In Which Me and Scalzi Lay Down the Law and then Realise that We’re Full of it

T’other day I was gasbagging with John Scalzi as I do when the writing isn’t going well and IM calls to me. We got to discussing as how we are frequently annoyed by reviews which dismiss a book because the reviewer did not like it but can give no reasons beyond saying that the book sucked. This is something that annoys many writers. We put in all that hard work agonising over every word and someone dismisses the book like this:

This book is bad. It sucked so much. Don’t read it.

Or even more frequently,

This book had golden retrievers in it. I really hate dogs. Also the mother washed her son’s mouth out with soap and the book was set in the 1980s. No parent has washed a child’s mouth out with soap since the 1950s. This book sucked. Don’t read it.

Not liking dogs does not make a book with dogs in it bad. And a belief that x didn’t happen in the 1980s does not make it so either. For the record: a boy I went to school with in the 1980s had his mouth washed out with soap by one of his parents. I hadn’t realised soap washing of mouths happened in real life until then. Why do so many people slide from their experience to “this is how the world is”?

Scalzi and me agreed that there’s a difference between personal opinion and whether a book is technically bad. Netherland is a well-writtten book that bored me into a coma.1 I happen to enjoy some of V. C. Andrews’ books—they’re train wrecks of bad writing and insane plotting. They’re practically a manual of how not to write. I love them.

Lots of what I like and don’t like is because of my personal tastes—I have a strong love of narrative:2 Netherland is almost entirely lacking narrative drive—and my political views often make it hard for me to like books that are egregiously racist or sexist no matter how superbly crafted.

So me and Scalzi decided that more reviewers need to separate their tastes from their personal judgements. So that they could upfront admit that the book was well-crafted and did everything it set out to achieve and then go to to talk about their personal reactions. Because personal reactions are fascinating. I’m constantly amazed by the variety of ways in which books can unintentionally turn readers off (or on). From the very common “I hate books where an animal is killed” through to the less common “I don’t like books set in spring”.

I’ve already been told by several people that they won’t be reading Liar because they hate unreliable narrators and/or they hate people who lie and don’t want to read about them. All of which is fair enough.3 I have zero interest in books about middle aged college professors having affairs with their students so I don’t read them. To be honest, I kind of hate all novels set on university campuses.4

So from now on, reviewers, can we have more separation of your little quirks and kinks from whether or not the book is good?

Thank you. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.

Of course, there’s a teeny tiny problem with this straight forward separation. Just a small one:

Very few people can agree on what good writing is.

I could give you a long list of all the writers I think are total rubbish and then give you a bunch of links to rave reviews and people saying what wonderful writers they are. Most of them are living though and their fans would kill me. So instead I’ll say that I think Patrick White is dreadful. He overwrites like you would not believe. A Fringe of Leaves is one of the most overwritten piles of dreck I’ve ever slogged my way through. It’s supposed to be written as if it were 19th century prose. It’s turgid and unreadable.5 Lots of people love A Fringe of Leaves and it’s considered a classic. I also have a major hate for the writing of Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Both considered 20th Century masters. I don’t think either of them could write their way out of paper bags.

I have friends who say the same thing about Angela Carter and Jean Rhys.6

Could it be that notions of “good writing” also fall into the category of personal taste? I mean, yes, obviously, we’re taught to recognise good writing in school, university, at writing workshops, from parents, friends, critique partners, from the books we read. But we don’t all learn the same things or have the same teachers. I have heard people say that they don’t like books with too much description and that they consider that to be a sign of bad writing. I have ranted here previously about all the USians who are convinced that omniscient point of view is bad writing. Ditto using adverbs or verbs of utterance other than said.7

So what me and Scalzi are really saying is that we want you reviewers to separate out our notion of good writing (not your wrong version of good writing) from your personal tastes and start your reviews by admitting that our books are brilliantly written and that the only reason you don’t like them is cause of your personal quirks.

Hmmm, turns out we are being unreasonable.8 Not to mention that writers have no business telling reviewers how to review. Reviews are not for writers, they’re for readers.9

Um, never mind then. As you were.

Do me a favour though, the next time me and Scalzi are in total agreement about something, could you remind me that it’s a very bad sign and tell me not to blog about it? Much obliged.

