To pervert a well-known phrase, ‘All that is required for bad books to prevail is that good critics say nothing’, and yet, increasingly, that is exactly what is happening in those realms which heft most influence. It may not be happening in the blogosphere, but we’ll come to that soon enough.
I recently cut into a twitter conversation, which went something like this:
Spkr 1. Modern moral dilemma: given much hyped novel by publisher. It’s a bit ‘meh’. Don’t feel should say so on Good Reads
Spkr 2. I wouldn’t review at all
Spkr 1. My view too.
Me. So no review=bad review? What happened to ‘if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you, but be sure you want it’?
Spkr 1. I’m more ‘If you can’t say something nice, say nothing’ when it’s books published by friends, & given by friends
Spkr 2. I agree
Me. It’s a thorny problem, especially when said friend can only read the ensuing silence one way …
Spkr 1. I’m given so many books, publishers don’t expect feedback on them all, so silence is ok.
Me. nice get-out clause …
The rest was silence.
Now this got me thinking (what doesn’t?), and while I slaved over a hot apple making someone else’s prose rather tastier, I pondered this little exchange, and wondered what to make of it. The first question, of course, is what do we think a review is for? Is it:
a) to inform your audience about the general tenor and quality of a book, in order that they might make a considered judgement over whether to read it or not
b) to inform the author as to the quality of their work, what is good, and what not so good (that they might improve their craft)
c) to pay back a favour/earn some credit with another by giving them a sparkling notice
d) to pay back some perceived slight with malice aforethought.
Now, each type finds expression in different arenas, each a different format of review, with a) being the most public, naturally, b) being found in both public and private arenas, c) being public and finding itself especially visible on the backs of books, the author ‘puff’, by a friend, and d) being mostly internet-based, to whit Lynn Shepherd’s recent trials and subsequent suffering at the hands of rabid and, to be frank, rather nutty, J. K. Rowling fans, and the occasional high-profile spat (Have with you to Saffron Walden being but one salvo in the textual punch-up between Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe back in the old days – I think it was during this exchange that one said of the other’s work that it would be put ‘to posterior usage’).
There are, of course, two issues at work here.
The first is whether in not reviewing a work, or refusing to, you perform an action equivalent to refusing to write a reference, because, as we know, it’s ‘not done’ to write a bad one. How much of this has to do with fear of litigation is anyone’s guess. The problem with this assumption is that if someone refuses to write you a reference for a particular, personal reason (this has happened to me, and it can make life bloody difficult), the immediate assumption is that said reason is the prospective referent’s general incompetence. This is problematic.
I, for one (as anyone who has been a student of mine will attest), am apt to call a dodgy performance just that. I take my time, assess the work carefully, and deliver my verdict. It is there for the student to act on or ignore as they choose – most act. When I deliver a shiny verdict, thy know that they really were on the money. At least, that’s the plan.
This refusal to write is only relevant, of course, if it is known about. The line ‘I was asked to review a book I know sucks but refused because I didn’t want to write something shitty’ sorta loses its power when broadcast, because now it becomes ‘shitty review, but you can’t sue’. It’s passive-aggressive reviewing.
Onto a similar exchange, this time on Facebook. Note: public forum.
X is feeling quite proud. I was asked to review a book that I knew to be horrible, so I said no. Who wants to write a painfully negative review?
Me: But isn’t it incumbent upon us all to be honestly critical? To pervert a well-known phrase, ‘All that is required for bad books to prevail is that good critics say nothing’ …
X: I think that this was a case in which the book and author are such an obvious target – our most fundamental historiographical and political views are so different – that I thought it best to leave the dirty work to others. Without naming names, this is one of those situations in which the author has a big reputation, has won awards, positions, etc., while very few people in our field have anything good to say about her work. At some point, there simply doesn’t seem to be much point in ‘fighting the good fight’.
Me: Ah, but surely it’s the perception that it’s dirty work that’s the issue. Granted, ad hominem attacks are infra dig, but if that’s what people are scared of unleashing/receiving then it’s a sad indictment of our world. Obviously, ‘she’ is a fully paid-up member of the patriarchy. How ironic.
Now there’s enough information there to work out who the disapproved-of author is, no? Which makes the whole thing rather vexatious. I have seen people subject to vicious attacks for simply taking intellectual issue with a book or article, just as I have read vicious and unnecessarily vitriolic ‘reviews’ that are plainly sublimated.
In the blogosphere, of course, vicious, ad hominem attacks are de rigeur, as the attacker smugly hides behind anonymity and the knowledge that there is as yet no punch the avatar functionality on the web. While I’m happily forthright in my views, I try to avoid writing anything online that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face in a pub. And I am as forthright in pubs.
Of course, one must be careful what you wish for, and my book of short stories, Black Box, has had mixed reviews. On Amazon, it’s been lauded, sorta, with 5 5* reviews (trailing Slender Threads with 11), on Goodreads, a little less so. To whit:
It’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, however, that does not mean that I have forgotten it, like some many other books. I have found myself thinking about some of the stories even now. It may not be the best book ever written, but certainly worth the time it takes to read it.
I really didn’t get into this book. Don’t get me wrong though as this is a very well written book with some great ideas, just some of them confused me and made me have to re-read from the very start of the titled chapter. I then got distracted by other books and that, but I told myself that I would read it again as soon as I could deciding to give it another chance.
I’m sorry to say that I got up to ‘Nigel, Prince Of Darkness’ and was utterly and completely lost.
Now both reviewers make some valid points in the body of their review, which is what makes me take them seriously. They don’t just say ‘this book sucks’ or ‘this book is awesome’, they make a statement and then give their reasoning. They both gave it the same rating, which also intrigued (especially as one of them gave it the same rating as they gave Hamlet, so that’s the bit I report).
The great thing was that they reviewed because they wanted to, though they were both recipients of a free copy via the goodreads ‘giveaway’ system. They had no other motive other than perhaps a feeling of mild obligation. Would they have reviewed had they thought it dreadful? Maybe they did, and maybe they felt that they couldn’t be too honest. Perhaps the line ‘It may not be the best book ever written’ is beautiful British understatement. I really don’t know.
What I do know, is that as well as the fear of personally-penned redress, reviews are wildly influenced by there part in the media machine, a machine in an increasingly symbiotic relationship with the arts, and this is not good. Try to suggest a feature on an artist with no product on the event horizon and you get precisely nowhere. Give an artist a poor write-up and they may refuse to grace your pages again. In bookland, many reviewers are also authors. There’s automatically a conflict of interest, a quid pro quo at work.
But all this notwithstanding, it’s ironic that a reader of a book called Black Box should find themselves lost between the covers, don’t you think?