How Mean Is Too Mean When We Talk About Books?

I am reading a book. A good book! (A Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett). But it’s a big book, and I have a big pile of papers to finish grading, so I’m not even far enough in yet to formulate preliminary thoughts on how Dunnett makes me care about, root for, admire, possibly fall in love with her so far apparently amoral protagonist, Francis Crawford of Lymond, who has done some rather nasty things. (It’s the charisma. But how does she convey that?) So here are my half-baked thoughts on the blurry lines between criticism of a book, criticism of an author, and reader-shaming.

One of my Goodreads friends (who shall remain unlinked, because she saw these comments as semi-private) added a “rant” to her review of A Certain Book complaining about the shaming of readers who enjoyed the book, both by other readers and by writers. ETA: Janet asked me to link her comments. Then I had a long and interesting Twitter discussion about the same issues.

In theory, I totally agree that a review is a review of the book, and should not comment on the author, nor condemn readers whose taste may differ from the reviewer’s own.

In practice, I find this more difficult. It’s something I’m working on. I’m the kind of person who says things like “Oh my God, that’s tacky/hideous/awful! How could anyone like that?” The thing is, I would never say to someone’s face “Your shirt is tacky” or “You’re an idiot for liking that movie.” When I was newly married, my inlaws offered us a lamp from their basement. I thought it was hideous. I whispered–I swear, it was a whisper–to my new husband, “I’d rather sit in the dark.” And he turned around and repeated it to his mother. I felt awful, because I’d never meant for her to hear it and was afraid of hurting her feelings (luckily, she seems to have found it funny, though I’ve never quite lived it down).

A review on the internet is a bit like that moment. If I hated a book, I may be thinking of its fans as an anonymous mass of tasteless idiots. I may think of my review as a whispered conversation with like-minded friends. But once I’ve posted my review, it isn’t private. I may find that some online friends are among the “idiots,” and that I’ve insulted them. Even if not, that anonymous mass is made up of actual people with feelings who may see my words (as may the author). I don’t like hurting people’s feelings.

At the same time, I enjoy having strong opinions, and reading the strong opinions of others. I don’t want reviewers to pull too many punches. And the lines between criticizing a book and criticizing the author or other readers can be hard to discern. If I complain about bad writing or editing, am I saying that readers who like it are stupid? If I criticize the depiction of a racist character (or a non-white character) in a book, am I implying that the writer and readers who were not troubled by this character are racist? If I call a book juvenile, am I saying its fans are?

The conversations I’ve had over the last few days will make me choose my critical words more carefully. And yet, I don’t want reviews to be totally inoffensive. There are times when it’s okay to criticize a writer. I think, for instance, that a writer who expects people to pay for a book full of errors (yeah, That Book, but plenty of others) is unprofessional. That doesn’t mean I condemn readers who enjoy those books; I recognize that they can have really good qualities. I don’t think readers would enjoy them less if they were edited, though. So I’d criticize authors and publishers on professional grounds, if I think they have clearly not given readers the best they are capable of. Like proofreading.

So I was sorry to see Jennifer Weiner’s blog post today. Weiner read That Book, tweeted some snarky things about it, and found that people objected. I have no problem with Weiner deciding she should moderate her tone. (I just said I would try to do that). Here’s what I object to:

Does standing up for women’s equality, for our right to be treated fairly in the book-review sections of big newspapers and magazines means that I can never say an uncomplimentary word about a woman’s book ever again?

I thought about it all day long…and I think that the answer is yes.

To me, the answer is hell no. Standing up for women’s equality means assuming that women’s books, just like men’s, are fair game for criticism as well as praise. Sure, criticize the book, not the author personally, and don’t snark at fans. But I don’t think saying bad things about a book is the same as throwing the author under the bus. Even Jennifer Weiner should, in my view, feel free to criticize. Her crusade is that women’s books are as good as men’s and deserve the same serious, critical attention, not that they are speshul snowflakes too delicate to face criticism. Isn’t it?

