Reviewing Niceties

Reading Jacob Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture” has me yet again doing my own navel-gazing. “Not nice” for my 4th grade students can be code for anything they don’t like. Good thing that I’m thick-skinned enough at this point in my career to know that their identifying me this way is generally temporary due to one irritating moment and that soon enough something else will happen to redeem me in their eyes.

When it comes to the world of children’s books it is not so easy. Long ago when I didn’t know anyone in this world it was easy for me to voice strongly my feelings about the books I read. If I liked one I said so and if I didn’t I said so too. But now I’m a part of this world (online and off)  and consider many members of it my friends. And so Silverman is accurate in that I prefer to focus publicly on those books that I like rather than those I don’t. One reason is because taste is so involved — what speaks to others may just not speak to me for reasons that have nothing to do with quality. But most of all it is because I know how much the creators put their hearts and souls into their books.

That said, I still feel critical reviewing is necessary. And so, on occasion with books on topics I know a lot about, books that have too many errors and problems in my opinion to be ignored, I grit my teeth and point them out. I’m sure others may disagree, but I do think it is possible to do this respectfully if not exactly nicely.

What about the rest of you?  I know some of you don’t do negative reviews, but some of you do.  Thoughts?

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32 Comments

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32 responses to “Reviewing Niceties

  1. Rachael and I were having a long discussion about this recently. Personally, I really feel like all the warm fuzzies are stifling critical thought and inquiry. It’s possible to be critical without being unkind, and paradoxically, I don’t think simply insisting that Everything Is Awesome helps anyone. I know that, as a reader, I look to a lot of online guides, blogs, and reviews for advice, and sometimes, it feels like I’m drowning in five-star reviews. It starts to feel very Lake Wobegon, and it doesn’t give me the information that I need as a reader to make useful choices. As a reviewer, on the other side, I try to be gentle, and to focus on the book rather than the author, but I post a lot of negative — or at least, not unmixed — reviews. I feel like that’s only fair to anyone who may be reading our little blog looking for honest evaluation.

    But that’s just me :)

    • Ha! I used the Lake Wobegon reference as well in my early post about stars, saying that I did have that bright-eyed stance with my students, considering them all above average in one way or another. I do try to view books that way too, but sometimes they just…aren’t. I started out voicing my opinions on list serves, but basically those felt a lot more private than blogs and goodreads. You had to subscribe and while someone could and often did forward a post, they didn’t go viral to the degree things do today. And so it is harder as people pile on when something starts, when people are affronted, offended, etc. Makes it scarier to continue being critical, at least for me. And so I appreciate tremendously reviews like yours especially given the purpose of your blog. Same thing with Heavy Medal.

  2. jonathanauxier

    I agree that this is a problem. For me, reading is too often an experience of discovering that the emperor has no clothes. When that happens, I feel betrayed by my community — somebody should have warned me! And yet, when I read a needlessly negative review, it turns me off. (The exception to this rule being BR Meyers, who is a special kind of delightful curmudgeon.)

    • I hear you about feeling betrayed.There are books that are so lauded and then you read them and it is …meh. And, hey, I guess I’m one of the few unaware of BR Meyers so, thanks! I like a bit o’ witty spleen and vitriol myself, especially when it is done with panache (though I haven’t the stomach to do it myself).

  3. There are fewer outlets for book reviews than ever — newspapers and magazines have cut way back on their books coverage. And many editors feel that since they have so little space and their readers have so little time, the publication’s job is to steer them to things they’ll like — not to warn them off things they won’t. In the NYTBR, I do pull my punches a bit — I feel that’s the direction we’re given. (And I don’t choose the books I review, as you know.) In Tablet, I DO choose what I review, and I DO occasionally write brutal takedowns. (I have a particular THING about manipulative or pedagogically wrongheaded Holocaust lit for kids.) My last column used a book I didn’t think was particularly good as a jumping-off point for talking about books I DID think were good, but I tried not to be mean to the not-so-good book, because it was so uncynical and I liked its values — it was just amateurishly written, and there are bigger sins in the world. That said, I ADORE funny, performance-art-y mean reviews (there is a review of A Discovery of Witches on Goodreads that had me HOWLING, and a few dewy youthful Goodreads critics do GIF-laden nasty reviews I think are pure visual genius). If I had endless time I’d love to write venomous Goodreads takedowns of books I find offensive and execrable, but I have a mortgage, and I write for money.

    One thing I do find troubling is the insular nature of the kidlit world. Authors and reviewers whisper about books they think are weak, but the whispers don’t translate to written-down, honest criticism. And that hurts readers. I try not to make friends with authors because I do think reviewers need to more aligned with readers than authors.

