At a wine tasting last night, I was discomfited by my clear lack of sophistication. Others smelt figs and melons, fire and grass. All I could smell was grape. The Chablis grape was so acidic, I got a sour taste in my mouth just on raising the glass to my nose. The Riesling, apparently, was redolent with aromas of gasoline. I swirled and sniffed, swished and sipped, and looked blank. Then came the Merlot. My senses awoke. I inhaled berries, chocolate, steak. This may have been wishful thinking, but it was the opening required to join the conversation. By the time the Muscat arrived I was confidently spotting characteristics which, even if unsupported, helped move the conversation.
Literary criticism is a bit like wine tasting. Those who know their stuff will be more confident in the early stages, while those who’re cautious about questioning a writer’s invention, intention, style, guile, characterisation and control, will take a while to warm up. This is a good thing. It creates momentum, ensuring that week-on-week the pace increases and our discussions keep evolving instead of being more of the same.
Pace is important in writing too. How many times have you been gripped by the early stages of a novel or a piece of writing, and then found yourself going nowhere? I wrote a few weeks back about Donna Tartt’s acclaimed novel, The Goldfinch. Initially I couldn’t put it down, but then the pace started to slow and it was clear by the time I was halfway through that the the writer was losing control of the plot. There was too much of it. The characters were treading water. The momentum was gone. It was a relief when I had a look around the Goodreads website, to find hundreds of other readers with similar views: the writing was exquisite, the story a waste of time.
The message then, is that every view is central to the discussion. Sometimes there is a consensus, sometimes there are opposing consensuses. Where I see magic, some may see only smoke and mirrors. Others won’t be sure they can differentiate between the two. There is no right or wrong.
The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it wasn’t even long-listed for the Booker Prize. Like a Riesling, some people smelt the gasoline and others didn’t.