Art of the Song

The Opinions of Others

Every objective opinion is an assertion of an idiosyncratic personality.

By Eric Maisel, PhD | Posted 7/15/07 | Updated 5/8/23

Several years ago I received word that I'd come in second in a prestigious national novel-writing competition.

Coming in second in a national novel-writing competition is like coming in second in major league sports. You're a loser. Isn't that the way our culture thinks? Isn't that the way we ourselves think? Of course, we can reframe the matter and say "I came so far" or "I came this close." Still, when all is said and done, people who do not come in first feel like losers.

As I went to put the manuscript away I noticed that someone had accidentally included two readers' comments with the returned manuscript. Here was a moment of truth. Did I dare read them? Did I want some "objective feedback"? Did I want some hurt feelings?

I poured myself a whiskey and bravely or foolishly proceeded to take my medicine. One reader said, in an intelligent and carefully crafted paragraph, that the novel I'd submitted was among the best things he had ever read. The other reader said, in an equally smart and well-crafted paragraph, that my novel was among the worst things he had ever read. Each made a beautiful case. Each seemed to have a leg to stand on. Each was absolutely certain about the rightness of his opinion.

Isn't this a lesson that we have to learn again and again, that every "objective opinion" is an assertion of idiosyncratic personality and not anything like the truth?

I once read a book that contained nothing but reviews of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. To say that it included a range of opinions hardly captures the absolutely mind-boggling diversity of opinion expressed in those reviews. Brilliant and boring, humane and inhuman, slow and gripping, crystalline and impenetrable, there was nothing under the sun that wasn't said about that novel. Each reviewer had an agenda, some with Forster, all with life.

In our culture of winning and losing, the criticism we receive is that much more painful because we ourselves are rankers. The poet Theodore Roethke once ran into the house of a fellow poet and exclaimed, "I believe that right now I am the number one poet in America, you are number two, and Robert Lowell is number three!"

We might fervently wish to eradicate this desire to rank from our psyche but, in a culture like ours that traffics in bottom lines and top dogs, that is much easier said than done.

©2007 Eric Maisel. All rights reserved.