Monday, August 6, 2012

How to Discuss the Books We 'Hate'

For a long time, I've been struggling with how to write about books on this blog.  I would never call myself a 'book blogger' (though I do blog about books) and I would never call myself a 'reviewer' because I am still in an exploratory phase, trying, as I have been for years, to understand what a book review actually is (I am no closer to an answer.)

In deciding how far I wanted to take the discussion of books on my blog, I set rules for myself: 

1. I will never label a post about a book 'a review'.
2. In an effort never to be obligated to anyone anywhere, I will not accept review copies of a book. (Admittedly, I have broken this rule and it's getting really difficult to keep because I receive email pitches daily and sometimes I do want to read the book...) 
3. I will only share thoughts of books I love (or think are especially well-written.)

And the only reason that I had to set these rules for myself is because of these pitches, which I began to receive, seemingly out of no where, about a year ago.

Number three is the rule I feel most strongly about.  I see no reason to talk about books I dislike or even find mediocre on this particular blog. Since I eschew the label of 'book review blog' I feel no need to balance my blog with 'good' and 'bad' reviews (because, you see, they are not reviews.) 

And there are reasons beyond that.  Since the readers of this blog are predominantly writers, I go back to the thoughts of a screenwriting professor I once had in film school who said that we can't learn to write well by reading things that are poorly written.  Why would we ever watch bad films and spend hours talking about them?  What a waste of time. We're learning.

And then I go back to nursery school where I learned that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all.

However, 'niceness' in online book culture has been receiving quite a bit of scrutiny in virtual conversation.  And, for once, the discussion is not just about book reviewers writing about books, it is also about writers writing about books. 

Jacob Silverman wrote about The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture for Slate. Cally Jackson wonders Are We Jeopardising the Indie Book Industry By Being 'Nice'?

Lev Grossman meditates on the despair that comes from hating a book in this enjoyable piece I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation.

And in a very charming 'By the Book' interview in the New York Times Book Review, author J. Courtney Sullivan said, "I would sooner eat glass than hurt feelings," when asked if she could name a book that disappointed her.

As someone who is still regretful about a comment I left on a blog over a year ago where I spoke poorly about a particular book and writer, the thought of publicly writing about books I dislike leaves me just as unsettled as Sullivan.

But I do wonder how important it is to the online literary community to write about the books we despise. Silverman implores us to 'think more and enthuse less':

A better literary culture would be one that's not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn't want so badly to be liked above all. We'd tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.

In person and through email, I am ruthless when it comes to books.  I rant endlessly to friends about a book I wanted to throw across the room. I would never do that in this space.  Why?

I still believe in a culture of 'nice' on this blog.  I can't imagine it ever becoming something other than a space to recommend and learn from the beauty of the best books, rather than the ugly of the worst.

But I do wonder what we might lose by being nice?  Since 'best' and 'worst' are subjective is there not a natural balance out there anyway? And what does it say about ourselves that we are so fearful to publicly critique?

How private should the discussion be when it comes to the books we 'hate'?



  1. 'Hate' is a very strong word and I don't think it's possible to hate a particular book. After all, books that you don't like, someone else may have a completely different opinion.

    In my opinion, you can get something out of every book, from laughing at how bad a plot is, or as a writer, I can learn how NOT to write, through the examples of books I have read (in the hope that I don't follow their example in my own writing!).

    In simply saying nice things about every book, that would make a blog boring (I do put all nice reviews of books on my blog in ocassion). Negative reviews open up debate on the blogosphere and discussion is always a good thing.

    However, I also believe that if you are going to say something negative about a book, you have to have a good reason for saying so and back up to explain your reasons. Simply slating a book for the fun of it is not only nasty, but a blogger would look pretty unknowledgable about what they were talking about too.

    Sorry for the really long comment!

  2. Interesting post! And now as soon as I finish this comment I'm going to click on your links because I've been thinking a lot of the same things lately. I post my reviews on Goodreads but I rarely post a review of a self-published book because so few of them are worth finishing. I have a category on my Kindle "self-published, poorly edited, couldn't finish." As an editor, they read like submissions to me and I don't need to read published submissions. As a writer, I prefer to read books that challenge me to improve my craft, not annoy me that this garbage was published in the first place. As a blogger who is part of the online, diverse writing community, I don't say anything for all the reasons you stated above.

