Saturday, June 03, 2006

Book reviews

Thanks to Ella and her post introducing some new book bloggers (including me -- thanks again Ella!), I went over to check out Eve's Alexandria, a cool blog with lots of great book reviews. I saw this post on Zadie Smith, her book On Beauty, and Victoria's review of it. The story is that the review was negative, people left comments agreeing with the negative response, and Zadie Smith, or someone claiming to be Zadie Smith (impossible to tell), left a comment defending herself -- not defending the novel per se, but clarifying that she doesn't consider herself "the great young genius of the contemporary English novel," a phrase from one of the comments. Victoria's follow-up post is a discussion of negative reviews and the responsibilities of a book reviewer.

Victoria argues that a person has a responsibility to respond to reading honestly. She says:

I’ve often heard it said that a citizen’s democratic duty is to question its government and to speak out when said government loses its way (that way, inevitably, being subjective). As I see it this is also a reviewer’s duty: to engage with the written word thoughtfully at a visceral level, to question its values and its purposes, and then to *write* back.

I remember reading at least one blogger arguing something different, although I can't remember who it was -- that in a world where (some would argue) reading is a threatened activity, where getting published is difficult, where writers should be encouraged, the best response when one doesn't like a book is to keep quiet about it. To ignore a bad or mediocre book, in this view, is to help ensure that it disappears and that better books get attention. The idea here isn't to be false to one's opinions, but simply to keep quiet about the negative ones.

Ultimately, I think, I come down on Victoria's side -- that it's best to say what I think, positive or negative or mixed, and thereby take part in and encourage a debate. I'm no fan of scorching Dale Peck-type reviews that are more about showing off one's ability to insult than about real engagement with a book, but I think lively debate about books is the best way to keep interest in reading alive. Only the kind of full engagement with reading that includes voicing negative opinions as well as positive ones will keep that debate going. Victoria says it beautifully:

I want to be energised by my reading. If we don’t write back with all our energy how will they, the novelists and the future novelists, know what we’re looking for?

I would, however, freak out if I thought an author had read my negative response to a book. I don't want to discourage any writer. I want to make everyone happy. Zadie Smith's comment -- if it really was her -- sounded pretty hurt. This is difficult. But I think the value of analyzing one's response, be it positive or negative, outweighs the hope of encouraging reading by focusing on the positive (unless we're talking about a book by a friend -- in that case, preserving the friendship is more important).

One could also argue that negative reviews should have some kind of larger point to them -- the negativity should serve the purpose of illuminating what it is that makes good writing or how the writer could improve. This argument is stronger, but I'm still not fully convinced. I guess I don't like dictating the terms -- for myself or for others -- under which negativity is acceptable. I don't think we need to treat books as delicate things that need preserving.

The subject is complicated by the fact that this is a blog and not a formal book review site -- I think that the responsibility to be honest about negative opinions is greatest for someone who is paid to write reviews and those reviews get published in places where people look to get honest opinions about books (yes, maybe I'm naive -- I know things don't always work that way, but that's the idea). Here, it's not my "job" to give my best assessment of a book -- no one's paying me to do it -- people who happen to read the blog have no reason to trust me or to think they are getting my full opinion. I choose what I want to write about and what I want to say about it and I don't pretend to be complete or completely objective about anything.

But still -- if another book blogger wants to keep quiet about books she doesn't like, that's fine, but I'd prefer to think through -- by writing about it on my blog -- why I like and don't like certain things, recognizing that my view is subjective and others might not agree. I think to expend energy on books in this way ultimately helps out all writers.