    • Do you think that the kid lit world is really more insular than the adult literary fiction world? I often get the impression they are in tight too, witness some of the more famous feuds. What I do think is that there is a perception that we are “nicer” than those in the world of adult lit.

  4. For me, it’s all about balance. Even if I hated a book, there’s probably a reader out there somewhere who would love it, so I try to find what that reader would love and mention it. Conversely, if I loved a book, I try to take a step back and note any flaws or plot elements that might take other readers out of the story.

    That said, I’m still pretty much an outsider in the kid lit world (professional reviewer for over four years now, but book blogger for less than a year), so I don’t have a lot of personal connections that would make it difficult for me to express negativity. I can see how it would be difficult to criticize the book of an author one considers a personal friend.

    • Do you review books you hate though? I tend to just stay quiet about them. Where I do want to weigh in are with books that I do feel are weak in terms of research, writing, or something of that sort. Books that to me are problematic for all readers.

      • I rarely finish books I truly hate, and for my blog, I don’t review books I am unable to finish. However, I’ve read a few real stinkers for which I was obligated to provide a professional review! Those are the cases where I have to step back and figure out if it’s just me, or if it’s really as bad as I think it is. If it’s poorly researched, riddled with inaccuracies, lacking a decent index, or something like that, it’s easy to objectively state what’s wrong — but poor writing is a lot more subjective.

  5. Monica: I think the kidlit world is SMALLER. That makes it more insular. And I do think it’s nicer. Mixed blessing. But if I had to choose between too much snark and too little, I’d always choose too little.

  6. Kristine

    I’m the moderator of a Newbery Group on GR and I tried to start a critical discussion of what we liked and didn’t like about Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt. I was very specific about what did and didn’t work for me (plot, characterization, voice, etc.) and aknowledged that just because the book didn’t work for me doesn’t mean others won’t love it. But the thread was apparently “the cheese touch”. After it sat dead I just deleted it. Which was sad to me. I agree there is not enough critical thought in reviews in kidlit (and books in general).

  7. I have an overly-academic background (PhD from a major university), and in our culture polite comments on research papers are useless at best, and the kiss of death at worst (when they mean there’s nothing worth salvaging). The only way to make your work better is to have bright people with an expertise in your area make critical comments. Now that I’m a YA author, I still want to hear what’s wrong with my work. But I prefer when it’s thoughtful and intellectually rigorous, not just opinion or a gut feeling.

    • Yes. I was an undergraduate art major and critiques came with the territory. Clearly the hard thing is to sift through to find those that are worthwhile and not just hatchet jobs.

  8. I don’t follow a lot of what’s going on with writing about adult literature on the Internet. I do think that early on when the “kidlitosphere” was exploding on the scene, maybe six or seven years ago, there was a feeling among many bloggers that they wanted to be nice, perhaps as a response to what they saw as negativity. Over and over again, I’d see bloggers stating policies of only doing what they termed “positive” reviews. To me, that means that they are doing recommendations, not reviews. That’s fine. That does meet a need, provide a service. But, yes, it does stifle “critical thought and inquiry.” It also means that many books that would be of interest to readers don’t get coverage at some sites because the blogger can’t do a positive review. A mixed review, a critical analysis, would be a very good thing for the book and for the readers who might be interested in it.

    • This is where I see the divide between old media professional reviewers and those of new media (and sometimes self-identified hobby) reviewers. In my experience (both as a reader and writer of reviews) the old media professional reviewers are more likely to have at the least a mixed review where as the latter, doing this often out of love rather than money, understandably prefer to focus on what they like. But as the two become blurred things are getting complicated indeed.

      • Agreed. If I am a professional reviewer, paid by an old media publication to do an analysis of a book that I’ve been assigned, I will read the book. The fact that I’m not particularly enjoying it isn’t going to deter me, because this is my job. My response to be book will be a factor in my review, hopefully entwined with some knowledge of the genre and writing, but the review will be written. If I’m not “reading professionally,” I’m not going to be very motivated to continue reading something I don’t care for. So I won’t be giving that book any attention at all.

  9. I really feel we need more critical reviews, and I do think they’re disappearing in part because of the insular nature of the bookish social media world. It’s so easy for a group of people to rally behind a book–with blog reviews and goodreads stars and so on–and create the appearance of consensus. If nobody is willing to be critical in a visible way, how are we to sort things out?

    I like the discussions and debates that can only arise when opinions diverge. I’m very grateful to Heavy Medal, where the comments tend to be more critical, and opinions differ wildly.

    As well, we can learn so much from negative reviews. As an author I hate getting bad reviews, naturally, but I gain so much from it. When a review truly stings, I know it’s something I need to revisit. Each book has the chance to benefit from the critical reviews of the last, shouldn’t it?

