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.
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.
- Mad Men is an excellently written and acted show that I hate with a fiery burning passion. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Which I guess does make it like the worst of 19th century writing. [↩]
- Obviously they’re totally insane. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- What a shock! [↩]
- Yes, we’re both writers and readers but we’re attempting to tell reviewers what to do in our writerly capacity. [↩]