So: I’ll say what I think, trying to choose words that don’t insult readers, and don’t criticize the writer on anything other than professional grounds (those are fair game). People will disagree with me. And maybe, sometimes, they’ll be offended. If they do, and are, I hope they say so. Those debates are important. I know I learn from them.

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27 Responses to How Mean Is Too Mean When We Talk About Books?

  1. Meoskop says:

    I think these conversations have a huge dose of Nice Girl in them. Listen to men talk to each other about their tastes. The convoluted rules we set up to support each other are based on Nice Girl not reality. If the other reader isn’t bothered by a racist portrayal, they might actually be racist. Not saying so because of social convention is it’s own social convention.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Yes. I think there’s a difference between differences of taste in matters of style (writing, plot devices, etc) and portrayals of things like race. Those need to be debated, even if some people are offended. It’s not like some readers weren’t hurt and offended by a character spouting every racist slur known to man, even if he was the villain. Those lines are hard to draw sometimes too, though. One person’s awful sexism is another’s favorite forced seduction fantasy. That can be hard to talk about.

      • meoskop says:

        I go back to saying listen to men talk. (Don’t cue “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like A Man” because I hate that song.) We have trouble discussing that sort of thing because of the Nice Girl convention. A guy can say “Your team completely sucks and so do you” without the other person taking it as a serious judgement on them. If we stop taking “I think forced seduction is rape. You can dig it but it’s abusive.” as a statement about the very soul of the forced seduction defender we will have come a lot farther than a million hand holding conversations about “I hear you saying forced seduction is a classic fantasy. I respect that. From my perspective it can seem sexist.”

        In other words, I am all about making snap judgements. I am ok with that. We need to take responsibility as readers for our own tastes. Instead of worrying about hurting someone’s feelings by saying “Outlander is one of the worst series every printed. I swear I’d rather canvass with the GOP than read another page of that homophobia.” we should focus on our own reactions to those words. “Forget you, I like Outlander and here’s why.” Instead of trying to control how we are heard by others, I think we should focus on how we react to disagreement. Obviously we shouldn’t devolve into “There’s no reason to watch Birth of a Nation but rampant racism.” I just think this conversation is too often focused in the wrong direction. “Watch Your Mouth” makes me sad. “Stand up for your tastes” makes me happy.

  2. lazaraspaste says:

    I tried to articulate this on Twitter but the constraints of that medium do not, I think, allow very well for nuance. I’m glad you posted this blog because I wanted to expand on that discussion but I’m crap at blogging these days myself.

    When I wrote my review of That Book, I think a lot of people over-looked one of my major complaints about it. Yes. I started by pointing out the bad writing and the cliches but that wasn’t what made me give it an F. The bad writing merely exposed what I thought was its most heinous issue. I gave it an F because I thought it was ideologically repugnant. Good writing, on the other hand, can take something ideologically troubling and use the narrative to grapple with it. So when people tell me they like That Book, what I want is a response to that issue. Did you not notice those problems? Do you not agree with me that they were there? That that was the viewpoint of the book? If so, why not? What made you think otherwise? I have yet to hear anyone articulate a response to its problematic ideology. When I defend romance as a genre against accusations against its ideology (anti-feminist, rape-tastic, etc) I attempt to address those concerns. I don’t say, “Well, I liked it. So there.” At that point, it isn’t an issue of taste.

    I guess my point is that when taste and ideology collide, as I think they often do, getting your knickers in a twist about a reviewer’s implication that anyone who likes this books is an idiot doesn’t really address why they would think that. I mean, if you like a book full of racial slurs maybe you are an idiot. You are definitely an idiot if you don’t understand how that could be offensive to someone. Or that calling a book out on those issues is not, by extension, calling the readers racist. And, yeah, if you haven’t read a book in 5 YEARS (as somebody said in one of the numerous media pieces on That Book) or only read books that Oprah recommends or whatever then I, who am I unregenerated snob, think your taste is probably suspect. Or that you are idiot. But you know, idiot is the wrong word–willfully ignorant is probably the right one. I may be totally wrong but that is the impression I’m getting. And as someone who believes in education and the importance of the humanities, I guess that’s the thing that offends me.

