Saturday, 26 September 2015

Should you review a book if you don't like it?

I've been struggling with a book over the past few days. I might pick it up at bedtime and read it for five minutes or so, until I get to the end of another section, then put it down and turn off the light, happy to get some rest. At other times, for example during morning hours when I often read books in my living area, I won't even think about approaching it on my Kindle. At these times I'm happy following conversations on social media or writing blogposts about politics or the new public sphere. And the book languishes, even though I paid the dollar price for it and it is sitting there, waiting patiently - like some digital hound wanting to go for a walk - to be picked up.

With the book before this it was similar. I would read a bit before going to sleep but that's it. This is not the way you show appreciation for something that really engages you. If you like a book inordinately you will rush to open it as soon as you get a chance, and you will stay up reading it into the small hours of the morning in an effort to finish it. That's how I finished Bernard Keane's Surveillance, which I reviewed at the beginning of this month. Not all books get a good review, however.The issue at hand here is whether to do a hatchet job on something you don't really like, pointing out what you see as its flaws. In some cases, for example with Atule Gawande's Being Mortal, which I reviewed back in early August, the review will be negative.

In Gawande's case I went to the trouble of doing a review even though I didn't really like his book because he's a successful writer who probably doesn't need the accolades of an obscure Australian reviewer like me. Gawande has been a feature writer for the New Yorker for as long as I've been aware of him. He's also a practicing surgeon. So I guess that he won't really care what I think as he has plenty of other people to support his authorial practice in a way he has become accustomed to. For the two books I recently tried unsuccessfully to finish however the case is not quite the same.

The first of these books is a memoir by a famous entertainment figure in Australia. To start with I found the book betrayed a very ordinary imagination. There was no sign in it of a special intelligence that might shine out to illuminate my experience. Not only that but the writing itself has problems. In a memoir you often talk about family and it is easy to lose the reader as you are describing these blood ties in all the intricate detail that your memory demands. The problem in this book is that the reader just cannot keep up. After a while you don't know who "he" or "she" are. I put this failing down to more than just poor execution alone however, but also slate it home to inadequate editing. This is the sort of problem that the publishing company should be able to help the writer to correct.

The second of these books is a social study with a basic thesis that the author chooses to express in two words, which are both capitalised. The major problem with the book is that the underlying idea ostensibly encapsulated in those two words just is not clear. What is she talking about? What is the main gist of the book? What is its thesis? It's all very confusing, although you do get the idea that the author herself is able to string the ideas together into a solid formula. The writing is sometimes analytical and sometimes she uses the forms that we are all familiar with from reading journalism, especially the interviews. The underlying concept that is supposed to tie the book together was not properly articulated for me however so I put the book down and didn't pick it up again.

My problem is that in both of these cases I consider my opinion to have the potential to cause discomfort, so I don't feel right about writing the review to include the title of the book and the name of the author. I do not want to be the cause of pain to anyone and so I keep my own counsel. I do fear however that by behaving in this way I help to impoverish the Australian literary world, as I think that my opinions on books are valid and useful. A bit of temporary discomfort might result later in new ideas and different ways of approaching the task of writing, for the primary subjects, the authors involved. But I don't have the courage or the heart, and I fear that this is a failing of my own.


residentjudge said...

How odd that you should write this blogpost because I was thinking of writing one very similar to it on my own blog. I've just finished a book that I really didn't like and have left my response in 'Draft' mode, wondering whether I will post it. There have been books that I read, disliked and consciously did not write a review because I felt that they were new, often young, writers who did not need me to kick them. They were women writers too, and I do post my reviews at the Australian Women Writers Challenge which is set up to encourage women's writing.

But then I look at the (generally positive) reviews and reflect that I seem uncritical because I praise everything. Would I listen to someone who liked everything? No, probably not.

I don't request or receive review copies, even though I often would like them so that I stay up-to-date with my reading, rather than dipping back into the past as I often do. But then I'd feel even more conflicted about posting a negative or lukewarm review.

Matthew da Silva said...

After I posted this link on Twitter one Australian who does reviews for a mainstream newspaper who I have known for a long time on social media told me: "I prefer writing positive reviews, and think that one can engage constructively even with a book one dislikes, but: yes." So, yes he sometimes writes bad reviews. He even took the trouble of posting one such bad review that was published. I mentioned that I have a problem with the practice in a practical sense because if it's a book I don't like I really can't even be bothered finishing reading to the end of it. His response to this was possibly tongue-in-cheek: "I have a terrible tendency to finish what I've started."

I think that as my Twitter correspondent said it can be possible to do a constructive and interesting review that is negative overall, and without causing offense. The author of the book you're reviewing might not like your bad review but he or she might learn something useful from it - which was a point I tried to make in the blogpost. In general I think it's possible to do it sensibly.