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.
Part of it is pickiness in my own work, and part of this is my own agenda. I want my reviews:
- 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.
I Don’t Have Time to Spend Reading Bad Books
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.
I Don’t Want to Advertise Poor Work
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.
The Making of Enemies is Tiresome
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.
Authors are Humans (at least, for now)
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.
This is a tough subject. I don’t like to do bad reviews, either, for most of the same reasons as you. So while not every review on my blog is a five-star, I won’t review a book that I have a hard time finding redeeming qualities for. I had great plans of interviewing a self-published Canadian fantasy writer on my blog, because I want to be able to promote us “indie” authors. But after reading her book, I realized I couldn’t review the book and be honest about the shortcomings. It just wasn’t written very well, although the concept was good. I think your point about “being wrong” is a good one, too. There are plenty of books out there that people love and might be perfectly good books to them, but I just don’t like because of poor writing and weak storytelling/characterization etc. But I would prefer to point people to better examples, in order to hopefully raise the bar a bit. It’s tricky, because I really wonder what kind of reviews I will get when I publish my book. And I have to avoid writing good reviews for books that I think are bad in order to hopefully get good reviews back. Ugh. The whole thing is a bit of a nightmare. But I try to be honest where I can, and if the only honest things I can say about a book is negative things, I won’t post a review.
The idea of interviewing indie authors is worthwhile, but it isn’t for me. I have reviewed some indies, but only good ones. Not all were perfectly edited (most weren’t, including some mainstream press books).
I think were are jiving to the same music.
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I think it’s good for the soul to err on the side of empathy. It’s a thoughtful person who understands the pain and hard work involved in any creation, even bad ones, and knows that a bad review that ruthlessly tears down a person’s hard work can have devastating consequences for the spirit.
To authors who might complain about that approach and angrily demand a review anyways, even if it’s bad, I would give them Faramir’s wise words: “Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart!”
(Sure, there is such a thing as tough love, but I think tough love is better left to the author’s friends, mentors, editors, and Archenemies, not a faceless critic who can’t shake the author’s hand and offer him a cup of tea before breaking his work to pieces and asking him to try again. Lewis would not pull any punches in his tutorials, but at least he could look the student in the eye and try to help).
Perhaps I’m just a wimp! But I would prefer not to scorn a gentle heart. Lewis did give some bad reviews, but always with very specific details about the missteps. If I thought there were real problems–I’m reading A.N. Wilson’s bio of Lewis now–I may warn people. So I’m not saying I will never do a bad review, but that I don’t tend to.
It is my responsibility to let those who read my reviews know what I thought of a book. If it was bad, they need to know that so they can weigh my opinion when deciding for themselves if they want to read it. Or if it is a complete waste of time, full of grammar errors and just poor writing, why should I hide that? If I save 1 person from reading 1 bad book, then my hobby as a reviewer is a complete success in my eyes.
Cool sign on name. I think we are on different tracks. First, this isn’t my hobby, but my vocation and part of my academic work. I have to do this in a particular kind of way. Second, I don’t get very many truly poor books (watch for one next Monday).
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Yeah, if it’s not a hobby, then you’re in a different class. Best of luck 🙂
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I hear you. I do not bother continuing with books that do not grab me no matter how well reviewed they might be. They might be prize winners or have won critical acclaim. But how can you put yourself through the rigours of a book where the language does not reach out to you? Reading is such an individual endeavour. There are enough interesting books out there that we could not get to in one lifetime. Who knows if there is a next? 🙂 Each of your points are excellently written and make their mark. Cheers.
Thanks for the note! I don’t often find a prize-winner I don’t like, but I would approach it the same way.
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My pleasure. Unfortunately I do sometimes find prizewinners I do not care for…but then that is just fine. As you rightly point out, that you should not strip down the work of a writer or a cook because what they put out there is really made of passion, toil and tears.
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As an author of one Christian non-fiction book, I really appreciate your thoughts in this post. I wrote a post once entitled “Tips for writing fair book reviews that don’t make the author cry.” I’m fine with kind, diplomatic, constructive criticism – but some seem unable to write a critical review that is also kind and diplomatic. In can be done.
One review of my book crushed me and upset me for months. (Yeah, I need a thicker skin!) But the reason I was upset was that the reviewer expected my book to be something that I NEVER intended it to be, therefore I found the review unfair. Now, it could be I failed to properly describe my book on the back cover or my title wasn’t ideal, and it gave a wrong impression. It can be hard to “capture” a book with a proper title and back cover description, especially with minimal funds with a self or hybrid published book! But the reviewer could have noted that. Another reviewer, in fact, did such. They wrote that they expected “x” and instead found the book to be “y” and then wrote a positive and glowing review. I was appreciative.