    There’s for sure a Nice Girl/Mean Girl thing going on. I believe, rather contradictorily, that I don’t have to respect your position or your viewpoint or even your taste and I can still like you as a person. I realize this is positively naive. I’d also like to add that I do think that there is a place for criticism of the author/reader rather than the text. In those cases when a text more than collides with ideology but firmly expresses it, I think it is perfectly acceptable to call out . . . even in a very mean way . . . that belief system. I acknowledge that calling somebody an idiot is not the most productive means towards discourse. However, I do undertstand that name calling comes out of both frustration and offense. If my gut reaction to a piece of art wasn’t so strong, I probably wouldn’t be so insulting towards its creator or those who like it.

    I’m going to shut up now.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Damn, my WordPress app ate my response. Which was basically that I am a lot like you on this one.

      I was obviously thinking partly of Jane’s review of Fever at Dear Author when I wrote this, but didn’t link it because I didn’t want to focus on any particular book. I thought that was a good example of criticism. She did not call author or other readers racist, she said readers who had not been subjected to some of those slurs, as she has been, might feel differently. But she did say the author and editor, who trade in words, should have considered those more carefully. Based on the quotes in her review, I agree. I think that kind of criticism is totally OK–it is criticism of professional judgement. If readers are offended or feel attacked, they can defend their point of view. Or be offended. I think if a book seems that problematic to you, you should say so. People need to know it hurts and offends readers.

      Now am flashing back to Children’s Lit discussions of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie and other beloved classics. It takes guts to gore a sacred cow, but these discussions are important.

    • In those cases when a text more than collides with ideology but firmly expresses it, I think it is perfectly acceptable to call out . . . even in a very mean way . . . that belief system.

      Yes, I agree. I’d not want to assume, though, that all readers who enjoy that book necessarily accept its ideological position; as you say, “calling a book out on those issues is not, by extension, calling the readers racist.” Thinking of recent-ish reactions to Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, It’s possible that some readers may not even notice the anti-semitism because they have privilege which makes it easier for them to overlook the problematic aspects of the text, or they may be members of the group against whom the racism is directed but be able to compartmentalise their response to the racism in the text (because it’s only expressed in one scene), etc.

      • lazaraspaste says:

        That’s why I think it is more frustrating when people refuse to acknowledge that the ideology could be problematic or upsetting to other readers is more irksome to me than intially overlooking it in a text. That’s totally forgivable. Every reader does that to some extent. But once the issue has been raised, I don’t think “Well, I liked it” is an adequate response to concerns about those problems because it doesn’t engage with the actual problem other readers had with the text (that it was anti-semitic, racist, anti-feminist, historically inaccurate, etc.)

      • once the issue has been raised, I don’t think “Well, I liked it” is an adequate response to concerns about those problems because it doesn’t engage with the actual problem other readers had with the text (that it was anti-semitic, racist, anti-feminist, historically inaccurate, etc.)

        Obviously it isn’t adequate from an intellectual perspective because it doesn’t address the issues raised.

        I wonder, though, if it’s the kind of response you’re likely to get from a fairly large number of people who’re reading books for pleasure and don’t want to have to analyse them. That’s not necessarily because those people are stupid and/or anti-intellectual and/or never examine their own prejudices/privileges.

        I’m extrapolating from Jessica at RRR’s comment that

        The heightened political tensions are seeping into the book blogosphere, which is appropriate and great, but not where my head is at right now. I’ve enjoyed lurking a bit in the discussions, but am not feeling the energy to participate. […] I’m just in a mode where I want my fiction reading and blogging to just be a hobby, be an escape, and be fun.

        Could it be that someone might have the energy to engage very briefly, but then not really have the energy or desire to engage further? Could that explain some (but certainly not all) of the “Well, I liked it” type comments? As I said, though, I wouldn’t claim to understand the motivations of other readers; this is just a tentative hypothesis which makes me feel more charitable towards the authors of that kind of comment.

