TSS – In which I get much too philosophical about book reviews

I just finished (and loved) A Reliable  Wife this morning and I’ve been sitting down and thinking about why I chose to read it.  A few months ago, this book was all over the blogs and most people were giving it rave reviews.  Everyone loved it (including me!) and talked about how engrossing it is (it is!) and how intense it is (it is!).  But when I was thinking about what eventually caused me to remember this book, when usually I forget books unless I write them down on my list, was not necessarily all of its rave reviews, but instead the impassioned negative reviews that eventually pushed me towards this excellent novel.

Sometimes, when there is nothing but praise about a book, it doesn’t necessarily make me want to read it.  No matter how  many people tell me The Help is awesome, I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it.  I really have zero idea why this is.  I’ve purchased the book, but every time I start it, I get bored and put it down.  The same thing happened with A Reliable Wife, five star after five star review did not get me interested, but those three or four negative reviews did.

I have two theories about this.  The first one is that, in my mind, a book that only gets good reviews is boring — there’s nothing in it to stir people to up, to make them question its greatness, no risks were taken.  I’m not saying that this is necessarily true, especially not of The Help (since obviously I can’t make a judgement about a book I haven’t read yet), but I would say that is generally a direction that my thoughts go in.  If there is no one that can question any single part of the book that has been written, then the author just didn’t do enough to make it worth reading.  Let me reiterate!  That’s not necessarily true with every book, but it’s something to consider.  Eventually, if a book has been universally loved, I get to it and I either love it or I don’t.

And that brings me to my second theory.  If I do begin that book that everyone loves, what happens if I am the sole curmudgeon on the planet who didn’t like it?  What if I am the one that has to do all the questioning and in the process step on many toes to get there?  What if it is just some flaw in me as a reader that I don’t love a book that has been so universally praised?  I begin to question not what is wrong with the book, but instead what is wrong with me. Now, I realize that that kind of makes me a coward, unafraid to step forward and have a different opinion than the masses, but I’m trying to be perfectly honest here.   If there are other people who have disliked a book, then I am in the free and the clear to dislike it as well.

The whole purpose of a book review is to influence people.  It’s to say, “Hello, I loved this book, I hope you will too!”  Or, “Please don’t waste your time on this one like I did.”  Hopefully, to be successful, both reviews are filled with the whys and the why nots.  But it is a nerve-wracking process, this influencing people.  What if I recommend a book that you end up hating?  What if I tell you not to read a book that would have been your favorite book of all time?  I worry about this!  Regularly!

But I keep reviewing books and obviously I’m not losing too much sleep over it since I slept a total of 10 hours last night.  In the end, I don’t think a negative review is a bad thing.  I think a mediocre review is much worse.  Strong emotion and passion, a prevalent theme in A Reliable Wife, whether that passion is positive or negative are much more powerful.  Sometimes, the truth of the matter is, that a negative review might just get me to read a book more than a positive review will.

Often, as reviewers, I think we feel bad about writing overly impassioned reviews.  Too much passion means that we can’t look objectively at something.  There are books that I am passionately in love with and books that passionately despise.  I love Time Traveler’s Wife, and even if it is flawed, that love is unconditional.  I despise Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying with such an intense hatred that trying to convince me of its merits will do little to change my opinion of it.  I’d be lying if I said that I wished every book created such passion in me, because I think it would get exhausting.   But we shouldn’t be afraid of that passion; a passionate book review, filled with love or hatred, should be our favorite kinds of book reviews, because it means there’s something in the book worth reading.

Maybe none of this  is exactly revolutionary, but my basic point is that it’s not always going to be the positive after the positive that gets a book talked about, that gets a book read.  It’s not always going to be the talking points that matter.  Sometimes it is our gut reaction to a book, those things that make us question the very purpose of a book, that lead to greatness.  I really disliked the novel Disgrace by JM Coetzee, and by disliked I mean hated, but at the same time, I do not deny that is powerful, haunting and disturbing.  Two years later, I have difficulty putting into words why I reacted so strongly against this book.  But, I think I’ve realized sometimes you don’t have to like a book to admit that it is great, you don’t have to enjoy a book to think that it is important or worthwhile.   I don’t think I would tell someone not to read Disgrace, but I would certainly try to prepare them for the intense emotion it gives its readers.

And then that just opens a whole other can of worms about the purpose of reading, but I think I’m going to leave that for another Sunday.

28 thoughts on “TSS – In which I get much too philosophical about book reviews

  1. Great post! A book that gets a reaction is one worth reading. (but a negative review along the lines of poor writing and it’s boring will scare me away from a book pretty fast I must confess. Jackie’s review of Wolf Hall has sort of been the only that has mattered to me)

    The truth is I don’t feel passionately about most of what I read, but I agree we should be open to allowing books to affect us make us question, etc. I read one less than glowing review of The Help but it had more to do with the fact that is wasn’t very nuanced than anything else.

