" reviews and in nearly every case, it's very clear that the authors want to convey something meaningful. If they didn't, it's unlikely they'd bother writing the review in the first place. But that word -- responsibility -- it sounds so burdensome. Well, yeah, it is, but that's not a bad thing. It is, after all, what produces the meaning. If people really felt no responsibility at all, they'd randomly assign star ratings to books both read and unread, and truly produce something meaningless. Instead, time and time again I see people at pains to explain why they gave a particular book the rating they did.

In my view, taking responsibility for your reviews -- and it just gets heavier the more you intend to do -- has nothing to do with being a great writer, a great reviewer, or even a perceptive one. Unless, of course, one of your intentions is to be all these things. But most "for fun" reviewers have no such aspirations, and that's fine, it's wonderful. Taking responsibility just means understanding what you want to do and trying to do it. I suppose some people really don't care what they say or how they say it, but I suspect that most people who take the time to write a review -- for fun, no less -- do care, at least a little bit. Because if the writing isn't itself fun, then why the hell are they doing it?

So what's my point? Good question, I think I've been rambling. My point is: embrace responsibility. Believe it or not, it makes this whole thing even more fun.

WARNING LABEL: This is my opinion and it is not intended to be taken as any kind of supercilious sermon. If it sounds that way, it's just due to my own stylistic inadequacy.