  1. Mad Men is an excellently written and acted show that I hate with a fiery burning passion. []
  2. My love of narrative aligns me with genre fiction (YA, fantasy, sf, crime, romance, historicals) far more often than it does with capital L Literary fiction. Though obviously it’s not that clear cut: my shelves have many books that are classified as Literarchure, such as works by Angela Carter, Isak Dinesen, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, and Dawn Powell. Capital L Literature also keeps rediscovering narrative. There’s been less rejection of genre (and thus narrative) in universities over the last forty years than there used to be. []
  3. Though I’ve already come across some reviews of Liar that begin “I hated this book because I hate unreliable narrators.” To which I can only say: Why did you read it then? The book is called LIAR. On the very first page she says she’s a liar! What did you expect? /rant []
  4. Except Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society books, of course. And Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. And those Diana Wynne Jones magical university books. Update: And Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. Really it’s only realist university novels I hate. []
  5. Which I guess does make it like the worst of 19th century writing. []
  6. Obviously they’re totally insane. []
  7. I’ve had people accuse me of being a bad writer for writing things like “Scalzi and me” instead of “Scalzi and I” because they consider it bad grammar and do not recognise that I am going for an echo of how people actually talk and not how grammarians wish we did. It’s a battle I also have with copyeditors. []
  8. What a shock! []
  9. Yes, we’re both writers and readers but we’re attempting to tell reviewers what to do in our writerly capacity. []


  1. King Rat on #

    “did everything it set out to achieve”

    I still want to know how a book communicates what it is trying to achieve. I keep seeing this from authors.

  2. Jason Black on #

    This reminds me enormously of my book review of Sherman Alexie’s “Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”:

    Not that anybody actually reads my book reviews, but that, too, was a book that I simply couldn’t review objectively because so much of what I loved about it was the enormously personal way that the book’s setting resonated with my own childhood.

    At least in my case I wasn’t saying the book sucked (it doesn’t), and I took pains to point out that my opinions were inescapably subjective…

  3. Justine on #

    King Rat: It’s hooey. Which is the point of this post: that many of us writers are full of hooey.

  4. Chris McLaren on #

    I hope the reason footnote 4 doesn’t include Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is because you haven’t read it, and not because you are full of WRONG.

  5. Julia Rios on #

    To be fair, as a reader I hate seeing reviews that simply say, “This sucked. I hated it.” The same goes for, “Wonderful book! I loved it!” Neither of these assertions can help me decide whether or not to pick up the book without more context.

  6. angharad on #

    A lot of bloggers try to be objective, especially the ones that are reviewing YA and children’s books. They want to be professional– they want to be helpful to librarians trying to decide what to buy for their collections. I just want to say, No, Honey! Be all subjective! That way I can read what they’ve said about previous books and get a much clearer idea whether I will like a particular book they review. Some people can write a negative review that makes me want to run right out and buy a book. Even with them, though, “This book sucked,” is not very helpful.

  7. Jane on #

    As a reader, here’s what I want from a review: to know whether I will like this book.

    I want something objective. I want it to compare this work with other works in several technical aspects.

    I couldn’t care less whether the reviewer liked the book.

    You and Scalzi are bang on. Stop second-guessing yourselves.

  8. Jennifer on #

    Heh. I mentioned a book the other day where I don’t know why I didn’t love it, I just wasn’t feeling into it. Not a darn thing was wrong with the book except me, and I admitted as much. There seems to be an outcry for reviewers to explain why they didn’t finish a book and to publicly mention this. I don’t really agree with that if it’s really a question of “book did nothing bad, I was just bored for some reason,” but apparently people want to know this information. Beats me why.

    I think reviewers should mention their personal quirks if it’s gonna be a factor in the review. I, for example, hate “sperm bandit” books where someone sleeps with a dude in order to get pregnant, and will admit to this if that’s a plot element of the book. Now, maybe the rest of the book will trump my hate (sometimes that has happened, in one case it did not), but I think it’s fair to mention because apparently more people than me LIKE this sort of thing and it would not be something they’d consider bad in a book.

