There was a great piece in the New York Times Book Review last weekend, about writers reviewing other writers’ books (Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?).
In the piece, Zoe Heller argued that it is hard to write a bad review — “Membership in any small, somewhat beleaguered professional community engenders not just social anxiety but also collegial loyalty and empathy. A novelist can avoid literary functions, but not his fellow feeling for other novelists. Once you know the hard labor it takes to complete even a lousy novel — once you’ve experienced the sting and misery of your own bad reviews — it’s only natural to feel some hesitation about inflicting pain on a colleague.”
I lean more to the side of espoused by Adam Kirsch, that not only is writing a bad review a hard task to take on, but why bother? Especially when, “at a time when few people care about literature, why waste precious time and space attacking a bad book when you could be celebrating a good one?” Yes! Celebrate the good ones!
But what about when I read a “bad” book? To tell the truth, if I am not enjoying a book, these days I just won’t finish it. The clock is ticking and there are just too many great books waiting to be read (or reread). But if I do get through to the end of a book despite not liking it (usually because one of my book groups has assigned it and I have no choice), I wrestle with the question: do I just not write about a book I don’t like or do I write about why I didn’t like it? And I go back to my long-held opinion, re-printed in part here below, from a long ago post on Readallday:
“If I were being paid to review a set list of books or being held hostage to reviews (“Review Swamplandia! by tonight or no soup for you!”), I would write more negative or mixed reviews (“the writing in Swamplandia! is gorgeous but the point of the story gets lost in the acres of saw grass and the hugely yawning gape of Leviathan”: soup please?). But I am not being paid and I am hostage only to my own book addiction. And so I pass on recommendations of great books.
Great good comes from reading great books. The opposite — bad stuff comes from reading bad books — is not true. Partly because there are few truly bad books; most books have an audience somewhere who are pleased and comforted and transported by the words contained within. But also because your soul won’t shrivel from reading drivel and your brain won’t explode from reading crap. But why waste your time reading such tomes? And why should I waste my time reviewing them? If there is a specific book you’d like an opinion on, I’ll give it to you. Readers email me all the time not only with recommendations, which I covet, but also with questions, which I answer.
I love to read. And I know that everyone would love to read as much as I do if they read the great books I read. And I believe that love of reading spreads, recommendation to recommendation. So I write my reviews of good books and I dream of a world bursting with voracious, enthusiastic book readers. Such a world just might be the greatest good that comes from reading great books.”