    I think there were some major flaws in the Silverman piece, and it was catty of him to single Emma out, when she’s done absolutely nothing but be nice and chatty and friendly and extroverted. But he does point to something I’ve thought a lot about. I used to review for PW, and have not, since I gave up that anonymity, felt so free to be open. How honest can people be in a world with one degree of separation? It’s tricky.

    • So glad to hear from authors on the importance of critical reviews. There is, to my mind, a sort of silent readership out there that doesn’t participate in the public review situation and thus, as you note, there may be a false sense of consensus about a particular book. It can be especially uncomfortable when you feel that you are an outlier on something (as I have felt more than once). In such a case how can you come out with a critical stance on a book that seems so universally beloved? Hard to do.

  10. Pingback: The Scop: The Website of Jonathan Auxier

  11. I commented briefly on Twitter about Silverman’s piece when it came out; I’ll recap here.

    Now, I don’t know how long Silverman and many of the book bloggers out there have been online, but from much of the discussion and the complaints about overly nice online discourse, it appears as though they have come to the party fairly recently–i.e., in the post-Facebook era. Anyone who was online in the ’90s–the pre-WEB era, let alone the pre-Facebook era–might remember that, while civil critical discussions (about any topic, not just literature) were possible, the rather more common type of discourse was the vicious flame-war. There are cute, occasionally used terms now–”trolls”, for example–that were not so cute back then. Silverman waxes fondly about literary lights like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer having heated but civil discussions with critics about literature, and then going off to a bar for a drink. Maybe so, but I think a few weeks on Usenet would have had Gore Vidal and Mailer smashing their keyboards and crying into their scotches, instead.

    People are capable of unbelievable inhumanity through the cold, semi-anonymous safety of the internet. I think that today’s warm discourse is a pleasant change from how things were (and a direct result of it, quite frankly). I don’t deny that perhaps some more pointed literary criticism might be needed online, but I also worry about those discussions teetering off the brink and returning to how they were in the not-too-distant, not-too-pleasant, past.

  12. Somehow I do not see this happening in the world of children’s books. But man-oh-man is it a rippin’ read: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/08/the-battle-of-bitches.html

  13. “How to write a bad review” (that is, a negative one). Spot on. (//www.salon.com/2012/08/18/how_to_write_a_bad_review/

  14. I need to think more on the PURPOSE of a review. What made me ponder this was reading Manohla Dargis’s review of the movie ParaNorman in the NYT a few days ago. She evaluated the movie as a piece of art, but did not answer the question, “Will children like this movie, and if so, what kind of children?” My kids are easily scared…tell me, can they handle it?! But then, kid-friendliness is not a criterion of the Newbery Award….so I guess the question is how utilitarian a review should be. Some of the pieces we’ve linked to have talked about what a critic owes his subject and audience…but I also think one reason we love almost *all* of Dwight Garner’s reviews is that they stand alone, whether or not you want to read the book he’s reviewing. If the reviewer is all wrapped up in proving her bona fides, showing how erudite she is and how familiar she is with the author’s work (which is what that Salon writer said critics must do) and with other work on the subject, you’re not going to be very entertaining to the vast number of readers.

    • Need to reply quickly (as I’m sitting in a fascinating translation session at IBBY), but I still think it is about audience. I would imagine not everyone loves Garner, just those of us who like those very intellectually provocative reviews. Some don’t want that, don’t you think? I think you are actually a dual audience, wanting both the intellectually stimulating for you and some direction for readers that aren’t you (e.g. wanting to know about Paranormal for your child). Make sense (given my rush in writing this)?

      • Mmm, maybe sometimes Dwight Garner (you can see I’m obsessed) does “intellectually provocative” and sometimes he does pure entertainment. I’m thinking of his review of The 4-Hour Body, which I don’t think most NYT readers would be in a rush to pick up, but it was a great opportunity for a hysterical, delicious evisceration. (“Want to have ‘wolverine’ sex? Who doesn’t?”) Any review that mentions the author’s mysterious waxing and waning chest hair aims to poke fun. Maybe that’s a “purposeful” review — Garner doesn’t *explicitly* talk about why our culture might want to believe in practices so outside the medical mainstream, but maybe that’s there in a subterranean way — but I think it’s more about giddy, hilariously mean WHEE ATTACK! opportunity in a way that doesn’t hurt a serious author but is super-fun for the reader. I’m rambling…but I do think children’s movie reviews have to accomplish something different, something specific, and that’s tell parents if THEY can tolerate the movie as well as what kind of kids will like it, and maybe book reviews don’t have the same kind of obligation. Not sure.

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