  3. I have the same policy--I only write about books I love on my blog. I want to recommend great books to people, not warn them to stay away from books. I also know that my opinion may be radically different from someone else's, and I don't want to impose a bad opinion on anyone.

  4. I rarely give "reviews" on my blog for this very reason. I don't go out of my way to talk about books I don't like. But if someone asks for my opinion I have to tell the truth. Very politely of course. If I do end up using a "bad" example as part of craft talk I don't give the title or author of the story.

  5. Every time you post, I gasp because it feels like you can see inside me. Except you express it all so much better. This is how I feel! I hate the over niceness, but I don't want to hurt any feelings either. And do I feel bad about past comments? Yup. So I'm really careful about what I say. I don't review books, and very sparingly do I recommend them on this public platform. Perhaps if I weren't a writer, I would go more that direction, but perhaps not.

    Ironically, I do appreciate reviews that are honest. Not mean, but just not all honey coated with sugar sprinkles. I feel I can trust those more. They feel more real.

  6. Funny how when it comes to book reviews people may seem unwilling to be unkind, but in other avenues of living our lives online we display a vitriol that makes me cringe (can we really be this mean?). I find that I tend to gush about the books that meant a lot to me, but the ones that I didn't love I'll dance around the issue. I think it's because I don't want to be called out for a critique (a fear of "who are you to think so" is rampant).

    PS - loved the J. Courtney Sullivan "By the Book" interview. I think it was when she described her nightstand that I felt I had found a kindred spirit. My one stack of 10 books seems to be in good company.

  7. I feel the same way about only blogging about books I love. And one reason I do this that you didn't list is my opinion is subjective and I am my own kind of reader. What I dislike with a passion my CP might absolutely adore. And I'm not an expert or editor or a reviewer. I'm someone who writes and likes to read. I don't think me telling everyone why I don't like a book will help anyone.

  8. Those are my unspoken rules about books too, Melissa. I used to run a blog where I reviewed books. I didn't like it, because I felt obligated to review books that I didn't really care for and give them a better rating than they warranted. So I said never again. Now I only mention books on my blog when they strike a special chord with me. I've got some coming up that I need to mention, as a matter of fact. :)

  9. I've been thinking about this a lot lately too :) I was thinking about blogging about it next week (you beat me to the punch).

    I think there is tons to learn from reading "bad" books. Like you I will rant in person or to really close friends about what I like and what I hate, but I don't do it online. For me part of the reason is that online lives forever, and there are times when my opinion about a book will change (good and bad) over time. And I don't want to be locked into an opinion.

    Another part of it for me is that writing is so subjective. Books I love others hate and vice versa. Who am I to tell others what they should think or feel.

  10. I gave in to reviewing books from PR firms because I can never resist a free book. The requests have petered off lately, and I'm glad for the downtime because it gave me time to reassess what I would do to read free books. (Ok I know that sounds stupid since the library is free, but you know what I mean with ARCs.) I didn't like many of the ones I got for free; while I don't mind reviewing books I didn't love in my monthly round-up post, I don't like allowing them their own post - that should be for something I want to spotlight, not something I'm obligated to do.

    I've decided to just accept posts for books I'd actually like to read, and will hopefully actually like, because I DO hate posting negative things about a book, but I'm always honest in my reviews, and the PR firm has never complained when I don't like a book, so I try to think at least I'm being true to myself...

  11. Whew boy, I could probably write a book on this topic alone! (And many other probably could, too.) I guess I do fancy myself a book blogger/reviewer, and I do post reviews of mediocre books (and great ones). I don't have any definitive answers, because I'm always pondering this myself, but I do think it's important to contribute critical reviews as well as glowing ones.

    While I would never sit down to bash an author or mercilessly make fun of a work, if it's not good? Well, I say it's not good. But I explain why, and the why is the most important. Of course, everything in life is subjective -- and reading certainly is. To each their own. But I enjoy discussing books that didn't work as much as the ones that did -- maybe even more -- so those reviews are important to me, too.

    (But then I think about [hopefully] getting published myself someday, and what it will feel like to read something harsh about my work. But then I remember I'm a columnist and people say rude things about/to me all the time, and I survive it. It's the nature of the beast.)