Tell Me What You Really Think

NYTBRI just read a book I didn’t much like.

I did finish reading it—there are many books I abandon quickly if they do not engage me—so there was enough of interest to me to keep me going until the end to find out what happened to the characters, although I did a lot of skimming. But overall, the book was disappointing.

Now what do I do? In this blog, in my classes, and, really, everywhere I go, I talk about books I’ve read and share my thoughts about them, and I have a number of people who take my book recommendations seriously. Yet while I freely share my feelings in conversation, I find it difficult to be critical in print. It’s that old adage pounded into me by my mother: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.”

I’ve struggled with this issue before when I got my first (and only!) freelance assignment as a book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for a book by which, as it turned out, I was not impressed. I danced around this in the review. When I turned it in, the editor called me up. “Did you like the book?” he asked. “Ah,” I replied with a smile, “I was wondering if you were going to notice that.” He had to coach me through figuring out how to incorporate my negative opinion into the piece. After all, people read reviews to find out if the reviewer liked the book or not, right?

For the last few days, I’ve been struggling with how to write about this book I just read. I have committed to writing about what I read in this blog, but I wasn’t sure how to write about this particular book and still be nice. I questioned why I felt the need to be nice. I don’t know this author. And yet I so admire the work authors do; even finishing and publishing a book is a great accomplishment. And I meet so many authors in my work; perhaps I would someday encounter her. I feel it’s my job to be supportive of authors.

Interestingly, as I was having this dilemma, The New York Times read my mind. This week’s “Bookends” column in the Sunday Book Review is entitled “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” In the column, two writers, Francine Prose (I can honestly and comfortably say I like her work!) and Zoe Heller (haven’t read her) each weigh in on the topic.

Prose says she used to write negative reviews when she was younger, and she describes how much easier it is to write a witty and entertaining review when you’re tearing the work apart. She said her negative reviews garnered compliments, whereas her positive reviews were not commented upon. But then, she says, she gave it up, like smoking, like a bad habit. With publishing suffering like it is, why create more bad press, she explains. Recently, however, Prose says she’s fallen off the wagon, and she’d doing it again. She feels the need to be a voice when bad writing or bad trends in writing get under her skin. This happens, for example, when she sees “talented writers figuring out they can phone it in,” or “gossip masquerading as biography.”

Prose is also bothered by “characters who are compendiums of clichés” and I am so with her on that! That is one thing that bothers me a great deal, as well as cliché-laden descriptions or dialogue. For example, the book I just read (which you notice I have not yet named) includes this:

“Vivien raised her head to look Duncan in the eye.

’Is David dead?’ she managed to ask him, even though she knew the answer in her heart, knew it deep inside her.”

This bit comes near the end. Had it come in the beginning, I would have put the book down right away! She knew it in her heart – really? That’s the best you could do to describe her feelings at this absolutely pivotal moment in the book, the moment the book has been building to for 283 pages? She knew it in her heart? Come on!

Are negative reviews a bad thing? Is it important to be nice, to keep our unkind words to ourselves? I’m going to say yes to the latter, in regards to how we live life in general. But I’m going to come down on the side of no to the former question about writing bad reviews. I won’t do it lightly, and I won’t do it maliciously (although if I am able to do it wittily I won’t resist that), but I’m going to write honestly and not be afraid to say what I really think. After that, you, reader, will make your own decisions about what to spend your time reading.

(p.s. Want to know what the book was that I am referring to? Tune in to the next post!)

Author: Lynn Rosen

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