What does William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure have to do with lesfic? I’m so glad you asked!
Measure for Measure is a hugely problematic play. (For some of the reasons behind my declaration, see the bottom of this blog.) I saw a production of it this summer, and while the company put in solid performances, there was no escaping the many issues with the script. Fantastic directors, actors, set designers, and other stage experts cannot fix structural problems in the material.
This brought to mind several lesfic reviewers I’ve read or learned about regarding a question to the effect of, “If the first book you’ve read by an author did not float your boat, do you give that author another chance?” Because sadly, their answer was, “No.”
What if Measure for Measure was a reviewer’s first experience with Shakespeare? Would the reviewer decide she’d seen/read enough and never give Shakespeare another chance? Presumably he’d already written such beloved plays as The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet, but Othello, King Lear, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Macbeth, among others, had not yet been penned.
I have read amazing debuts from authors whose later works I’ve found wanting. I have read mediocre novels yet been blown away by others from those same writers. As to authors with numerous titles, I’ve read some that I loved and some that missed the mark for me. (This occurs across genres. When I went through a mysteries phase several years ago, I remember enjoying certain books by Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, and Harlan Coben, yet failing to get into others.) I cannot think of one prolific author whose works I’ve found extraordinary 100% of the time.
This is not a bad thing. Some pieces resonate with us because they have more or less humor than we like, more or less tragedy than we like, more or less authenticity than we like, more or less sex than we like, etc. Some are delightfully new, some tell the same tale we’ve read a hundred times, some veer too close for comfort. Sometimes we read a novel and it greatly impacts us because of what we happen to be going through in our lives, and sometimes rereading that same novel barely holds our interest.
But if Measure for Measure taught me anything, it’s that even the greatest of writers pen works that might not appeal to us. Measure for Measure should caution us and reviewers against a “seen one, seen ’em all” approach to an author.
We all have limited budgets and time, and we want to give ourselves the best chance of reading solid, (ideally) exceptional material. So some of us look to reviews to help us decide what to read. But if a reviewer is essentially saying, “If I haven’t published a review or wrote a negative review on a book, you should consider it not being worth your time,” then is that the conclusion we should draw not only about that particular work, but across the author’s portfolio?
Keep in mind that such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, were panned by critics when first released. If a reviewer hasn’t published a review or gave a negative review doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. And just because reviewers tank one book from a particular author does not mean the author is deficient, subpar, or unworthy of your time.
Yes, read blurbs. Yes, read reviews. Read available excerpts/samples. You can get a pretty good idea of an author’s style for a particular piece by doing so. It’s not failsafe, but it can’t hurt and can often help.
My point: consider Measure for Measure the next time you’re thinking of writing off an author due to a review you read. You just might give yourself the chance to enjoy the next Othello or Macbeth.
For those interested in the many problems in Measure for Measure, here are a few: (i) why the benevolent Duke chooses to leave his government in the hands of the cruel Angelo in the first place, especially since we learn that the Duke knows how Angelo mistreated his former fiancée (over her lost dowry!); (ii) why the Duke, who has returned to his town pretending to be a friar, does not end the charade when a man’s life is at stake and he could easily halt the planned execution; (iii) why Isabella continued to care deeply for her brother when he admitted he’d prefer she be sexually violated on his behalf than that he be executed; (iv) why the Duke suddenly wants Isabella for himself by the end of the play; (v) why the Duke or audience should want Angelo’s former fiancée to be stuck with him, i.e. why this is a reasonable resolution; and (vi) how Angelo could have sex with his former fiancée yet believe he was having sex with Isabella. Really? Come on, no matter how dark one’s surroundings, wouldn’t this be clear?