    1. Amy: That’s what I’m afraid of with the Help, I think. That it will be good, but overall not great. I’m the same exact way with Jackie’s review of Wolf Hall! A review that claims a book is boring is definitely not a good one and one that will eventually lead me to avoid reading the book.

  2. I agree with you to some extent. I think a book that has the power to annoy someone must be good to some extent. Boredom is one of the worst words I can see in a book review. If a book bores someone then it isn’t a book I will be compelled to read, but if someone writes a passionate review about how much the book annoyed them then it has clearly had an impact on them.

    I am currently reading Solar by Ian McEwan and it is really annoying me. I keep wanting to throw it across the room and I’m sure that I will end up writing a negative review for it, but the fact it has caused me to react this way shows he is a great author. Most people will probably love it, it may well win the Booker prize this year, so it clearly isn’t a bad book – it is just personal taste that makes me hate it. It is these books that divide opinion that really intrigue me. I admit that I have sometimes bought a book after reading a passionate negative review – any book that creates emotion in the reader is worth a try in my opinion!

    1. Jackie: I agree completely about boredom in a book review. It absolutely is the worst word you can see. I’m really looking forward to getting my review of Solar in the mail so I can tuck into it. I have to say though, Ian McEwan does have the power to drive me insane, but in a good way, if that makes any kind of sense at all.

  3. Oh, I understand totally where you’re coming from . I often dig in my heels stubbornly when it comes to universally praised books (The Help being one of them). There are a few people who could convince me to read those books, but most of those people also avoid the wildly praised books as well–or like me, they often wait until the hype dies down.

    I think one reason an negative or mixed review might carry more weight with me is that I know not every book suits every reader, and it helps me to see what bugs people about particular books. If those things don’t bug me, then maybe I’ll consider reading it. Knowing what flaws I might encounter also helps me adjust my expectations, so I’m not disappointed when I encounter those flaws.

    1. Teresa: It’s a fine line! I don’t want to be that person that doesn’t read a book just because it is popular. I like popular things! All the time! Mostly I just am suspicious of something that has *only* received positive reviews. Sure, it is very possible that the book deserves all of them.

      You made a good point that the things that bug some people might not bug me and that’s very true of A Reliable Wife. A lot of people felt that the sex in A Reliable Wife was overwhelming and unnecessary, but I actually found it to be quite central to the plot.

  4. I am pretty much the embodiment of what you are talking about here. I tend to read books I’ve found via negative reviews rather than positive. Maybe I am just a controversial person who loves some nice drama. 😀

    If you are the sole voice of dissent about a book — so what? I mean, I get the fear of stepping on toes but I also think it’s sort of bunk in a way, that we set ourselves up to self-censor on the off chance we might hurt feelings. I think worrying about speaking in inclusive ways is important, but also that it’s hard to learn the right way to speak critically about a book without harming others without getting it wrong a few zillion times — people want to skip the getting it wrong part but boy, unless you are already a really empathetic person and a good writer, it just doesn’t happen. I have gotten it wrong more than that, because I am an evil overlord and sometimes I do it on purpose, ha ha.

    1. Renay: I don’t think it’s the fear of stepping on toes (at least I hope I’m braver than that), but rather the my lack of confidence in myself as a reader. That there is something wrong with *me* , rather than the book or the author, either because I didn’t “get it” or because I saw flaws that weren’t actually there or that I am overreacting. Thanks for the comment! I was hoping you would weigh in, you are kind of my idol.

  5. What you said about passion and objectivity: I think a lot of people worry about that, but surprisingly (since I worry about everything :P) I never have. For better or worse, I’m a pretty enthusiastic person, and I don’t think I could ever bring myself to talk about books objectively. And then I wonder…can you even do it at all? You can, like you were saying about Disgrace and Jackie about Solar, acknowledge that the fact that you hate a book doesn’t mean it’s terrible. But in the end, we all see things through our own very personal lenses. So I just embrace my subjectivity and don’t even try to avoid sounding passionate and biased.

    …anyway, this whole comment was bit of a tangent 😛 To actually address your main point, yes, often it’s a negative review that will make me decide to read a book.

    1. Nymeth: I am a huge fan of subjectivity in book reviews (to a point of course), otherwise it feels mechanical and forced!! I’m do at least like to be totally up front about it. You know the whole, “I love this book unconditionally, please keep than in mind as I tell you how it’s the best book on the planet. Ever!” thing. 😉

  6. Excellent post – I related totally. Hearing tons of praise for a book usually turns me off as well. I just don’ t like to see myself as part of a herd, especially since highly-praised books tend to be all over the place on the book blogosphere.

