Novel Thoughts blog

It’s Okay NOT to Like Something

February 21, 2014 10:26 am | 6 Comments


“He offended me with his terrible taste!” —Barry in the film High Fidelity

You probably know the scenario. Somebody sent you a link to an upcoming movie or TV series. “We NEED to support projects like this!” Or somebody passed along a Catholic novel to you. “We need to support Catholic writers like this!” But then you went and saw or read and it didn’t move you. Maybe you didn’t even like it. Are you a bad person?

One of the more noxious ways that political “culture wars” have been insinuated into everything is how seeming anything can be made into a political signifier. Grow your own arugula in a home garden? You must be a left-winger. Like to hunt deer with a black-powder rifle? Must be some right-wing gun nut. Watch Colbert? Liberal. Duck Dynasty? Conservative.

As a part of this classification of everything into political categories, what can often happen even among the well-meaning is the attempt to classify art as part of Our Culture of The Good Guys and then to make that art obligatory. But art doesn’t work that way. Art is to a certain extent subjective; making it obligatory takes what should be an opportunity for discovery and enchantment and makes it into a dreary exercise in taking your medicine because it’s good for you.

It can also create further divisions as people start to appropriate other elements of culture to bend it into being part of Our Culture. So you have people wielding things like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings as cultural clubs; if you do / don’t like Harry, you are / aren’t a good Catholic. Tastes differ, and trying to make what you like obligatory for others or suggesting that someone else’s taste is wrong or immoral isn’t a great method of persuasion. (Obviously some things are objectively bad, like Fifty Shades of Grey or the art of Thomas Kinkade*, but there’s vast amounts of worthy art out there that you may or may not like simply based on your personal taste.)

Perhaps a better way for persons interested in promoting culture is to sidestep this. We surely could use more people out there pushing Catholic literature, but there’s a less divisive method than insisting that others read it or they lose the war. Do you really love a recent Catholic novel? Write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, share a copy with friends, post some of your favorite passages from the book on Facebook or Tumblr. If you read a Catholic book and it didn’t strike your fancy, don’t sweat it. Find another and don’t let anyone make the experience into a medicine-taking moment.

The only way people are really going to connect over books, music, film, or other form of art is if your genuine love and enthusiasm drives them to seek it as well. Trying to force enthusiasm for something because you’re told it’s essential to a movement is a surefire way of ending up with people not only having less genuine enthusiasm for the promoted art, but also casting a pall of political projection over the art as well.

* I kid. Or do I?

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: art literature reading


  1. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    February 21, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I like this very much, and hope there is a big discussion about it. I think we are cowed by the sense that we should “say something nice or not say anything at all”–at least when it comes down to artistic performance tied in with Catholicism. Bad, amateurish attempts at music are now commonplace during Mass, and to add insult to injury, we are asked to applaud them. It makes a mockery, if not of God (Mark Shea quips, “Nothing is too crappy for God”), then of Christianity’s rich musical heritage, of Palestrina, of Mozart, of Bach–perhaps even of Blessed John Henry Newman and other writers of classic hymns, not to mention the cash-strapped excellent professional singers and other musicians around.

    In terms of writing–novels and films, for example–Catholic writers cannot improve unless we are told that we need to improve. The focus on a piece of Catholic fiction should not be on the saintliness of the protagonists and the diabolical nature of the antagonists, but on the craft that went into that fiction. It takes a thick skin, but a Catholic writer needs to take on board criticisms of his or her work that have to do with CRAFT–character development, pacing, vocabulary, creating a mood, describing a setting, etc.

    Does the first page of a novel grab the reader? If not, its writer needs to know. Are there so many characters it’s hard to keep track of them? Say so, and the writer will be more careful next time. Are there tpyos? Are there umlauts in the wrong place? This can be corrected in subsequent editions. Readers do writers a real service in telling us what you like and don’t like about our work. After all, we go crazy trying to publish our stuff because we want to reach YOU.

  2. John Herreid

    February 21, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Good points. For a while I went to a rigorous drawing program, one that taught me more than any previous art program. One of the reasons for this was that the teachers, while supportive, were absolutely rigorous in their critiques of your work. They showed you your errors and then demonstrated how you could work to avoid them in future.

    Too often art is viewed as a nebulous thing that just happens to those with inspiration. In fact, it is a craft that has to be honed by hard work and correction.

  3. February 21, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    From my Facebook comments:

    I would go further and say that it’s okay to offer a critical assessment that is not positive. Too often, book reviews are an “I’m okay, you’re okay,” “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” phenomenon. An honest assessment gives us clues as to what to look for in a truly good book, and also what to strive for as authors and artists. With the rise of self-publishing and consequent loss of editorial rigor overall, it is useful to acknowledge that there can be standards for good writing!

    So… Without having a high-traffic Catholic blog to review Catholic books, where do I publish an actual critical and analytical review? Venues like Amazon and GoodReads are aimed at consumers, though authors do lurk there.

    I have a background in creative writing as well as literary criticism, and I have written in-depth reviews/analyses of Catholic fiction on my blog with an eye toward making the writers (one in particular) aware of the implications of their texts so that they might be palatable to a wider audience. But knowing something about scholarly publishing and online media, I recognize my positon as a small-but-well-educated-fish in an unfathomable pond.

  4. February 21, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Of course craft is a given, but we do not want to be Ezra poundish about, craft can be empty artifice. What is needed of Catholic artist is prescience in the public square. All art must be as a response to the cohabitation of the now with the eternal.
    There is no place for the minor because all creation is watching each mans path, each mans decisions each mans coming into being- not as an object where things happen to him, rather where he asserts himself as Image and likeness of God. Man fully alive is Gods greatest miracle, and poetry novels should embody that moment when the lightning strikes.

  5. John Herreid

    February 21, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    Nicole: It’s always a fine line, especially if you’re giving feedback to someone you know personally. You have to be honest with the criticism while at the same time pointing out what works or what is good. There’s a brand of criticism that crops up online a lot that seems to rejoice in being cruel about the faults of authors or other artists—that’s to be avoided just as much as the “I’m okay, you’re okay” approach you mention.

    I think even a blog without too high of traffic can still be a good venue for criticism. Oftentimes when I finish a book, I’ll go online and search the title to see what others thought, and it will frequently lead me to various small personal blogs. You can also cross-post your review on your own site as well as sites such as Goodreads.

  6. February 23, 2014 at 12:17 am

    I agree that there is also a thread of cruelty running through reviews in popular venues that includes name-calling and personal attacks. I would never want to promote such a thing. I actually don’t think it’s a very fine line. Many online reviews (and here I’m thinking about GoodReads and Amazon rather than book blogs, which tend to be overwhelmingly positive) are more about the reviewer’s ego than about the book or author under consideration. I am coming from an academic tradition, with a background in creative writing workshops, and I think some (I hope most) of that egotism was drummed out of me as a graduate student.

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