    *cough* Yay, someone else hates Mad Men *cough*

  9. Pixelfish on #

    Chris McLaren: Tam Lin jumped to my mind as well. It made me miss the college experience I didn’t quite have. (I would so do my early college education over again, if I could.)

  10. Doret on #

    If I don’t like a book I won’t review it. Books I don’t care can give me a bad case of the potty mouth. I simply don’t have it in me to breakdown what didn’t work for me without getting all emotional with it.

    So I respect any blogger who can write a good bad review. They can state what they didn’t like or what didn’t work for them without getting a smart mouth or rude about it. They also make a point of mentioning what they did like. I actually think its harder to write a review for a book you didn’t like.

  11. Justine on #

    Doret: I’m the same. Though actually I find any review very very hard to write. I have a huge amount of respect for the really good reviewers.

    Though I must confess I do (in a guilty way) enjoy certain bad reviews when they’re really well done. Especially if they’re bad reviews of books I hate. I know. I am bad person.

  12. lili wilkinson on #

    My most hated review is the kind that spends three paragraphs summarising the plot and then writes “this is a well-written novel that will appeal to teenage girls” or something. And that’s it. This is not a book review.

  13. wandering-dreamer on #

    One of the things which always puzzled me in high school (especially in my AP Lit class where the books you read make or break the test for you) is why the great 20th century authors were so great and modern YA writers weren’t? I think in that class I like one, maybe three of the books we read (who would’ve guessed that the Canterbury Tales and I would’ve hit it off so well?) and I just couldn’t understand how the books (Like The Sun Also Rises and Mrs. Dalloway, which is “astral projection stream of consciousness” so I guess some teachers disagree about the narrator thing…) were great.
    I do review anime I watch on my livejournal (more out of boredom than anything else) and I do make the effort to try and think of the good and bad points in the story and explain WHY I like it, guess I’m just a silly teenager who doesn’t know how to review….

  14. Megan on #

    I’m a reviewer and get sent books from publishers.

    I reviewed this one book, in which the author directly contacted me. We had heaps of emails back and forward, friendly, chatty, before I actually read her book, and once my review was up she went ape on me, emailing me to disagree and argue. She even accused my family of not being loving!

    It was completely unprofessional and I can’t believe she did that. I gave it an average review, but I explained and justified all my comments. I just didn’t say “it sucked”.

    On that same book, she also sent it to another reviewer: this other reviewer was only 13. She wrote a five line review, saying what it was about and whether it was good or not.

    I think age has a lot to do with it as well. If you get older, seasoned reviewers, they are more likely to do a fair, just review rather than younger ones, who’ll write “good/bad”.

    or is that a generalization?

    regardless, i don’t think it’s in the author’s power to dictate what reviews says/how they said it/get angry for bad reviews!!! (ala alice hoffman/the author in my example)

  15. Colleen on #

    I second the positive comments for “Tam Lin” – it’s one of my all time favorite books, period and if you haven’t read it you really need to give a try, regardless of the campus setting.

    I personally can not stand a book where dogs die. Even if they just die of old age, it gets me every single time. I’ve been with too many dogs I loved in their final moments and I get so emotional over memories that I lose the book entirely. I can’t even read these books let alone review them. It’s best for everyone involved that I just put the dead dog book aside and back away slowly.

  16. Saints and Spinners on #

    I’ll read a book that’s not in my particular genre or has a subject I don’t particularly care for if a friend or trusted reviewer really likes the book. For example, I don’t care for zombie themes, but I was riveted by World War Z. When I received the ARC for Liar, I thought, “Hmm, I’ve had bad experiences with 2 different friends who turned out to be compulsive liars. Is a book with an unreliable narrator going to infuriate me?”

    Yes, it did! And I couldn’t put it down. I cared about the story and it has stayed with me. I’m so glad I read it.

  17. marty on #

    I had my mouth washed out when I was a kid. Since that was in the 70’s the assertion “not since the 1950s” is proved false.

    I called my mother a “dirty rat”. I blame television.

  18. Ronni on #

    Megan, I’m a reviewer too, and I’m appalled at the behaviour of that author! How unprofessional!

