It's most difficult to write about someone else's writing, then, when I don't feel that my personal taste should be a standard. Sometimes a piece just doesn't speak to you, and you don't feel qualified to make a statement about its merit. So why does admitting the truth--simply saying "This piece just doesn't speak to me"--seem glib? I suppose explaining why I don't have a connection to something is better, but some part of me feels like this is just creating excuses for my inability to take a firm stance.
My self-critical nature might lead me into a spiral of thought in which I berate myself for my weak character, but instead I think I'll bypass that route and recall Deborah Tannen's book The Argument Culture, which I read In one of my rhetoric courses at MSU. Tannen explains how "America's War of Words" has polarized almost all parts of our culture, and usually for the worse. It definitely explains my tendency to view taking the middle ground when discussing others' writing--in refusing to classify unequivocally as good or bad--as weak. But it's also encouragement to throw out this way of thinking. Susan Sontag wrote in one of her journals that "morality informs experience, not experience informs morality," and I think this can be adapted to apply to one's reading: our personal preferences will affect our experience of a book, but our experience of a book will never truly give us the authority or ability to classify its value. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with book reviews, but only that literature has no gold standard. My time spent working with literary journals has shown me that admitting one's confusion or inability to understand or connect with a piece is often incredibly beneficial and revealing, and often leads to interesting discussions rather than two-sided arguments. And it definitely made my note-taking on the memoir manuscript easier.
Roger Ebert discussed something similar in regard to his film reviews, specifically how describing one's perception or experience of a film is more productive than trying to explain away its meaning:
"2001" began with some apes at "The Dawn of Man," and after one of them hurls a bone into the air it dissolves into an orbiting space station. It was, and is likely to remain, the most audacious flash-forward in the history of the cinema. Then the film's final episode, it involved an old man in a bedroom, somewhere in space. What did that mean? I could give you my perfectly logical explanation, but I was there at the world's first public screening, and I can tell you no one seemed in revolt. Kubrick's command of film language created a poetry where you felt the meaning.
Now. As for David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." That was a film I took to the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where we spent five days going through it a shot at a time, trying to explain such matters as the little old people crawling under the door, the wolf-man behind the diner, the Cowboy, and the purpose of the Blue Box. Man, did we dig deep.
I'm currently preparing to include "Mulholland Drive" in my Great Movies Collection. Of course I went back and re-read my original review from 2001. To my surprise, I was perfectly pleased with that review. I "got" the movie. I may not have explained it, but that's another matter.
One of the earliest reviews I wrote for The Sun-Times was of Bergman's "Persona." I felt in over my head. Could I come up with something deep and profound, worthy of the film's maker? I decided instead to simply try describing what I had seen. One of the common mistakes of beginning movie critics is to reach for unwise profundity, when observation may be completely adequate. A wise man once wrote: "A poem should not mean, but be."