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.