      • willaful says:

        “they may be members of the group against whom the racism is directed but be able to compartmentalise their response to the racism in the text (because it’s only expressed in one scene), etc.”

        That would be me. I notice it, it makes me uncomfortable, but it doesn’t kill the book for me. My mother, on the other hand, can no longer read many authors she enjoyed when she was younger because the anti-semitism in their books is too painful for her. So maybe that’s in my future.

  3. meoskop says:

    “I believe, rather contradictorily, that I don’t have to respect your position or your viewpoint or even your taste and I can still like you as a person.”

    One of my closest friends is a Beckian Dittohead Palinite. We are a living example of that sentence.

  4. We have trouble discussing that sort of thing because of the Nice Girl convention. A guy can say “Your team completely sucks and so do you” without the other person taking it as a serious judgement on them. […] In other words, I am all about making snap judgements. I am ok with that.

    Personally, I approach discussions about books with an academic mindset and although plenty of academics make snap judgements, I tend to feel that an academic argument about a book should be logical and based on textual evidence. I tend to be hesitant about advancing an argument about readers because (a) readers are a large and varied group and (b) I have only got limited amounts of information about the opinions, feelings etc. of readers who aren’t me.

  5. Pingback: What I’m Up To, Politics Fatigue, and Links | Read React Review

  6. Rohan says:

    “every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will, on principle, abstain from any exceptional indulgence towards the production of literary women” (George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”).

  7. VacuousMinx says:

    I agree with LauraV’s point that people don’t always realize or care about the full context of what they’re reading. If you don’t register all the offensive words in Fever, for example, you’re not going to get the full cumulative effect of the onslaught. Those people are free to read and enjoy it, but being nauseated by the language enough to DNF doesn’t make me a pearl-clutcher.

    I’d also like to add a third category to the Nice Girl/Mean Girl dichotomy: Hypocrisy Girl. In addition to Laura’s point, which is that I don’t know enough about most of the readers to feel I can judge them, I have been slammed enough for my various tastes (music, TV, books, films) that I feel uncomfortable doing the same things to others (yes I do it, I’m human, but I think it’s appropriate to call me out on it).

    As for people who haven’t read a book in five years, maybe they’re irredeemable boors. Or maybe they have other cultural interests. Or maybe they have non-boorish reasons for avoiding books. My father was a Ph.D. who instilled his love of music and art in me. To the end of his life, he went to the opera, theater, and museums by himself if he couldn’t find someone to accompany him. But he had a difficult time reading books. He made himself do it because he thought he should, and he got some enjoyment out of them. But it was a struggle. He read lots of magazines, watched highbrow films, etc. but there was something about the printed page in book length that gave him trouble.

    • lazaraspaste says:

      I suppose I am a hypocrite but aren’t we all? I mean, I don’t think you can not be in a matters of taste and ideology because certain things anger us/repulse us whereas similar things do not. I am not particularly inclined to read the reactions of readers who liked That Book with generosity because I found it so awful. Whereas, even though I didn’t like Twilight, I defend it and its readers all the time. Considering the provenance of this book, that definitely makes me a hypocrite.

      However, I think that the reason I judge one so harshly and not the other is because I see one as being simply a matter of taste (bad taste? yes, perhaps) whereas I see the other as being morally and ethically fraught in a way that I find personally troubling (its origins, its position on love and BDSM, the tone of the book, etc.). That may be my issue, but because I see That Book in ideological terms, it is hard for me not to make mean and sneering judgments about the people squeeing over it. ESPECIALLY when they are not regular romance readers or conversant with the genre and its tropes. I don’t really know why I find that so upsetting but I do. Maybe it is because the way fans are being characterized irritates both the snob in me (they don’t read outside of NYT Bestseller List or Book Club recs) and the populist in me(yet they sneer at romance and romance readers) simultaneously. That may be an untrue characterization but it manages to irritate me nonetheless.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        Yep, we’re all hypocrites sometimes. If we admit it and try to minimize the amount of harm we do with it, I think that’s about all we can reasonably do.

