My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: May 14, 2010

The Dawn Powell Revival Continues (Tony’s Book World)

The Art of the Negative Review” – VQR Blog

Thoughts on the lifespan of genres” – Pechorin’s Journal

Jamaica Kincaid on when to be arrogant” – Maud Newton

The Censors” – Popery (a post discussing a speech given by J.M. Coetzee at the University of Texas at Austin in which he discusses censors as “historical actor[s]”; in Coetzee’s case, South African censors let his works be published despite their criticisms of South African policy and culture because they were so very, very good.) (via Maud Newton)

Sarah’s first post on Cryptonomicon: “rather excellent dialogue“. [Update: Hear, hear, not my original “Here, here.” Egads.]

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14 Responses to My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: May 14, 2010

  1. anokatony says:

    Hi Kerry,
    Thanks for the mention and link! I really appreciate.

  2. The piece on negative reviewing is very interesting. I choose what I read, and I choose carefully, so it’s not a huge issue for me but sometimes I make mistakes and given my policy is to review every book I read that means the occasional bad review.

    I don’t enjoy them. They’re much more work for a start. I want to be fair and to set out my reasoning and when my analysis is that the book fails that means I need to spend some time saying why that’s so in order to be fair. All for something I don’t like.

    Worse yet, if I don’t like a book it’s unlikely I feel angry about the fact. I’ve only had to write one review of a book that actually made me angry (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man or some similar title, a cynically exploitative book which knows enough that it could have said something important and true but instead says something easy and false). I hope not to again really.

    But, it is a valuable service I think. A bad review helps the reader too, if only by giving them a better view of your own tastes as a reviewer.

  3. In case of interest, the two negative reviews I’ve written:

    http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/hes-not-the-messiah-hes-just-a-very-naughty-boy/

    http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2009/05/17/microgenres-and-new-publishing-models/

    I may have written others that were critical, but I can’t offhand think of any others where I actually say the book doesn’t work (well, on the first of those two I go a lot further than saying it doesn’t work).

  4. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I think negative reviews absolutely serve a purpose. Otherwise, it’s all rainbows and butterflies and the truth is, sometimes great writers put out a stinker. (the best example from my blog is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs)

    To say something both true and interesting, occasionally a reviewer has to be negative, I think. I know different critics, reviewers, bloggers, and people generally have different feelings about the matter, but I appreciate when someone (KfC) tells me, really, you should read something else by Ian McEwan before reading Solar because he has written much better books.

    I like your negative reviews too, Max. The second is extremely fair and takes the opportunity of a subpar book to explore an interesting area of publishing. The first is excellent. It sounds like you were a little miffed.

    I have been down the angry road too. (Stockett, Kathryn). I felt more free to be a bit more mean than probably was merited because she has to have made a gazillion dollars off of what, to me, is a very mediocre book. My one bad review on a very lightly travelled blog is not going to hurt sales of The Help or her next book. Besides, one of those sales was to me. (grind teeth, maybe even gnash them). I wanted something for my ten dollars besides bad memories.

    All this to say: I applaud negative reviews. Generally, I think they should be more “critical” than “negative”, but, sometimes, airing one’s frustration is the only way to purge oneself of a bad reading experience.

    All these examples are from recent fiction and, I think, that makes sense. We do tend to choose books that have been recommended by someone or by everyone and, therefore, the books usually have something going for them. The books inspiring the negative reviews to which I have linked above were chosen for different reasons. I read The Help as part of my coverage of the 2010 TOB, Trevor read The Year of the Flood as a member of the Giller Shadow Jury, and Kevin, obviously, had an opportunity to get his hands on McEwan’s latest. In other words, there are good reasons to write a review, but only a negative review is honest.

    Anyway, Max, thanks for the discussion and the links. I enjoyed your examples.

  5. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the mention, Kerry, and once again I have enjoyed following up your links. Great discussion on genre at Max’s, and I am still quietly digesting the various points made about negative reviewing. The article you link to carries a further link to John Updike’s review guidelines, which was also well worth a look.

    It takes confidence to write a negative review; I would always have the niggling doubt that perhaps I had missed the point. I am also suspicious of the undeniable satisfaction to be had, scoring points off an easy target!

    I think I wrote an unkind review once, and it left me feeling so guilty that I subsequently introduced a rule to write nothing that I wouldn’t say to the author’s face. And yes, this puritanical stance has deprived me of untold pleasure.

    Of course, the result of this mealy-mouthed attitude is, quoted from the article you cite, “mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.”

