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>The Criminal Mind

April 28, 2010

>Do you think it’s a crime to write negative reviews? Today you can see some pictures of where my crimes take place; Kittling Books is featuring my lair (mwa ha ha ha ha) on Scene of the Blog.

The generally accepted attitude on many book blogs, currently, is that if you’re honest, you’ll occasionally have to post a negative review of a book, but that if you’re smart, you’ll read mostly books that you believe you’ll like. Yes, there are some variations on this general theme, like bloggers who challenge themselves to pick books out of their usual comfort zone. By and large, though, the attitude seems to be that life is too short to read books you don’t like and way too short to write about them.

I disagree. To quote E.M. Forster, “how do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s easy to have a reaction and write about what you feel, but it’s harder to get to know what you think. If I weren’t interested in pursuing what I think, I’d have quit reading The Gone-Away World (my favorite book of one year) after failing to get interested in the first 70 pages. I’d have said I hate Consider Phlebas (a novel that is still providing a bit of mental wallpaper for me as I muse over parallels to The Waste Land, from which the title is taken) because the main character dies at the end. And I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do thinking about lines of poetry and trying to figure out what they mean.

Getting to know what you think takes time. It’s pressure and impatience and boredom with the whole enterprise that sometimes makes a reader want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.”

Like other difficult tasks, though, getting to know what you think by seeing what you say can be rewarding. You’ll be even prouder of your writing when you’re able to go farther with your thinking. I can’t promise you’ll get any more comments; in fact you may get fewer of them. But when people do comment, there will be some interesting discussion; that’s what I’m always hoping for.

My subtitle promises you “truths we learn from literature.” Not all truths are pleasant. Learning requires effort. And I’d like to add that the argument that some folks blog “just for fun” doesn’t exactly contradict my claim, as I think learning can be fun; it can be one of the deepest pleasures in life.

I understand that occasionally published authors take offense at a negative blog review, but if a review criticizes a book and gives examples, rather than lapsing into personal attack (one of the logical fallacies), then I say it’s serving a purpose by provoking discussion.

But maybe I’m missing something. If you still think negative reviews are a crime, tell me why.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 10:59 am

    >I enjoyed seeing your digs at Kittling Books-7,000 books?! Wow. I absolutely don't think it's a crime to write negative reviews. While there's no need to be mean, there's certainly no reason not to give an honest opinion. As you said, it's even better if you can give some concrete reasons for not liking the book, but I think it's OK to just not like a book once in a while. Sometimes it's purely a matter of personal preference, but I love what you said about taking time to know what you think. Books are kind of like people-if you try hard enough, you can almost always find some redeeming quality…just maybe not enough to want to make them your friends.

  2. April 28, 2010 11:06 am

    >I am so glad that Cathy introduced me to your blog. I look forward to following your posts on a regular basis.

  3. April 28, 2010 12:24 pm

    >I admit I tend to give classics I dislike more/longer of a chance than I do modern books. Especially when those books are fairly plot-centric. I take more time with literature and things with layers, so that even if I end up disliking them, I can generally learn things from them. Native Son immediately springs to mind here.

  4. April 28, 2010 12:33 pm

    >I do try to pick books that I think I'll like, but still end up with some stinkers. Thanks for sharing your space with us today.

  5. April 28, 2010 12:34 pm

    >Dreamybee–oh yes, you put that so well–I can learn to admire some books, but not enough to make them "friends"!Molly, glad you stopped by.Amanda, I think I learn more from books I dislike. My example is usually Things Fall Apart by Achebe.

  6. April 28, 2010 12:42 pm

    >Kathy, isn't there usually some pleasure in giving the details of what makes a book a "stinker"?

  7. April 28, 2010 1:37 pm

    >Negative "reviews" have taught me as much as positive reviews. More, maybe. What have they taught me? How to think about books – how fiction works, how poetry works, what is good writing, what is bad writing.I put review in quote marks – I just mean writing about books. What do I care if a review is positive or negative? I care if it's thoughtful, well-written, original – the same qualities I look for in all writing.

  8. April 28, 2010 2:04 pm

    >I love this post! I love the permission you seem to be granting to me to just WRITE it out and let me figure out what I'm thinking. I love that! Thank you. I feel lately that I've been editing myself too much, afraid that I'm showing I'm not thoughtful/intelligent enough and thus I'm missing my exuberant outlet of silliness. Negative reviews are not a crime. Being mean-spirited is different. I enjoy reading respectful negative reviews.

