Today’s world is one in which just about anyone who wants to can voice an opinion. The print media; television; the internet with its news groups, blogs, web sites, e-mail, and podcasting–-all offer a wide open field for the exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. And since we in America are still blessed with freedom of speech, anyone can "speak their mind" and say anything they please, as long as it’s not illegal or immoral (neither of which present the barrier they should for some).
But as has always been the case, so much freedom, especially combined with opportunity, can easily lead to the misuse of both. Often, though not always, misunderstanding is the very thing that creates that misuse.
There are all kinds of things we can misuse. A simplistic example would be the ease with which we sometimes use words in error, mistaking the wrong word for the one we really want: "subsequently" instead of "consequently;" "founder" and "flounder;" "explicit" and "implicit;" "allude" and "elude;" "adverse" and "averse;" etc.
Another problem that can create misunderstanding is the difficulty in expressing oneself in the written word–-a letter, a fax, an e-mail–-when the recipient of the message has no way to interpret the "tone" of our voice. Is it meant to be clever? Serious? Lighthearted? Instructive? Critical?
When you can’t look into a person’s eyes, can’t hear the tone of voice used, can’t get a feeling of mood or motivation, it can be extremely difficult to know exactly what’s meant and how to respond.
We have a friend who’s an absolute master of deadpan and monotone. Even when we’re in the same room with him, we sometimes have to maneuver into a position to make eye contact to judge whether he’s serious or just having fun (at our expense).
Haven’t we all received e-mails that leave us wondering what the exact intent was? That’s not so bad if the message is from a friend–-but if it’s from your editor, you occasionally feel the need to pick up the phone and get the matter clarified.
Bear with me: I do have a point, and it’s just this: it seems that for some time now there’s been a good deal of misunderstanding and resulting misuse regarding two very human, and very common, practices making the rounds of the internet world. I think we all realize that writers, musicians, artists–-anyone whose work is of a creative nature and in the public eye, but I’m going to concentrate on writers–-are especially vulnerable to opinion and criticism. Once you open a vein and bleed onto the pages, you can’t expect to immunize yourself from the observations of those who are reading your work. Books get reviewed, and whether those reviews are positive or negative, gracious or vicious, profound or trivial–-by the very act of allowing our words to be published we have invited the best and the worst.
But here’s where the misunderstanding seems to come in. There is meant to be a distinct difference between the act of offering an opinion and submitting a review. Both, of course, are extremely subjective. A review can depend on a number of factors, not all of them comfortable to consider. And there’s not a one of us who takes every single review as engraved in stone. We pay more attention to some reviews than others, simply because the reviewers are known to be well-versed and much-experienced in whatever they’re reviewing–-and also because they’re reviewing in reputable, longstanding publications that are respected by the industry. On the other side are reviews that tend to trivialize the product they’re addressing or over a period of time have become known for caustic attacks more than constructive critique. Still, we at least consider them, simply because they’re what they are: reviews. Whether or not we take them to heart greatly depends on how comfortable we are with their legitimacy and with the "tone" we sense behind the review.
Then there’s the issue of opinion, and this seems to be a veritable beehive of confusion and controversy and, in some cases, conflict. The misunderstanding between the two–-review and opinion–-arises because one is often mistaken for the other. As I’ve already said, a review, no matter how qualified the reviewer and the publication might be, is still in large part subjective. But an opinion is simply that: an opinion. You can’t get any more subjective than a person’s opinion, or for that matter, a group opinion. But does opinion equal, or should it equal, the acceptance and the respect of a review?
For example, I have a right to voice my preference in cars. I might like SUVs or convertibles; I might prefer a sporty style or else a conservative sedan. I have my own personal preferences and a right to comment on them, including some of their negative features, to my husband, my friends, my daughters. But in no way do I have the right (even if someone were to hire me to do so) to pen a review for an automotive magazine for the car of my dreams, no matter how much I may have admired it in the showroom. I may have a strong preference for a certain model (even though I’ve never driven most of the others out there), but in no way am I going to set myself up as qualified to review that model. But-–and here’s what we need to get--even if I did get a review published, I’d still have no right to expect you to pay attention to me. It would all be opinion, based on personal preference–-not knowledge or training or any real awareness of what I’m reviewing. So why should I get bent out of shape if you don’t read my "review" or if you ignore it completely?
Yet that’s what seems to happen sometimes in cyberspace. Some folks set themselves up as "experts" and share freely their opinions on the work of certain writers, or more commonly, a particular genre or, in some cases, an entire industry, such as CBA. But when their opinions are questioned or scrutinized or challenged-–or ignored--they don’t seem to understand why, and even occasionally become contentious.
To suggest another analogy: (And let me stipulate that I know very, very little about football-–my husband’s game is baseball, so with him I stand, even if the players do scratch and spit an awful lot.) But let’s just say that Himself is an avid football fan, and so I watch every game with him, listen to his rants and raves, do some scanning of certain sites on the internet, even read a couple of books about football and its players, and finally form some very precise opinions on the league (are there leagues in football?) for which I’m going to cheer and the players I’m going to support.
And after all that, I then proceed to post my preferences and my opinions about the game and its players on a blog or in a web group-–perhaps taking the entire sport to task in the process and peppering it all with some disparaging remarks that actually sound somewhat knowledgeable (if awfully abrasive) because of my token research. How are all the fellows who have been playing the game for the past ten or fifteen years (do football players live that long? Amazing.) supposed to respond? Are they even going to pretend to take me seriously? Oh, they might be gracious enough (because maybe they realize my intentions are good ... or at least not vicious) to listen to my rant without telling me I don’t have the brains of a doorknob where football is concerned, but will they take me seriously? And will my eager, uninvited, and widely repeated opinions actually bring about anything helpful or constructive for the game?
It only stands to reason, then, doesn’t it, that I share my personal opinions, if I feel I must, with those people I’m close to (they might not care either, but they’re obliged to listen anyway), but not persist in publishing them. Or, if I honestly believe I have something beneficial to offer, I could write to the team managers or even some of the players. Privately.
Unfortunately, that’s the kind of thing some writers--and musicians and other artists–-are up against. When we suggest that perhaps a lack of experience and credentials make it difficult for us to accept personal opinion, which is often offered as a public, legitimate "review" instead of what it really is--opinion--we’re sometimes accused of being "touchy" or overly sensitive or unwilling to take "constructive criticism." And if we question the legitimacy of an entire industry being held up to scorn, even though some among its critics admit to having not read Christian fiction for years or even having never read Christian fiction, or simply confess a dislike for the entire "genre" of Christian fiction-–should we be scolded for (1) ignoring the rants or (2) accepting opinion for what it is but not taking it as seriously as we would a genuine review from a qualified, experienced, published author or reviewer?
Here's the way opinion would be taken seriously: write to the author privately and tell him'/her what's bothering you--if, that is, you believe you have a legitimate criticism that might enhance that author's work. You can also write to the publisher if you're disturbed about certain elements (or the lack thereof) in the company's publications. Address your concerns in the proper way, and you will be heard.
I’m convinced that a clear understanding of what opinion is meant to be and what a review actually is could go far in dispelling some of the confusion and misunderstanding and resulting tension that seem to be clouding the blogosphere. And then writers like me could spend more time on writing our books instead of tiresome blog posts like this.
And our readers (and editors) would probably appreciate that.
(But if you’d really like to know what I think of football, you can e-mail me privately.)