        I think that basically you can rail against people who violate or trash your deeply held principles or you can try and understand where they’re coming from. The latter doesn’t mean you let them off the hook, necessarily. Both positions have solid justifications, in my opinion.

    • willaful says:

      The most creative person I know rarely reads. I don’t think he has any difficulty with it, it’s just not what feeds his particular imagination.

  8. I didn’t pay any attention to Weiner’s snark of 50 Shades, but I retweeted her post on being nice. Not that I agreed, really. I just like her, like her books, liked her post. I can’t explain these things. I do think high-profile authors with a lot of influence have to watch what they say online, but…maybe that’s a cop-out thought. Something I use to justify why it’s okay for me, with my low profile, to review and criticize all I want.

    If her post had been in support of snark and mean girls, I’d probably have liked that, also.

    The issue of taste reminds me of my sister in law’s love for Twilight. She’s not a reader and we have different views on movies, tv shows etc. We disagree about the King Kong remake (starring Jack Black), which I loathe with a passion. I don’t understand how anyone could find it watchable. Would I call those who enjoyed it idiots? No, I wouldn’t go that far. But I do suspect King Kong lovers, and Twilight lovers, of having bad taste.

    Sounds snobby, doesn’t it? But there it is.

    I’m going to disagree with Lazaraspaste, however. Maybe 50 fans have not articulated the book’s better qualities or countered the criticism with reasoned arguments. I haven’t been keeping tabs on these discussions, so I don’t know. But “I liked it so there” is a valuable opinion. Saying those voices don’t matter is problematic, akin to suggesting there is a right and wrong way to read, react, or review.

    I realize these two points together might seem contradictory. It’s easy for me to value both sides of the 50 argument because I haven’t read the book. Those King Kong fans are all wet though. 🙂

  9. lizmc2 says:

    I got hit by a tidal wave at work this morning so would love to respond to everyone but it might be a while….

  10. Jami Gold says:

    Interesting post! I posted yesterday about my main beef with That Book–the ethical issues of exploiting someone else’s fanbase to publish (for exorbitant prices!) a fanfic story without changing the characters from those meant to evoke those belonging to the original author.

    To my mind, fanfic should be honoring not exploiting, but maybe I’m naive. 🙂 I’m okay with that. I’d rather be naive and feel good about where I draw my personal ethical lines than be corrupted.

    Anyway, in my post, I tried keeping the issue focused on the ethical questions around that fanfic author’s choices–not a personal attack. In fact, I’d call out any other fanfic author who did the same because I think it’s wrong. But some (the fanfic author’s supporters) still tried claiming that I was just envious of her success.

    (Just a note, I didn’t link, post, tweet, hashtag, or in any way reach out to that fanbase. I wrote the post for *my* readers. So I totally get that feeling of being public about opinions without meaning to. 🙂 )

    I’ll be honest. I had a really hard time keeping the snark level down in responding to them. I couldn’t conceive of how they could come to that conclusion when I’m talking about the ethical wrongdoing of someone stealing someone else’s work.

    As lazarapaste said above, I think “willfully ignorant” applies in some of these cases. The comments actually turned into a really interesting discussion about how most of the fanfic author’s vocal supporters seem to be primarily fanfic readers–not writers. So they have no concept about how to create a unique character. To them, changing some superficial details about job or number of siblings makes a character unique. While to writers, we know characters are more about who they are on the inside that matters and changing every superficial thing doesn’t change the *character*.

    So I’m grateful to those supporters because I understand now why they can support someone who I think is ethically suspect. I still think they’re willfully ignorant and deluded. 🙂 But I can understand their perspective better.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I read your post and most comments this morning. Really interesting discussion, mostly polite (certainly from you). I know pretty much nothing about fan fiction so have found these discussions illuminating.

  11. willaful says:

    “Every reader does that to some extent. But once the issue has been raised, I don’t think “Well, I liked it” is an adequate response to concerns about those problems because it doesn’t engage with the actual problem other readers had with the text (that it was anti-semitic, racist, anti-feminist, historically inaccurate, etc.)”