  9. April 28, 2010 2:12 pm

    >I was recently thinking about the 50 page rule some bloggers whend ebating whether to give up on 'Small Wars' entirely, or just set it aside for a future time. Led me to think about how many great books I'd have missed out on if I hadn't persevered and how many books start with so much promise, only to lose me after the first 100 pages. Anyway I decided not to turn to the 50 page rule just yet.As for 'seeing what you'll say' I couldn't agree more. Often new theories and connections just pop up when I'm writing about a book. I get a lot more from books I didn't like while reading by writing about them. It's useful, because then you can see what may have drawn people to the book, even though you didn't like it and helps you understand your fellow readers (I'm pretty much lifting that thought from Villa Negativa's last post though so I'd better credit her). But what about the 'meh' books? I can almost never think of anything to say about them, but 'meh, it wasn't too bad, but it wasn't great'.

  10. April 28, 2010 2:15 pm

    >This is such a wonderful post. I completely agree. I've learned more about what I do and don't like by diversifying my reading. And writing reviews of books I read has made me really pay attention to why I like or dislike books. It's shown me trends in my reading and allowed me to get to know my own tastes better. I do tend to read books I think I'll like, but I constantly surprise myself by enjoying something out of my comfort zone. Thanks for the thought provoking post Jeanne!

  11. April 28, 2010 2:19 pm

    >I am sometimes a little nervous of going on record with a negative review, because I have changed my mind about so many things in my lifetime. I disliked most of Diana Wynne Jones's books when I first read them; I used to think Buffy was stupid and obvious; I hated Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere the first time through. So when I dislike a book that other people LOVE, I always think, it's going to be awkward two years from now when I reread this and find that I adore it.I think my most negative reviews tend to be when I think the authors have dealt unfairly with their subject or their characters. If they've been condescending to the reader, or reinforced what I consider to be prejudiced stereotypes, or like that. When I feel angry with the author, that's when I feel most justified in doing negative reviews. That's when, as the great man said, it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure. 🙂

  12. April 28, 2010 2:21 pm

    >Amateur Reader, I agree, it doesn't make a difference whether a review is positive or negative if it's thoughtful, well-written,and original as long as it's also polite. But opinions about etiquette seem to vary more widely than viewpoints on thoughtfulness.Care, I'd love to see you write it out more often and get to the silliness– you know I love silliness!Jodie, When I started blogging, I'd sometimes include the "meh" books in a group post. Now I mostly don't write about them. For me, it's like reading magazines–they pass the time pleasantly enough, but if I'm going to discuss them, it usually happens in real life (or on Facebook).

  13. April 28, 2010 2:23 pm

    >I think there are two issues here. Writing a negative review – even a snarky, mean-spirited one, if it's supported by consistent critical thinking – is a useful intellectual exercise. It's a way of contributing to a discussion. The interesting challenge is how to be negative (with the full force of your convictions) without shutting down discussion.The other issue is what to do with those books which, as Dorothy Parker said, should be thrown aside with great force. Why would you keep reading a stinker? (I'm reminded of the fact that it took me two tries to get through The Firm, and the fact that I was only able to finish it in the sand at Bethany Beach is my entire review.) Perhaps that's the kernel of the great bad review – "this terrible book is also compelling because…"

  14. April 28, 2010 2:30 pm

    >Avid Reader, paying attention is an under-rated art, don't you think?Jenny, that's a really good point, about how you can change your mind about books over the course of a lifetime. As a teacher, I've had to learn to publicly admit it when I'm wrong about something or have been pursuing a really idiosyncratic point of view.Also, more than one blogger has pointed out that what we do is a bit like what Samuel Pepys did in the 18th century with his diary. Writing down what you think at the time doesn't mean you can't change your mind later.On the other hand, I hope to never get like Auden at the end of his life, when he went about revising his poems and refusing to let the earlier versions be published.Ultimately, I have to believe it's not all about me!

  15. April 28, 2010 2:33 pm

    >Joe, I think that what is a useful exercise for me isn't always something others need to read.Love the Dorothy Parker image–books that need to be thrown aside with great force. Doesn't it add to the force to tell the world why you felt the need to throw a book?Funny, The Firm is one of the few books that I think made a better movie. At least I prefer the movie ending.