I once read this: “A good book review appreciates and critiques the book that is written, not the book that the reviewer thinks should have been written.” Keeping an authors credentials and experience in mind can also help a review be kinder. Is this their first book? C’mon, it may be quite good for a first attempt and the author’s future capabilities evident. A new author with genuine potential could be crushed and not try again, if they only receive harsh reviews that failed to see the quality of their first attempt. Etc.
That’s a nice post title, Laura. I am not against writing hard or bad book reviews; I do so in the academic world. I just don’t want to live that way as a blogger. And…how often do we wish a book was some other kind of book? It’s what I see most in reviews and what I wish they would be quiet about.
I hadn’t thought about book review “virgins,” but encouraging emerging authors is something I like to do when I can.
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As I saw the title of the post I thought I would be pithy and comment “because I only read good books” 🙂 I will say that I like your approach and I feel that if you did come across a major work with which you had disagreement that you would probably let us know. The time needed to put together reviews is major, so focusing on good reviews and delivering the exceptional content related to the realms of Lewis, Tolkien, et. al. gets two thumbs up from this guy. 🙂 Thanks.
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I wish I only read good books! But close; I will set things away if they aren’t worth my time. One example of major disagreement is the “Lindskoog Affair” that I wrote about on here. I took 4 years of working on it before I published it; I wanted to be sure. I’m honestly a little terrified of doing anything too critical in Tolkien studies–online Tolkien readers can be higher critical (and usually well informed).
For what it’s worth, I think your policy is spot-on.
I myself review books exclusively at Goodreads (goodreads.com/mrwootton). I try to write a pithy, helpful guide to each book I read, good or bad. My goal is to capture in three paragraphs or fewer why someone else should or should not read/recommend a given title.
I’m averse to reading bad books, but sometimes can’t help it; and once I start a book, I sometimes struggle to not see the train wreck through to the end. After all, as Lewis pointed out in ‘An Experiment in Criticism,’ determining whether or not a book really is objectively bad is actually very hard to do. I think we’ve got to balance that caution against his other advice, given elsewhere, not to bother with bad books, as well as his old:new books recommended ratio.
Reading books is serious business; by extension, so must reviewing them be. I think your thoughtfully-curated approach is very much appreciated.
Thanks Jack. I have followed you on Goodreads, though I don’t haunt it very often. That is a great reviewer mission statement. While I agree on Lewis in “Experiment,” … well, I might be hypocritical on not submitting to every book, every time!
Such a beautiful article! Amazing! So true and well written.
I write reviews entirely as a hobby, and as a break from my academic output rather than a part of it. That probably makes a big difference–I am a small hobby blogger and an author is very unlikely to see my review unless someone tweets it at them. (Part of the reason that I don’t accept review copies any more is that I want the freedom to be critical of a book without worrying that I’ll upset or offend the author).
I do write reviews of books I don’t enjoy. Sometimes, a book I don’t like will be perfect for someone else (a book I read over Christmas unexpectedly turned into an extremely disturbing, but well-written, horror novel), so I might still be drawing people’s attention to it. More often, if I write a review of a book I truly dislike, it will be because I think the ideas are damaging on a larger scale. For example, in the run up to reading Little Deaths by Emma Flint, I had read an increasing number of contemporary books with very misandrist undertones. I’d seen so many glowing reviews of that book, none of which had mentioned that it relies heavily on assumptions about men being inherently dangerous and violent. Similarly, I read a book a year or so ago that had a lot of potentially dangerous medical misinformation in it–it was very popular and as a healthcare scientist, I was concerned that people were taking all that on board. My little blog is not actually going to change the way people use antibiotics, but after I posted my (very) critical review, I had some productive conversations with other bloggers about serious medical inaccuracies in fiction. In terms of my approach to how I write negative reviews, I always write a cathartic “this book was absolutely awful” review, leave it for a couple of days, and then come back and edit it into something politer and more constructive.
I don’t like it when reviews turn into mud-slinging and try very hard not to do it myself, but bad reviews have previously kept me from reading books that I really would have hated. I’m always very grateful when that happens!
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You’d be surprised what people find! I did a critique of the Zondervan Academic calendar (on gender), and I got an official company response. I realized how I was underestimating the scope of where my words can go, for better or worse.
I’m curious about the man-hating themes. I feel this about the greedy executive, hypocritical priest, and dumb dad characters–which are all making me weary. They may be lined with other kinds of willingness to give in to damaging stereotypes.
