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Reading Insecurity, Literary Criticism and Negative Book Reviews

Recently, I saw an interesting article in Salon about an essay by Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton on whether literary fiction is elitist.  Catton took exception to a negative review by a guy who was upset because he had to look up a word in The Luminaries, which makes literature therefore “elitist”.  Author and book critic Laura Miller suggests that first of all, any reader who’s that upset about encountering a word he doesn’t know is seriously insecure about his intellect.

Miller then asks this question:  whether we prefer romance novels, science fiction, literature, or all of the above, why do we feel the need to pick on other people’s choice of genre?  She suggests that most people are insecure about what they read, which translates into criticism of what other people read.  Is this because people were criticized as children for liking certain kinds of books?

When I get the chance to quiz someone who seems disproportionately passionate about the snobbishness of literary critics or the rabble’s appetite for trash, there’s usually some highly charged personal history behind their indignation.  A teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, a friend, a roommate, even a co-worker has made them feel ashamed over a book or genre of books they enjoy or admire. They were told to put away the comics or teased for de-stressing with a romance novel on coffee break.

A fascinating question, and one many of us can probably relate to.  As a book blogger, I feel (mostly) free to write about whatever it is I’m reading.   But I didn’t always.  When I was younger I frequently hid trashy romance novels behind the bed.  Even though at the same time, I was reading books like Roots, Gone with the Wind, and The Bell Jar.  One of my favorite bookish memories is the time I was studying for first year law school finals, and one of my study partners showed up with a giant box of trashy romance novels.  The kind where Fabio was on nearly every cover.  My classmates and I tore into that box with so much shameless (stress-induced) glee, I’ll never forget it.

I’m not ashamed of what I read – I like to think I read some of everything.  And yet, I still stammer and blush when someone at work stops me with the question, “so what are you reading”?  My mind goes blank and I have to stop and think of the most acceptable (i.e. literary) thing I’ve read recently.

Miller’s article goes on to say we don’t have to like all the literary books we read, but no one should dismiss a book’s merit completely.  We all come from personal places when we read, and Catton’s book might be amazing to some and boring or pretentious to others.  But there are constructive ways to talk about literature, or any book, without just throwing it out.

Which brings me to the latest “negative book reviews rear their ugly heads again” discussion in today’s New York Times.   Two authors, Francine Prose and Zoe Heller, discuss whether book reviewers should write negative book reviews.  Both come to the conclusion, thankfully, that the answer is yes.

As bloggers, we have no responsibility to write negative as well as positive reviews.  I write mostly positive reviews because I choose my reads carefully, and I like most of what I read (Labor Day being a recent exception).   I do have a responsibility to be honest and fair, and I’ll admit sometimes I can be a tad too kind.  But no one’s paying me to give my professional opinion.

Book critics in major media, however, do have that responsibility.  And as Miller says, the point is not to dump all over a book or to say no one should read it – the point is to fairly discuss (as a professional reviewer) whatever criticisms you have of the book.

I agree with people who say all books have merit, and all reading should be encouraged.  BUT, a lack of negative reviews is a sin of omission.  If I only see positive book reviews, how do I know if there’s legitimate disagreement about a book?  If I don’t see a negative review, how can I be warned that a book may not be everything it’s touted to be?

Prose concludes that eliminating negative reviews is dishonest, and results in authors “phoning it in.”  Heller adds that most writers want to hear discussion and even criticism of their work (and if they don’t, they should).

Definitely worth reading and thinking about.

14 thoughts on “Reading Insecurity, Literary Criticism and Negative Book Reviews

  1. It’s definitely true what you say about feeling ashamed of certain books. I like to think I’m fairly impervious to the book snobbery of others, but even so…I’m reading The Hunger Games trilogy at the moment, and for a while was contemplating ‘forgetting’ to update my Goodreads account so that it wouldn’t be announced to my followers!