  16. April 28, 2010 3:00 pm

    >Negative just to be snarky is unacceptable. "This book sucks" is unacceptable.Speaking as someone who reads a great many informal book reviews each year, I actually have more respect for the people who come right out and tell me that they disliked a book.That having been said, a few years ago I had to institute the "three paragraph rule" for short stories in The New Yorker. If you can't grab me with the first few hundred words, forget it. That having been said, I will slog through a full page of a book review. Not sure what this says!

  17. April 28, 2010 3:42 pm

    >Since I have two compulsions (to finish every book I start and to write up my thoughts on every book I finish), I do indeed write negative reviews. Some are more mild than others but a lot of that depends on the depth of my visceral reaction to the book.I will say that I don't think it's a bad exercise to search out books you think you'll like reading. I personally buy almost all of my books and it is incredibly disappointing to have spent precious book money on a stinker. So of course anything I buy has to appeal to me and have a better than average chance of being something I'll enjoy. All bets are off when it comes to a certain panel I'm on and the books are sent to me without regard to my usual interests, not that this hasn't resulted in me finding some wonderful reads that I never would have in the normal scheme of things (and conversely finding some that made me want to poke my eye out with a stick just to relieve the boredom too).I'm certain that if I went back through my reviews, the bulk of them are positive but I have to say I enjoy finding the occasional negative review on other sites because it helps give me a better sense of what that reader prizes and what turns that reader off, changing how I weight their recommendations against my own nebulous reading requirements.

  18. April 28, 2010 4:55 pm

    >1. How I love that Billy Collins poem.2. Sometimes the reasons you dislike a book are interesting, and it's interesting to follow them up. Other times they're not. And you're right — how do you know what you think about it something without going through the process of thinking about it, and for me, thinking about something is something best done by writing about it. Also, sometimes flawed books (I think I'd include that Robert Sullivan book on Thoreau here) are also interesting, and worth reading even though they're flawed. 3. About FW, I actually think it's sort of interesting that he'd bother responding. I agree with you — once you've written something, it exists, and people can say what they want about it.

  19. April 28, 2010 4:59 pm

    >Your house looks so comfy! Pretty lamps. I had no idea there was a blogger out there ready to feed my desk-space voyeurism.So, is doing a book count like the old way of doing a word count? Average number of books on a 4' shelf, average number of 4' foot shelves in a case….That Forster quote is a prime nugget!After I start a book my husband always seems to ask, "So, how is it?" I look up dazed and and say, "I don't know yet, I'm only"–I check the page number–"40 pages in." Or 50. Or sometimes a hundred.I suppose if I know it's going to be an absolute waste, I've already chucked it before he gets around to asking me, around page 3.I'm scared of an author finding one of my reviews. And a little creeped out by the thought of them all junketing around the blogosphere looking. Novelists should stay safe between book-covers.

  20. April 28, 2010 5:40 pm

    >Lemming, often being snarky is just showing off. And as Steve Martin's character points out in LA Story, showing off is the fool's version of being interesting.Kristen, I certainly agree about not wanting to spend money on books I might not like. I've gotten to where I rarely buy books that I haven't already read. The purpose of owning books, for me, is to be be able to reread them.Readersguide, I agree that sometimes a flawed book is worth reading. Otherwise I wouldn't be planning to finish The Lacuna someday.Trapunto, You're right about the way we arrived at the book count. I had estimated too low a while back when I answered a question about how many books we own over at Lost in Books. 7,000 or so is Ron's estimate. This is the guy who, after sitting at a railroad crossing for five minutes, can tell you how many cars were in the train.

  21. April 28, 2010 6:07 pm

    >I review practically every book I read, and even if I try to choose books I think I'll like, sometimes I don't. I find that the exercise of writing the review itself, regardless of the verdict, really helps me get a handle on my reaction – and it can be even more helpful when it's a book I didn't like so much. I try not to be mean, but I do try to articulate what didn't appeal to me.I do use ratings on my reviews, and I don't give many below a 3, but I'd like to think that what I say about the book matters more than that summary number. However, I've had some of my reviews perceived as negative just because I didn't totally fawn over the book in question, so maybe I'm wrong.

