On book reviews and criticism.

I've been doing a lot of thinking, lately, about book reviews. Reviews specifically, rather than reader responses—pieces that are attempting to be as objective as possible, based on elements in the text, rather than purely subjective, based on opinion. (Which isn't to say that reader responses aren't an important and valid part of the literary conversation—they're just a completely different animal.) 

As I prefer critical reviews—reviews that look at the strengths AND the weaknesses of a book—that's what I'll be talking about here. In terms of writing them, I've been working to nail down what I see as the most important elements; in terms of using them, I've been working to identify the elements that I find most useful.

In that tweet, Maureen totally nails it: If I had to pick a Personal Number One Most Important Rule in reviewing—again, this is MY PERSONAL #1, not the ULTIMATE #1—this would be it. Along those lines:

An unlikable character does not equate to a flaw in the book, both because that is entirely subjective and because oftentimes, characters are deliberately written to be difficult to like. Example? Harriet the Spy. While I adore Harriet, while I have always identified with her and empathized with her, I know that there are a whole lot of readers out there who view her as just plain awful. Ditto Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Does he model the sort of behavior you'd want to see on the playground? Um, no. Is he a believable character, in terms of action and reaction and emotion? Totally.

A character who doesn't have exactly the same worldview or knowledge or value system as the reader; a character whose voice doesn't conform to the reader's own understanding of appropriate: these do not necessarily equal flaws in the book. Example? The title character in Chris Crutcher's short story 'Telephone Man'. This character spews racist slurs left and right, but it's a story about (among other things) how racism gets passed on from generation to generation. His language is integral to his voice, his history, and the overall arc of the story. We do a lot of talking about mirrors and windows, but that's usually in terms of promoting empathy and understanding (yay!) and in terms of promoting people seeing themselves in books (double yay!). But I think it's important, too, to have windows into ways of thinking that we're uncomfortable with, that we find reprehensible, even—understanding can lead to common ground, can lead to an open dialogue, can lead to change... and can also lead to us questioning our own deep seated assumptions and -isms.

A character whose behavior isn't in line with the reader's own moral code; a storyline that doesn't go the way it "should" go or that goes in uncomfortable ways—these things do not necessarily flaws make. Example? Keir Sarafian in Chris Lynch's Inexcusable actually is the poster child for all three of these statements: he's a bully, he's a rapist, and he's so entirely in denial about it that he's mostly convinced himself that he's a "good guy". It's a hard book to read, and not an enjoyable experience, but it's an unforgettable one, and one that features a realistic, distinct, believable voice.

Like any reader, I have certain trigger-y subjects—stories that deal with sexual assault and stories that deal with eating disorders, for example, are especially hard for me to read about. I try my best to keep that in mind, and when I'm not sure I'm separating MY STUFF from THE BOOK'S STUFF well enough, I mention it in the review. Kelly over at Stacked talked about this at length earlier this week: Part of it may also be that my own thoughts and beliefs behind suicide don't always mirror the way it's presented in fiction, which comes as a result of being someone who struggles with an illness that has left me with uncomfortable, complicated, and messy feelings on the topic.

None of this is to say that these elements can't or shouldn't be discussed and debated. Two examples: Love Actually and Twilight. I can't STAND the newlyweds storyline in Love Actually—I hate the idea that the best man showing up on Keira Knightley's doorstep with those stupid signs is supposed to be romantic, when I see it as emotionally selfish, socially boorish, and the action of a TERRIBLE friend—but that doesn't mean it's a flaw in the movie itself. Similarly, I have a hard time with the power dynamics of Bella and Edward's relationship in the first three Twilight books—but again, that doesn't mean that the relationship itself is a flaw in the writing or in the book's craftsmanship. Both of those perceived problems are based entirely in and on my own personal taste and worldview, not on elements that can be objectively judged, like: plot holes, over-reliance on tropes or stereotypes, two-dimensional characterization, lack of character growth or development, repetition, didacticism, a lack of confidence in the reader's intellectual abilities, shoddy world-building, unbelievable dialogue, uneven pacing, etc., etc., etc.

Talking about these things, debating them, deconstructing them is important and interesting—but I don't see them as reasons to say THIS STORY IS POORLY EXECUTED.

Agree, for sure. Just saying that it's bad... doesn't tell me anything. If a review doesn't offer up examples or reasons for praising or panning a book, I have no way of weighing the reviewer's taste, no way of knowing if the book will be a good fit for me (or, in my librarian's role, for my patrons).

As a reader, I love to read reviews in which it's clear that the reviewer has thought deeply about the book. Not just in terms of the book on its own, but the book in terms of its place in its genre, the history of the genre, how it uses tropes and/or archetype characters, how it builds on what has come before (or, less satisfyingly, just re-uses what has come before). I love to see discussions about problematic elements or attitudes in the text, arguments about subtext, comparisons to similar reads. As a librarian, I still like all of that stuff, but in shorter form.

I've seen it argued that this practice helps to perpetuate the mindset that white/straight/cis is the default setting for characters, and I very definitely see the logic in that. At the same time, I like to read books about diverse characters and I feel that it's important that they're available in my library, so for me, as a reader AND as a librarian, that's helpful in a review.

Those tweets speak for themselves, and I fully agree—ESPECIALLY ABOUT USING BACKLIST TITLES. Due to the never ending influx of new books, it's easy to let older titles fall by the wayside, even when they are far more thematically or tonally similar to the book being discussed.

More than anything—and to anyone who is actually still reading, I swear I'm almost done—I see criticism as a way of treating stories, regardless of format, regardless of genre, regardless of intended audience, with respect. In looking closely at them, we are saying that they DESERVE to be looked at closely—how can we expect the larger reading community to take YA, middle grade, comic books, romance, or any other marginalized category seriously if we don't do that ourselves?

So. That's my take. I'd love to hear from you. What do YOU find helpful and important in a review? As a reader, as a librarian, as a bookseller, as a writer, as an editor, as an agent? Do you use them, and how? Short form, long form, lists, essays,  any or none of the above?

Am I totally alone in loving criticism as a genre? Or in even thinking that it's an important and necessary part of the conversation?

BooksLeila Roy20 Comments