Here’s a link to a no-holds-barred negative review of a book I haven’t read, Samantha Young’s On Dublin Street.
At the risk of coming off like a heartless jerk and a shoddy member of the sisterhood of romance writers, I have to say I love this review. I’ll try to unpack why:
1. Let’s consider the basest motivation: spiteful jealousy. It’s possible that some part of me is thinking, “Ha, take that, writer whose book is way more commercially successful than any of mine!” I’m not aware of that being a factor, but it seems hubristic to claim I’m completely above that kind of pettiness, so I’ll put that out there and let it sit.
2. Writing quality: the review is articulate, well-organized, and funny as hell.
Over and over, each time there’s a bad-review kerfuffle, I’ve heard the assertion that negative reviewers are just jealous failed novelists, or, less specifically, people who engage in destruction because they’re incapable of creativity.
Hogwash. A well-argued, entertaining review–positive or negative–is a product of skill, hard work, and creative spark, and it deserves our respect. Even a single snarky zinger takes talent and inspiration to craft. (Seriously. I’m a novelist, and I put a lot of time and work into what I write, and I can guarantee you I will never come up with as substantive a contribution to our culture as Dorothy Parker’s “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.” Or Oscar Wilde’s “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” Or Marion Adams’s observation that Henry James “chewed more than he bit off.” [Burn! Love that one.])
3. Catharsis. This is an example of the bad-review subset that I think of as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” review. I’m sure we’ve all had the discordant experience of reading a book and thinking “This made the best-seller lists / has three hundred five-star reviews / won a RITA / is what Salon.com bloggers deem worthy of praise? Are you kidding me??” When you’re feeling out of step with the majority (or prominent) opinion, there’s a visceral relief in finding a review that emphatically confirms your own perception of reality.
And like many cathartic reviews, this one derives much of its impact from…
4. Passion + outrage. What’s wonderful about the outraged review (see also Jenny Trout’s epic chapter-by-chapter gutting of the Fifty Shades books, for example) is that the outraged reviewer cares. The subtext of the outraged review isn’t “Oh, ha ha ha, let me exercise my wit at the expense of this subpar romance novel.” It’s “Dammit, romance novels need to be better than this. I expect more from romance.” There’s no way that’s not a good thing.
Demanding readers, whether they demand competent sentence mechanics, better representation of under-represented populations, more thorough world-building, or more progressive male-female power dynamics, are crucial to the continuing growth of any genre. The readers who step up and say “Not good enough. I expect more” are the readers who push us–however uncomfortably–to do better.
Being the embattled and frequently dismissed genre that we are, we’ve gotten pretty good at making eloquent cases for the value of romance. But sometimes these arguments go a little far in generalizing and flattening out the genre. “As long as people are reading, that’s all that matters” and “Quality is subjective anyway, so it’s really just a question of personal preference” are arguments I’ve seen more than once in these discussions.
I’m not crazy about those particular arguments because they seem to preclude real critical engagement. I’d rather work from the assumption that our genre is robust enough to withstand vigorous criticism of individual works. And “vigorous criticism” isn’t always going to come out tactful or constructive. Outrage and snark have a place in the big conversation.
So does this mean I’d enjoy reading a snarky takedown of one of my own books? Heck no; I’m not that thick-skinned. What it does mean is that I don’t begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of snark directed my way, and I don’t begrudge any reviewer’s right to write it. As long as you’re not emailing it to me (please don’t email it to me), it’s easy enough for me to stay ignorant of, anyway.
A couple (or four) things more–
1. If Samantha Young did see the review linked above, I think she’d have every right to feel hurt and angered by it. Not “butthurt;” not overly indulgent of her “precious fee-fees;” not any of those other terms we employ these days to de-legitimize someone’s emotional response. Presumably she invested a lot of herself into the writing of the book; it’s only natural that it would sting to see her work emphatically trashed.
It’s not reviewer Rachel (BAVR)’s job to consider Young’s feelings, but that’s not because Young’s feelings aren’t valid–it’s because that’s just the nature of the author/reviewer divide. I don’t think we need to look for evidence that Young (or E.L. James, or whoever) is a petty or malicious or otherwise undeserving person in order to justify the harshness of the review.
As long as she doesn’t air her grievances in a way that (intentionally or not) results in her fans harassing the reviewer, then I don’t think it’s my or any other reader’s place to suggest a poorly-reviewed author “pull up her big-girl panties” or “dry her tears with her royalty statements” (if she’s at the royalty-statement level of success) or anything of that sort.
1a. I think the whole “console yourself with your royalty statements” thing is a fallacy. If you’re the kind of writer who places a lot of stock in reviews, I don’t think there’s any level of commercial success that insulates you from the sting of the bad ones. Thus I don’t buy into the idea (which is maybe more common among authors who review than among readers who review) that it’s somehow ethically better to savage a wildly successful book than one by a little-known debut author.
Besides, if the reviewer’s goal (or at least one of them) is to warn readers away from bad books, then it shouldn’t matter who the book came from.
2. Is there such a thing as a “bullying” review? I don’t think so. I have a pretty stringent definition of bullying (one day, if your luck runs out, I’ll tell you the story of what grades 6 through 8 were like for me) and I don’t think a review, which the author has the option of not reading, rises to that level.
2a. Is there such a thing as a review that’s too mean, though? Yeah, I think there is, although I haven’t yet figured out how and where I draw that line. A while back I read a post by the author Sarah Rees Brennan in which she mentioned a YA author friend of hers whose first review on Goodreads–right at the top of the review list; the first one anybody browsing her book page encountered–said simply “Why are all YA authors fat?” I don’t think that’s bullying, specifically, but I do think it’s a BS usage of a review space, and I won’t weep for free speech if Goodreads takes a “review” like that down.
Similarly, that sneering New Republic Fifty Shades slam-fest of a few months back (which was technically a review of a book about Fifty Shades) crossed the line from fiery criticism to gratuitous nastiness in its generalizations about FSOG readers and its insistence on referring to E.L. James by her private-life name rather than the name under which she writes. It’s the New Republic’s right to print something like that, but doing so made me think a lot less of them.
On the other hand, a little while after reading the New Republic article I read a brutal NY Times review of the latest Adam Sandler film and didn’t find it objectionable at all, and I’m not sure how I’d make the distinction. It’s not just that the NR piece got into personal criticism, because there were some fairly personal jabs at Sandler in the NYT review too. So I don’t know. I may just be inconsistent in my positions.
And that’s enough out of me. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts. Do you enjoy bad reviews? Do you enjoy all bad reviews, or are there some that go too far–and if the latter, where do you draw that line? Do you think Adam Sandler is funny, and people should stop picking on him? Let me know.