And a lot of the value of blogging is not the conversation with authors and professionals, but other bloggers. Look at the comments on this post (which I can see could have sounded more judgy than I meant it).
The post didn’t sound judgy at all–I really appreciate the thoughtfully curated space you have here, and it was interesting to read about your process/thoughts behind curating it.
The hypocritical priest is another big one that has bothered me a lot recently. It’s got to the point where, if I am reading a book and a Christian minister or charity worker enters, I’m almost tempted to put it down because I assume he’ll turn out to be the bad guy in some especially appalling way. Quite apart from anything else, reliance on stereotypes is boring to read–so books that do that are much more likely to get a negative review from me. If I just don’t like a book, I’ll just put it down and not bother writing about it.
Anyway, thanks again for a very interesting post!
I guess it all depends on what you mean by a bad book. For example, I enjoyed A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis, and think it made up for what it lacked in depth by being well written. That said, I could imagine certain fans of Lewis might feel differently – even enough to categorise it as a ‘bad’ book.
In this respect, Lewis – like Christianity – seems to evoke two responses that are diametrically opposed to one another; contempt or adulation. The end result is a basic lack of nuance – chiefly, I think, because there’s no appetite for it. How does a reviewer negotiate a route between these two camps? Search me!
I certainly like the writing of A.N. Wilson. What a great character he is, and I don’t think I’ll spend time on the errors (others have done that). As a scholar of St. Paul, I was uncomfortable with his British Paul that he made in his book on Paul (the result being anti-Jewish and strangely perverse psychology). I find this Lewis bio less problematic, but a bit tiresome at times. Not sure what I’ll say on it.
You are right that Lewis doesn’t say “Meh” very often.
I agree with your thoughts – it’s better not to excoriate authors, though I think it is necessary to fairly assess any work in order to properly inform readers (I write review essays for magazines, professionally, here in New Zealand). It’s a funny thing, though, but here there is also a culture of abuse in that same field – a sense that a ‘good reviewer’ must by nature attack and run down the work of an author in order to show their robustness as a reviewer. It is integral with the snobbish bully-culture of the local academy and literary scene, and they take the attitude that it’s the fault of the authors that they bring such opprobium down on their heads – that any complaint about the way reviewers run down writers merely proves how weak the writer is to not be able to ‘take it’. Classic bully behaviour, and those doing it are uttterly gutless -. I’ve had my own books targeted by such toxic conduct routinely. I’ve actively invited some of those doing it to meet me, which they’ve refused. They prefer, instead, to cower behind the pretense of ‘review’ and perform like spoiled brats from afar. Their problem, except where it impacts my good name and income.
Though I like your approach, mine is somewhat different.
Perhaps I’ve been influenced by GoodReads and its prompt “What did you think?” Because “What did you think?” is not necessarily a review, but rather an invitation to write about thoughts that a book inspired in you, and thoughts can be inspired by both good and bad books.
While I say I love fantasy literature, I’ve read very little, because there’s a lot of bad fantasy out there, and, as you say, why would one bother to read it? But I still write bad reviews about books that I don’t like. Sometimes it’s about books where there are differences of opinion, and I think perhaps there’s a lot that can be learned from that. One example is The Shack. I recall that you liked it, and I detested it. Why? I agree with a lot of other things you write, so why do we disagree about that one?
I read The da Vinci code, Atlas shrugged and Interview with the vampire because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and to try to understand some aspects of pop culture at least, and also because I didn’t want to offer people the excuse to say “how can you criticise a book when you haven’t read it? So I read them and wrote about them. But I thought they were very bad books I think the very worst book I have read was The Temple, by Mastthew Reilly. I did write a review of it, rather than a “What did you think?” piece, because it inspired no thoughts other than what bad writing it was.
This has been interesting to read, and the responses have been interesting as well. Obviously I’ve reviewed books before, but I find a different set of problems before me. For example, if I like a book, I don’t want to review it beyond saying, “This is good, you should read it.” By contrast, if I don’t like a book, I feel like I might have a responsibility to tell you what’s wrong with it. Even under those circumstances, I’ll prefer (as a rule) to offer a critique of a book along the way to some other, larger critique. So the book becomes an example of some other, bigger problem which needs addressing. All the same, by far the most popular/controversial “review” I’ve written has been a critical one (on Brother Yun’s “The Heavenly Man”). In that circumstance, I felt an obligation to write a measured response to what was, I believed, something strange.
However, the more time I begin to spend in this blogging world, and now in the academy, the less I feel comfortable writing bad reviews. Unless I feel that prophetic obligation to speak the truth, I will probably demur completely, But when it happens… look out! 🙂
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