    I’ve been reviewing for about six years now, and I go through phases in terms of the types of reviews I write. When I was starting out, I found it almost impossible to write negative reviews, and if I couldn’t write a positive review, I would avoid reviewing the book. About three years ago, this changed, and I suddenly found it much easier to write negative reviews. Books that I unequivocally liked I avoided reviewing as I found it almost impossible to convey the (usually incredibly subjective) reasons why I adored the book. My opinion at this point is that nobody reacts to a book objectively, and it is dishonest to write a review as if you have reacted objectively.

    By all means locate the book in its thematic and stylistic context – this helps readers work out whether it’s the sort of thing they might like reading – but don’t be afraid to state your opinion. Readers have a right to know a reviewer’s opinion of a book, but, more importantly, they have a right to know WHY a reviewer formed that particular opinion. Be subjective, but make your subjectivity explicit. There are a number of things – both thematic and stylistic – that I dislike, and anyone who has read a handful of my reviews can probably figure them out, but I trust that as long as I make the reasons for my dislike of a book explicit, readers are intelligent enough to make up their own minds.

    Sorry to get so long-winded, I just love discussing reviewing!

  19. Clix on #

    Justine, I’m with you on hating Hemingway, but I’ve got to give him some credit for doing something different in such a way that other writers went hmmmm.. and built on his ideas and came up with amazing literature.

    Kind of like Newton (I think?) talking about standing on the shoulders of giants. And now we know that Newton was wrong about A LOT of things, but even so, a lot of what has been discovered since his time, including his wrong-ness, might not have been possible without his ideas.

  20. John H on #

    IMO, the true test of whether or not a book is written well is if it keeps the reader engaged in the story. Whatever words are placed in the path of the reader should only be there to move the story along — phrases that distract or disrupt the flow of the story should be considered bad writing, with few exceptions.

    An example I would cite is the third book in Notre-Dame de Paris, which reads like a 50-page travelogue of 15th century Paris. As fascinating as those chapters may be in their own right, to me they were a bucket of cold water, pulling me out of the story for little more than the author’s indulgence.

    Another example that is fresh on my mind, in the series of books I’m currently reading — political diatribes in the middle of the story. I won’t name the author I’m reading at the moment, but let’s just say that I got to a certain book in the series and thought someone had replaced most of the story with Atlas Shrugged. I half expected John Galt to make a cameo at some point. I realize the author may be awash in Randian Objectivism, and I have no problem with him writing an homage to his hero. The problem I have is when he inexplicably drops it in 4500 pages into the overall story and uses it like a club to bludgeon me into submission. It damn near ruined the series for me, and I find myself looking for hidden meaning in the remaining books.

    Finally, a pet peeve of mine that also distracts and disrupts, but one that probably isn’t going to go away anytime soon: words that are spelled correctly but are totally incorrect in the context of the sentence. “That” instead of “than”, or “lead” instead of “led”, etc. Or when a character’s name suddenly changes for an instant, as though the author decided to rename someone and missed an occurrence of the original name. I blame it on spell-check software which is less likely to notice such mistakes.

  21. Harry Connolly on #

    Something fun for the next time you’re tempted to IM John Scalzi. Go to instead, look up a classic novel, and read through all the one-star comments.

    Hilarious and energizing.

  22. Patrick Shepherd on #

    “Very few people can agree on what good writing is.”

    Very true. But its opposite, agreement on what constitutes bad writing, has a little more consensus. Clearly, technical lapses such as bad grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. should not be present in a well written work (unless they are there intentionally for some valid story reason, such portraying the patios of a particular area accurately). Illogical or inconsistent plot developments, lack of an actual story (essays or polemics disguised as fiction), one or two dimensional characters, prose that is cliched or purple, inclusion of ‘facts’ that aren’t, these are all fairly well recognized markers of poor writing. Only in the absence of these items do we have something that might be considered good writing, although such absence certainly doesn’t guarantee that it is ‘good writing’.

    But after taking out these fairly readily seen and objective items, what’s left is where subjectivity really holds sway. And of course, my subjectivity says that anything written by Scalzi or Larbalestier is excellent.

  23. Katee R on #

    Actually, my mom washed my mouth out with soap in the early 90s and I have it on good authority that she did it with my little brothers as well (a few years ago). So it’s not an only-1950s thing!

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