  22. April 28, 2010 7:50 pm

    >Florinda, I personally don't find ratings useful, but partly, as I've said elsewhere, that's a reaction to years of grading. I don't want to have to quantify my judgments here. (It's also a reaction to being raised by academics–I remember my parents discussing a restaurant saying "Oh, it was a B-")It's funny that sometimes I write what I think is a fairly negative review and the reaction to it by those who comment characterizes it much more positively than I meant it. I figure this means I don't articulate what I'm thinking well, and/or the "pro" column had more entries and I'm reacting emotionally to the deeper impact of the few things in the "con" column.

  23. April 28, 2010 9:48 pm

    >Jenny, I've been thinking about your comment since this morning. It's just since then that I've had a change of heart about exposing people to Franz Wright's poetry. Not that I don't still like the poem "Intake Interview"–but it's going to be hard for me to go back to hearing the original voice I heard in the poem.It's especially hard in light of my follow-up post, the Mary Oliver poem of questions. FW could argue that I treated her poem more gently by providing some guidelines for reading it, but more people were having fun with his until he informed us that he doesn't want such readers.

  24. April 29, 2010 12:45 am

    >Mmm. I sort of like her poem better, but I also think it's just less easy to interact with.

  25. April 29, 2010 8:06 am

    >It's funny how completely different what we perceive as the dominant trend in blogging is. While my own stance is similar to the one you described (I tend to seek out books I know will interest me), the impression I get is that the majority of the blogging world perceives people like me as intellectually lazy and a little on the close-minded side. And also that negative reviews are a badge of credibility – those who don't write them, or who don't write them often enough (however that's defined) are bond not to be taken seriously.Anyway, I don't actually disagree with what you say in this post. I just thought it was interested that though we do things so differently we both perceive ourselves to be in the minority. I remember having this very same conversation with someone once about the dominance of conservative or liberal views in the blogging world.

  26. April 29, 2010 8:09 am

    >Also: I am fairly paranoid and will readily admit that probably *I* am the one who's wrong about what the dominant trend is 😛

  27. April 29, 2010 5:08 pm

    >I rarely (if ever) quit a book … and I've written negative reviews but I always seem to temper them with … but I'm just one girl who thinks this. I will admit that I have felt good about perservering with a book that was difficult and feeling good about it in the end but if a book is just plain horrible, I probably would quit it.

  28. April 29, 2010 6:07 pm

    >Nymeth, It could be that for the sake of simplifying the argument, someone who is going to argue for one side or the other assumes she's in the minority! I wrote this as a reaction to reading someone say, for what seemed like the millionth time, "I only read books I think I'll like and I blog for fun" like it's idiotic to do anything else.Also in reaction to being called "honest" anytime I say I don't like something. I don't object to that in particular, but find it a symptom of some disturbing underlying assumptions.Anyway I think you set some of the trends!Jenners, if a book is too horrible I've been known to skim or skip to the ending and read it. Once I skipped to the ending, and it was so fascinating and unexpected that I went back to page 100-whatever I'd been on and read through to the end and enjoyed the book after all (that was Stone's Fall). So you never know!

  29. April 29, 2010 7:17 pm

    >Yeah, I get those "thanks for being honest" comments too, and they unsettle me for the same reason. It's not like I lie the rest of the time, or like everyone who reviewed the book positively was lying.

  30. April 30, 2010 1:06 pm

    >First off, I am enjoying reading through all the comments here. Second, I loved this one: "Novelists should stay safe between book-covers." it just makes me chuckle. and third, I am so glad I wasn't gulping my coffee when I read Nymeth's bit about "the impression I get is that the majority of the blogging world perceives people like me as intellectually lazy and a little on the close-minded side." WHAT?!?!?! oh Nymeth – not *this* blogger! I would nevereverever accuse you of being any kind of lazy nor close-minded! wow. I think I need to go write a silly review…

  31. April 30, 2010 4:00 pm

    >I understand what you mean about Franz Wright. I'd not heard of him before, but I'm far less inclined to read his other poetry – leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. :/

  32. April 30, 2010 9:19 pm

    >Love this! Love it. If an occasional negative review shows up on a blog, then, for me, I know a reviewer is giving their honest opinion about a book. Certainly I can understand readers selecting books they think they will like, but even then you are bound to come across something that you don't like at some point.

  33. May 2, 2010 1:11 pm

    >I review everything I read, so sometimes it does happen that a book disapoints me and I write a negative review. Not a crime!

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