March is the month of Dr. Seuss's birthday. My favorite Dr. Seuss book is McElligot's Pool. I'm not sure what the critics said when it came out -- maybe they thought there were too many exotic fish in the book -- or not enough. In any case, I loved it as a child, and I love it still. The book spoke to me (perhaps because my dad was an avid fisherman). When I was 5, I certainly didn't read (or write) book reviews and I didn't give a fig about whether anyone else liked a book I liked or not.
I wrote a book recently and out of (possibly morbid) curiosity, logged onto a popular website to check out my very first reader reviews. One woman said my book was the best she'd ever read (I love her, whoever she is, but apparently, she missed War and Peace. Well, in the name of full disclosure, so did I!). She gave me five stars. Then there was a guy (I'll call him Poindexter, for revenge) who said my book deserved one star. Next in line was a woman who gave me three stars -- the book was good in her opinion, but nothing to write home about. Another gave the book a two. Yet another website gave it a four and a special sticker of approval.
All this says less about my book than about human nature and the diversity of our tastes. How can one person love a book (or film) and the next detest it? Kind of like anchovies, I guess (which make me gag), but my husband adores them.
Part of this, I believe, has to do with where we are in our own lives. A book may resonate because the writer is expressing something you've gone through or felt. And it can go the other way. I loved Eat Pray Love even though Elizabeth Gilbert's experience was the direct opposite of mine. I chose marriage and motherhood; she chose travel, divorce and no kids (later, as we all know, she remarried). Yet her experience resonated with me and with so many others. In my case, because she was living the kind of life I would never have (btw, even a bestseller favorite like EPL had its share of one-star Poindexter naysayers).
A book may also resonate at one time but not at another. What did I see in Catcher in the Rye when I was 16? Not much. But at 40, I thought it was delightful. Music too. My husband, a classical musician, recently remarked that he had played Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" 20 years ago and wasn't particularly impressed. Playing it again in his early sixties, he thinks it's one of the most amazing pieces he's ever heard. Has the piece changed? Not likely. (Thank God hubby has!)
Although I've read and reviewed plenty of books in my day, I don't think critics can be trusted. But I don't have the time or money to read every book published or to see every film, and thus the role of the critic is important. Still, some of the books reviewers have raved about fall flat when I read them; others I love. Of course, everyone agrees that Pride and Prejudice is an all-time winner, correct? Alas, several of my friends couldn't get through it. And as one reader reviewer remarked on Goodreads recently of one writer, "Yet, though her books are invariably readable, they're rarely as amazing as the critical acclaim they receive would have you believe."
Another thing: Disagreements about books can tarnish (if not destroy) a friendship. For years, one of my dearest friends and I volleyed book suggestions. She would tell me to read a book by Stephen King (Pet Sematary comes to mind), and I would hate it (I can't abide horror -- there's enough of it in my closets). I would ask her to read a book like Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and she would snore her way through it. Back and forth we'd go; she'd tell me this was the best book ever and I'd be disappointed, or disgusted. Finally, the attacks and counterattacks ceased. We knew that if we wanted to remain friends we'd have to stop telling each other what to read (yet we're on exactly the same page when it comes to politics!).
As a writer, it's somewhat comforting to know that someone's assessment of a piece I've written doesn't necessarily mean the writing is good or bad -- this is especially so in the age of blogging when comments can get quite snarky (perhaps... see below?)
Anyway, how dull life would be if we all loved and hated the same things (though Poindexter, no doubt, will disagree).