    And don’t be afraid of being the sole curmudgeon who hated the book! To this day, I have read no further than the first fifty pages of the first Harry Potter book and I freely admit it. I’m a REBEL!

  7. From the comments that get left on my blog I always feel like I am a lot better at telling people what books not to read rather than what books to read. When I really, really love a book I have a difficult time articulating what made me love it. But when I hate a book I’m pretty good at saying why it sucked. This makes me feel bad sometimes, because my blog isn’t supposed to be discouraging others from reading but encouraging them to read. I don’t know if I’m more likely to read a book that gets some so-so reviews, but I know I’m definitely more likely to comment on a negative review. So I don’t really know what I’m saying here… but I’m sure there is some sort of point to it.

  8. I am also leery of raves in the blogosphere, mainly because I figure I’ll be the only person to hate it, and then everyone will think all the things you expressed in your Second Theory. Good to hear other people think the same thing!

  9. I really enjoyed reading your perspective, especially because so much of it resonates with me. Sometimes when a book is flying around the blogosphere and is particularly popular, I view it as being too trendy for me to get into at the moment. It is rare for me to read books when they are recently published. By the time I get around to most books, the blog buzz has died down which helps me to not have too many expectations one way or another about the book.

    Anyway, here is my Sunday Salon if you are interested:
    http://beastmomma.squarespace.com/from-shelf-to-hand/2010/3/20/the-sunday-salon-54-cut-for-stone-and-their-eyes-were-watchi.html

  10. I felt very depressed after reading Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ and I wouldn’t read it again. I won’t put it down as one of my favourites but I still think it is a great book. Reading is such a subjective thing, isn’t it? I felt for years that I was the only one who couldn’t understand the greatness of Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye until I started blogging. But for me, I like reading reviews that would catch my interest, one piece of information that would make me want to read the book, whether I’d like it or not.

  11. I second (or third or fourth) the people who’ve said that a negative review of a near-universally beloved book is often the one that makes me read it. Controversy is just more interesting. If I read a review that said The Help was poorly written, thinly plotted, and racist besides, I’d put a hold on it that exact day, because I’d want to see for myself who was right. Most often, though, when a book’s been heralded with praises in the blogosphere, I too have enjoyed it.

  12. I find that reading negative reviews are more interesting.
    “Positive reviews are all alike. Every negative review is negative in its own way.” 🙂
    It doesn’t necessarily make me read the book but I’m definitely more intrigued if the books get mixed reviews. I’m always interested to know in what way the reviewer thinks bad of the book. Or to be more exact, if the book gets great review, I always read more closely where the reviewer points out the flaws of the book.

  13. I am SO glad I read The Help BEFORE too many wonderful reviews poured in – I was worried you were about to encourage some kind of throwdown for this book. 🙂 When I got halfway through The Pillars of the Earth and found myself bored with character extremes, I went trolling through the blogosphere hoping for a few negative reviews. And was glad I was able to find a few that could explain the same problems I was encountering. But I agree, I like to hear a book is both loved and intensely disliked. I’m looking forward to starting The Reliable Wife. GREAT POST.

  14. This is a great post. And I like how your mention of The Help has brought out of the woodwork those of us who haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, mostly because of the hype. Put me down as one of those too.

    I can’t say that negative reviews have made me read a book. I’m more drawn in by reviews where the blogger is championing some less well-known book.

  15. I agree with you (and haven’t read The Help yet). Another example is that I read the novel Things Fall Apart some years ago to see if I wanted to use it in a class. I hated it. Really, really hated it. And then six months passed and I realized that the things I hated were the teachable moments in the novel; that my students would hate them too, and that was part of reading this particular novel.

  16. I feel much the same. I’m a really picky reader, and I know there’s a very real possibility that I’ll be the lone voice of dissent. In fact, that’s been the case on several occasions. I can only think of one universally-loved book that I actively loathed (THE GOOD THIEF by Hannah Tinti. I almost wonder if I got a different version that everyone else, ’cause I hated that book with a fiery passion), but there have been plenty that just didn’t live up to the hype for me. I tend to put these books off for a long, long time, because I don’t really want to be the one who says, “Well, THE ROAD wasn’t all that hot,” or “I just didn’t understand the appeal of WOLF HALL.”

    Of course, there are times when I do love these highly-hyped books. But I’m always worried that I won’t, and that everyone will think less of me because I didn’t, and that holds me back.

  17. I’m glad to find someone else who really disliked Disgrace by JM Coetzee! Jackie reviewed it recently and I seemed to be the only one. I’m not sure I thought it was great or worthwhile, though. I hated it to the point where I wished I hadn’t read it.

    I loved this post (and it made me add you to my Google Reader stat!).

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