    I think it’s essential to be critical in your reviews and include the negative as well as the positive. After reading a well-written negative review I’ve sometimes gone on to buy the book in question, because I can see that the things the reviewer didn’t like might be things that would appeal to me.

  2. Your experience with trashy novels during exam time brought back some memories. I had that same experience just after my finals. After three years of reading only ‘serious’ literature, I just couldn’t take any more and spent the whole summer just reading Agatha Christie and other crime fiction which took little brain power.
    Very much in agreement with you about the need for balance. I’ll write reviews which clearly show that I didn’t rate the book but I don’t ever set out to trash someone – instead I’ll give an honest appraisal since that’s what I think my readers want.

    • Thanks for the comment, I’m glad I brought back some memories. Usually once I’ve indulged in light reading for a while, I’m happy to get back to more serious stuff. But law school finals was a whole other thing entirely. It was funny how excited we were about books we normally wouldn’t read (or wouldn’t admit to reading).

  3. I have no problem writing negative reviews, but I do try to do it Mary Poppins style (“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”) because it’s rare that I can’t find SOMETHING I liked about a book — even if it’s just an intriguing cover or a premise that COULD have been fascinating if well executed. Above all, I strive for honesty (even when it’s brutal) because that’s what my readers have come to expect from me and I refuse to disappoint them.

    Great topic/discussion!

    Susan
    http://www.blogginboutbooks.com

    • Susan, thanks for commenting! I think sometimes my weakness is too much of the positive first, and then the negative seems buried. I’ve learned it’s important to give a good sense in the first few sentences, otherwise people get a more positive impression of the book than I mean to give. Something I’m always working on!

  4. Pingback: On Reading Insecurity, Literary Criticism and N...

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes! I don’t feel the need to leave a negative review because I *usually* am able to choose my books carefully and like most of what I read, but it is the responsibility of professional reviewers to dissect and inform the public what doesn’t work in the novel. Great post! Some of my exact thoughts.

    • Thanks for commenting! I’d love to have a job where someone hands me books to read and review – but until that happens I do get to choose. Still, sometimes you choose wrong…

  6. “lack of negative reviews is a sin of omission.” agreed 100% with this. I get that there’s this fear that people will be too mean and I do think it’s easier to be snarky/funny in negative reviews, but that doesn’t mean negative reviews should be done away with. We need negative reviews. They’re important. And besides, how can you trust the positive reviews if there’s never a negative one?

  7. This is such a great post! I don’t even know where to start! I am not terribly self-conscious when it comes to what I read. But I also try to be mindful not to “talk down” about books that might make others self conscious. Example: When 50 Shades came out, I read all three. Twice. Because I needed fun books in my life. I very quickly felt demeaned by people I KNOW didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So that gave me a little heightened awareness to how I make others feel (directly or indirectly) about their reading.

    • Andi, interesting perspective! It’s probably easy to make people feel put down, maybe just because we’re sensitive about it. Recently someone in one of my classes put down all adults who read YA fiction, and I still haven’t gotten that out of my head even though I disagree. I’ve always felt insecure about some of what I read, even though I know I read pretty challenging things a lot of the time. It’s nice with the Kindle to have privacy about what you read.

  8. I think we often feel the impulse “to pick on other people’s choice of genre” when it seems that those “other” genres are getting more than their rightful share of rewards in the marketplace. As a standard example, readers (or even more so, writers) of literary fiction may see that romances & erotica are selling many more copies, while romance fans may feel disrespected because work in their genre is unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize.

    If I understood the arguments correctly, I think this is why Jennifer Weiner has been raging against the New York TImes: because they present chick lit as inconsequential, while over-privileging so-called literary fiction. (Although she also brings up an important issue of double standards in terms of how male and female authors are regarded. Here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/01/13/140113fa_fact_mead?currentPage=all)

    I agree we all need to respect one another’s tastes and choices. I was quite miffed to hear from one promoter that if I want to sell books I shouldn’t bother with literary fiction. But what if it’s my calling?!! Sorry if I strayed off-topic here. It’s been therapeutic!

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