Though I do not review every book that I read, I do like to highlight a few. In particular, I like to draw attention to books that readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia—in particular, students of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings—may not know but are worth their while. I especially like to highlight indie and small-firm books when they overlap with my core conversations (the intersections of faith, culture, and fantasy). My reading of weightier work I might treat with literary criticism—as I have with Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis—or I might let it slide. Of the writing of book reviews there is no end, after all.
Now that I’ve brought it up, long-term readers may notice that I haven’t done a review of a book that was not worth reading. I’ve tried to note disagreements or weaknesses in each substantial review—and may have been a bit heavy-handed in earlier work—but I only treated with material that was worth your time and mine.
There are other limitations to my reviews. Thinking back, it is interesting that I haven’t reviewed most of the most important materials in Fantasy or Inklings Studies. Others will do that, and I don’t feel the need retread someone else’s tires. I am also very focussed now in my reading: I have a thesis to write, and a very specific schedule for the next two years. I say “no” to most publishers who contact me for a review. I simply cannot change my schedule, and will not accept a review that I can’t do an excellent job on.
- To be so well written that authors would include a snippet on a website or book cover;
- To challenge readers to consider adding the book to their queue;
- To enhance my reputation as a reliable voice on books (i.e., don’t break the blogger-reader covenant);
- To honestly treat the material, including weak points; and
- To make the author’s day.
That’s my agenda, and it is clear that poor reviews don’t fit well with some of those points. My reasoning for not reviewing poor books is a little deeper. Here’s why I don’t tend to write bad book reviews.
Early on in my C.S. Lewis scholarship days, I asked a senior scholar that I trusted what to do with weak books. Honestly, books about C.S. Lewis are quite often weak, and sometimes atrociously redundant and uncreative. There was a flurry of book publishing right around the time that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe landed on film. If I didn’t respect books so much, I would use some of the cute Lewis-devotional material of the period to stabilize old coffee shop tables downtown.
My academic mentor challenged me quickly on this point. “Why would you bother?” he said. Then, pressing the point, he asked me: “Why bother even reading bad books? Are you short of reading material?” I am not short of things to read, and so I now no longer spend time reading bad books unless I have to.
Not all press is good press, but there is a certain truth to the “legitimation” that happens in negative critiques. I don’t engage with trolls because it feeds them; likewise, I don’t review bad books because it highlights the work. Though it isn’t true that the drudge will settle to the bottom and good taste win out—the 50 Shades, Left Behind, and new atheist phenomena are proof of this—the act of reviewing states to the world that I think this is, at least, a real book. I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to waste readers’ time.
Isn’t it? Maybe not for you, or Sherlock, but when I am involved in a controversy, I get this pit in my stomach and I feel my body worrying. Who wants enemies in a world as isolating as ours?
More than that, the scholarship communities of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and theology and literature are both small and supportive. Lewis Studies is almost too supportive, so that when an idea comes up that needs to be debated—like Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis, the Lindskoog Affair, or the work of outsiders like A.N. Wilson or John Beversluis—the air in the room can get a bit weak. The Lewis Studies community needs critical scholars but does not have much capacity for negativity for the sake of negativity. I will give that scholarly critique, but I need the support of scholars I disagree with in this small academic world. I can’t afford to make enemies, though I am open to some Archenemies. Inquire within.
Besides, are we below quota on negativity? Hardly. American and British culture is drowning itself in divisiveness, drinking in the draughts of extremism like a thug steeling himself for a barfight. I wrote this before someone stole young life in Manchester or the President went out to fix the Middle East. These are the flashpoints of a culture of negativity that begin at my keyboard and yours. Why would I contribute to that?
I am not naturally an optimist and am a very dim dreamer. In the digital spaces I occupy, though, I have chosen the path of intellectual generosity. This is one of the most endearing features of my late-millennial students—that, combined with a curiously unfounded hope. I would like those features to be part of my scholarly work and my writing. I am a realist: things are bad in many ways. But there is brightness and beauty and originality, and I would like to highlight those points when I can and in my own little way.
Until the robot apocalypse becomes fully realized, most of what we read will be written by humans. There are doubtless fraudsters and intellectual floozies, hopping on the trends of the day and churning out books because they will sell. Most writers, though, are not like that. They pour heart and soul into a book, spending months working pennies on the dollar to get their material (or their name) into print.
This is true even of authors whose work is crud and whose ideas are bosh. I remember reading an interview with Stephanie Meyers, the person responsible for Twilight. I actually read this book as I tried to understand what the young women I taught were reading. I was bored, and, honestly, I thought Meyers was too. Yet, she showed great vulnerability in this interview, showing me a dimension of humanity I had not seen. She was doing her best and I don’t have much need to speak into that part of her life.
I have warned readers of a poor product or an unfounded thesis or a very poor audiobook reader. Mostly, though, I keep my critiques to academic publications (which hardly anyone reads!).
Well, there’s that, isn’t there? I have been wrong, before. Ask my wife. Or my kid. Or my students. Or … you get the idea.
Part of this might be a matter of taste. I read Michael Phillips’ The Garden at the Edge of Beyond. That was a painful read for me, and I only finished it because C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald are main characters, and we owe Phillips a deep debt of gratitude for his work in getting MacDonald into the public’s hands. I did not like this floral American rewriting of The Great Divorce.
But I might be wrong about the book’s essential qualities. My antipathy to allegory and American Christian pop fiction may simply have overwhelmed my critical mind. Given the positive ratings on Goodreads, that might be the case. And I might be wrong about this academic thesis or that historical argument or those theological ideas. I have an academic world to work out those critiques; I don’t need to use blogging as a platform for my own ignorance or narrow-mindedness.
These are the reasons why I don’t do bad book reviews. Now I’d like to hear from you. What do you think of this approach? Am I pulling punches too much? Am I missing critical opportunities? Are reviews of bad books just better to read? Let me know your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter (@BrentonDana), or on Facebook.