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.