Scathing vs. Raving

I’ve mentioned this before, but I enjoy reading book reviews almost as much as the actual books themselves. Sometimes a review leads me to read a book, and I’m left deciding if I agree with the reviewer or was swayed by them. Other times, I seek out reviews on books I’ve just read to see if my opinion lines up with the general consensus.

Does it really matter? Well, to put it simply, reading rave reviews about a book I love is satisfying.

But what about the books that get the thumbs down? Do I revel in hearing that a book is terrible and then confirming it for myself? Do I find myself changing my once good opinion of a book when it receives harsh criticism?

I’m not guilt-free when it comes to voicing my opinion (I love hating on certain book crazes as much as the next person), but then I have to wonder: am I being elitist? Even if I did read a bad book, and it confirmed all my prejudices, so what? They wrote something and got it published. Good for them, right? And what happens when a book I really enjoy is deemed unworthy of the paper it’s printed on? Should it change anything?

In this great article from a couple years ago, Bob Garfield notes some of these points in addition to making a case about how book reviewing can drum up business of its own. Want to boost book sales? Review great books; people will want to buy them. Why waste energy telling someone why they shouldn’t read a book, when we can be telling the world what they should dropeverythingrightnow and read?

Truthfully, I prefer gushing about a book I love to telling someone why a book is awful (and having that opinion vindicated). You could simplify this to a positive vibes vs. negative vibes debate, but when literary criticism is a religion practice all its own, it’s worth considering.

When reading this edition of “Book Ends” in The New York Times, I feel even more conflicted. When the article opens, Francine Prose has me nodding and saying “Yes, yes! Exactly.” But when I make my way down to Zoë Heller’s defense of the art of reviewing, and the weight it holds within the industry and with writers, I’m confused again. Maybe we need all the reviews, good and bad.

Reconsidering the need for negative book reviews is not about the author’s personal feelings. Heller suggests this is a driving factor in the anti-bad-review movement, but I disagree. I’m not in support of ripping a person’s work to shreds for sport, but I don’t think it’s a relevant point in this debate. Plus, as Prose acknowledges, maybe we need to voice what’s true to us, at least when prompted, even if that truth is offensive to some.

Lastly, is Heller correct in claiming that writer’s expect and need reviews as a way to know their worth? If your book receives a wonderful review, and so does your peer’s, and there is no this-is-bad-compared-to-this, will you know where you stand? The suggestion is also made that we should just ignore bad books (because what could be worse than having your work go unacknowledged?). What do we do then: spell out why a particular book is bad or skip over it altogether?

It’s a bit of a cop out, but both sides have good points. What resonates with me most is investing time and energy into telling people what books have affected me, what I love to read, as opposed to harping on about why I dislike a particular author or his or her book.

I think the jury’s still out on whether we should do away with negative book reviews, but I think I’ll be focusing a little more on what I love and little less on what doesn’t float my boat.

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2 responses to “Scathing vs. Raving

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