    In conclusion, I fully support the necessity of the negative review, but lack the courage of my conviction.

  6. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Yours are good points about negative reviews. And there is a cheap satisfaction to be had scoring points off easy targets which does not always speak well of the reviewer. I think your rule about not writing anything you would not say to the author’s face is a good one. That rule encourages fairness, if not always positivity.

    But, I do enjoy hearing what books others found disappointing, at least occasionally. Even if that means, say, Cryptonomicon takes a hit. Mostly, on that book as others, I am interested to hear what appealed to you about it and what aspects did not appeal to you.

    Thanks for the comments here.

  7. Sometimes one does miss a point. But then you give a reader the small and petty pleasure of correcting you on it…

    Though actually most folk are quite helpful. Since reading your review of Invisible Cities I came across a discussion of it which makes the point of the book apparent (I didn’t know it, no idea if I would have got it on my own, shame I won’t get to find out really). Someone on your blog I noticed had already alluded to it, and much more pleasantly than the correction I got on my blog about descriptions in the Lord Dunsany stories I talked about.

    I hate writing bad reviews, I always fear the author will read it so I try to be as fair as I can. I would like them to be able to feel that I gave their book a fair try and attempted to indicate why it had problems and who might prefer it to me, but as the Confessions of an Economic Hit Man review may show that’s not always possible.

    I thought your review of The Help Kerry was very good, and clear on what you didn’t like. Besides, as you say the author can console herself with her massive sales if the pain of your dislike proves too much.

  8. The Invisible Cities review referred to there is Sarah’s, sorry for any confusion.

  9. Kerry says:

    Max,

    Thanks, as always, for adding to the discussion.

    I did not mention my own review of Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness because, well, I talked myself into liking the book more. At least, I realized it was conducive to analysis even if I did not think it was entirely successful. An attempt at fairness to the author actually improved my (memory of the) reading experience.

    And thanks for the reassurance on The Help. Occasionally, I think maybe I was too negative. Then I realize that is crazy thought.

  10. I don’t think Kerry one can be fair and honest and too negative. If being fair and honest means slating the book, that’s what it means.

    Thankfully given I choose what I read fairly carefully (as do you) that’s not often an issue. Which is a good thing on a number of fronts, after all none of us want to be reading books we hate.

  11. Sarah says:

    Kerry,

    Your review of The Help was, of course, fair and measured. Not to mention fabulously entertaining!

  12. Kerry says:

    Max and Sarah, thanks, of course. I think I agree with Max that, “if being fair and honest means slating the book”, then you slate it.

    Most of all, I am glad you were entertained, Sarah. I am glad I was not the only one to get at least a little pleasure out of the review given the experience of reading book.

    Thanks guys.

  13. Well…I don’t know…I found your review of The Help…somewhat compelling…perhaps, even…life-changing. May cause the period key on my keyboard to disintegrate eventually.

    I don’t hesitate to do critical reviews, but I also admit there are books that I don’t review. I read a fair number of first novels and some are so lacking that I think it would be both pointless and unfair to unload — better to hope they don’t sell and that the first is likely to be the last if the author doesn’t get better.

    Perhaps more often I don’t review books that simply land flat (not necessarily bad, just obviously not good). Having wasted the time reading the book, it seems excessive to waste even more time writing about the experience.

    And I had a new experience leading to a non-review (so far) recently — Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil which I found not so just bad but offensive. (I actually thought about your reaction to The Help when I was reading it.) And to make that charge would mean rereading parts if not all of it, which would make me more offended. Fortunately, the NY Times also found it offensive so I can just refer people there — since Martel is Canadian and a Booker winner (and people know my interest there) I have been asked by a few if a review is forthcoming and, unless some prize jury makes the mistake of listing it, there won’t be.

  14. Kerry says:

    LOL @ Kevin.

    I really enjoy that you post critical reviews, not least because I have a fair idea after them whether my reaction would likely be similar. I think you have a good policy about first novels, particularly when they are not on the shortlist for an important prize.

    I also respect your choice not to review books that “simply land flat”. It certainly makes sense from a time-management perspective.

    Thanks for the description of your Yann Martel experience. There is a difference between a novel that lands flat and one that is offensive. I have very rarely had that experience, so I am glad to hear I am not alone. I have never been tempted to read Martel, despite the Booker win, so this confirms that prejudice. My prejudice gains a little rationality, so I thank you for that.

    I can certainly empathize with the desire not to re-read any of a novel you found offensive the first time through, whether for a review or for some of reason.

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