A few notes on reviews

by Tom Ingram

Reviews seem to have been a common theme of this summer. There were articles about book reviews being too nice, then an explosion of posts on the opposite phenomenon and the advent of Stop the Goodreads Bullies (who, lately, put humour next to literature, privacy, and racism on the list of things they don’t understand, and tried to take on James D. Macdonald, an endeavour in which they are hilariously out of their depth). Most recently, there has been concern about fake reviews on Amazon. I feel that this, like many other topics, would benefit from an injection of my opinion. So, in no particular order:

  • There is a sense in which aesthetic quality could be said to be “subjective”. This, however, is not the sense you are using when you say, “well, it’s all subjective, so my opinion is as good as anyone’s.” It’s beyond me to put this into words in any meaningful way here, but trust me on this. Read a book, and you’ll see. There really is more to literature than “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like”. This is why we’re able to have literary journals. Reasonable people can disagree on the quality of a work, of course, but this does not mean that both sides of the disagreement are right; it means that literature is complicated and these disputes are not easily settled. That said, “good” and “bad” are the precursors to a discussion, not the beginning and end of the issue.
  • Recognizing that there’s good stuff and bad stuff does not mean that you have to change your preferences. I enjoy the books of Jim Butcher and David Weber, to name two authors who I would consider bad in a literary sense. I also enjoy some of Tom Clancy’s books, but I maintain that they are better than they’re given credit for (i.e., that most critics are wrong about them). Roger Ebert answered the question of “What is the best film of all time?” with Citizen Kane, but added that it is not the movie he most wants to see right now, as he had just finished doing an exhaustive commentary on it and had seen quite enough of it. Seriously, once you admit that your reading tastes are not relentlessly highbrow, you save yourself the strain of an awful lot of cognitive dissonance.
  • There is nothing in William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s books that is, in general, inappropriate to say in a review. You may argue about the applicability of his statements to Ohlin’s work. But most commentators have not read it and objected to Giraldi’s remarks as if they were beyond the pale to say of any book, not just Ohlin’s. Giraldi’s complaints about Ohlin’s novel are: (1) the title Inside is meaningless, (2) the characters are stereotypes “marched in from central casting”, (3) Ohlin’s prose is too ready-made and includes such gems as “brilliantly smart” and “goose-honkingly hard”,* (4) the book is platitudinous, and (5) the plot is all soap-opera melodrama. (He gives a less negative review of the other book, Signs and Wonders). He takes issue with Inside in a quite conventional way, and provides examples. He closes out by waxing poetic about what literature can and should be, connecting the review to moral issues, and suggesting who you could read instead. What is wrong with any of this?
  • In general, there is not an epidemic of line-crossing reviews. There is an epidemic of thin-skinned authors taking honest criticism as a personal insult and misunderstanding facetious reviews that are not even directed at them. Much of this is probably caused by the explosion of self-publishing, where there is no support network for the author and little to insulate them from the public. If anything, most reviews are not critical enough, judging by the splash that Giraldi made.
  • As a simple matter of strategy, it is almost never a good idea for an author to respond to a review. Advice may vary on whether or not you should read them, but whenever an author responds to a review, the damage to the author’s reputation far outstrips any damage done by the negative review itself. If there are a few negative reviews amid the positive ones, it makes the positive ones more meaningful and trustworthy.** If you are inundated with negative reviews and nothing else, it just might be worthwhile to reconsider your literary project.
  • Separation of the art from the artist is a myth. It is impossible to slog through Naked Empire without lowering Terry Goodkind in your esteem. He may be a perfectly pleasant person, but you instinctively feel that anyone who can write a book like that must have something wrong with him. Roger Scruton makes a distinction between criticizing a work for expressing something incompetently and criticizing a work for expressing something of which you disapprove. The former can be forgiven to a great extent, but the latter often involves moral issues that are too important to dismiss with a wave of the hand, and the creation will always reflect on its creator.
  • If people are writing passionate, vicious reviews, it’s only because they recognize how important this stuff can be. When properly understood, the MST3K mantra “It’s just a show, I should really just relax” is an important maxim to live by. But it is often trotted out in these situations, where it is inapplicable. If you say it’s just a novel, and I should just enjoy it for what it is, you are implicitly saying that literature is not important. I disagree.

* I get what she was trying to do here, but Ohlin, as a good Canadian, should know that the image is not apt. Goose honking is not a particularly “hard” sound and not at all reminiscent of a sneeze. [return]

** I am currently avoiding John Scalzi’s Redshirts not just because the tired premise seems likely to devolve into glib masturbation: all the reviews I’ve seen have been fulsome, which causes an uncanny valley effect and makes me suspicious that a weak Scalzi novel is getting a pass because of his reputation as a blogger. [return]