    Well, in the case of say, The Grand Sophy, to use a book I’ve actually read, it’s hard to know what else to say. Yes, the book clearly has an anti-semitic element. Yes, it’s very uncomfortable to read. I think it’s completely appropriate to discuss that fact, and be bothered by it, and perhaps not want to read or buy the book because of it. But I still like it and I don’t really want to have my mind changed on that point. I’m not sure what more is required from me.

    • Janet W says:

      That. What you said. Beyond the recognition and the understanding and the discussion, what else is left? I may think it’s unfortunate that The Grand Sophy be anyone’s sole encounter with Georgette Heyer but that’s out of my control.

      • I read several Heyers before The Grand Sophy and at least one after, but there’s no denying that it’s much, much harder for me to read Heyer now because of that book.

        I can see why not everyone would find TGS as upsetting as I do, because if you haven’t, for example, leafed through Nazi propaganda from the 1930s, you wouldn’t know how closely Goldhanger matches the portrayal of Jews in those books. And if you haven’t lost family members to the Holocaust, the fact that such a book could have been published in 1950 might not shock and upset you to an equal degree. We all bring our experiences to reading.

        Even so, I still thought that outside the Anti-Semitism TGS was a good book, and I would probably grade it a B or so if I were reviewing it, because I loved the romance in it. So I can totally understand why others would enjoy it.

        What bothers me a lot though, is when people tell the me there is not Anti-Semitism in the book and that I am overreacting. I have gotten that from A LOT of readers, some of them good friends. I would never dream of telling anyone they were overreacting to a book they felt was racist so I don’t understand where that kind of confidence and glibness comes from.

  12. Linda Hilton says:

    Oh, dear. I’m not even sure how I got here, but this conversation has been fascinating. I haven’t read That Book — didn’t even know what it and its brouhaha were about until I read the DA analysis last night when I should have been working. I don’t tweet and sometimes don’t even know what all the jargon means. Nor am I an academic. All that said, if I may inject a thought in response: Personally, I think it’s almost impossible these days NOT to invoke the author’s ideology because often she/he does it openly, not necessarily or only in the text but in the promotional and support texts that surround the work. This appears certainly to me to be the case with That Book, perhaps in an extreme.

    But I seem to have seen the same kind of overall fangirl/rabid defender attitude displayed over much lesser-heralded books. If an author posts her own reviews of her own book at GR and the 5-star reviews of the book on Amazon appear to be attributed to her friends and relatives, if those friends and relatives then assault negative reviews and reviewers of the book, and if the author blogs about how her personal belief system informed the writing of that book and how she’s going to have other friends post great reviews to counter any negative ones, doesn’t that make the author fair game? How then does any criticism of the text not become criticism of the author and also criticism of the reader? And why is it that the other side — meaning, those who write, support, and defend what “we” criticize — is never criticized for their attitude, yet we criticize ourselves and wonder if we’re wrong for not being nicer?

    At what point do we take a deep breath, look ’em square in the eye, and without reservations say, “Look, honey, the emperor was naked and your book stinks.”

  13. Merrian says:

    This whole discussion has been microcosm-ed in the cover post on SBTB that last time I looked had 115 comments as well. Looking at that post though, I have been sitting with the thought that the cover snarking is public shaming. We want covers to improve in quality because they are part of the book package and we want to have good experiences with our books and not ourselves be ashamed to show them and this form of collective action seems to be the only means to gain some traction on the issue. Yet it was very clear from the white knighting going on that there was a strong feeling of defending against attack bythe snarkers. I felt that this illustrated that authors/producers do see/act as if the books is an extension of themselves. I also agree with Linda that authors can’t stand apart from their texts because they choose the words on the page. For me the discussion on DA about Joan Wolff’s ‘Fever’ highlights this. It is a book written from within a privileged place that assumes things about romance readers most egregiously that they are all people like the author.

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