Thursday, January 31, 2008

Can you guess what book they're talking about?

That Tess Gerritsen post from a while back created a nice little discussion. People had interesting interpretations of (and issues) with her post, which I enjoyed hearing about. Right from the start, though, I was thinking about an off-shoot that wasn't really her topic. That is, what to make of reviews that attack works you love as if they had absolutely no value, quality, anything of interest to anybody? Every book that's been read by enough people has a few of these reviews on Amazon. (And they happen in paid-reviewer venues as well.) They're usually in the minority, sure, but they can feel like tiny worlds all to themselves, worlds in which the reviewer acknowledges no other perspective than his/her own (or dismisses those other perspectives as crap)...

Okay, so here a few quotes taken from one star Amazon reviews of four books. Each book gets a few choice critiques. See if you can guess the book by the quotes. They're all completely famous books. I'll name the books down at the end.

BOOK ONE:

"Clumsy writing, heavy-handed symbolism, self-righteousness, unbelievable dialogue, characters even a comic book would blush at. A book that insults the intelligence at every level."

"This was not a good book. The dialogue is stilted, the characters are caricatures, and everyone's always "hissing", "glaring", or "swallowing with a dry throat"... from where I stand, XXX is a poorly-written, lackluster, repetitive tale."

"This is a chore. I don't go for complex storylines and this book is the worst of the worst for those. I kept turning back to read over parts I had not taken in the first time, and in the end I gave up. I got to almost half-way, but I had lost interest way before then."

BOOK TWO:

"I was stupefied by its thick, plodding, contrived plot and bizarrely drawn characters. I do not understand why on earth this book has received the altitudinous praise it has received. I would not choose to teach it again and I would not recommend it. Maybe something else by XXX (who I feel is an "okay" writer, but certainly not an American great) would do."

"Awkward, boring, poorly written, nearly incomprehensible. I admit I did not get to page 75 - so maybe I shouldn't even write a review. But even getting to the point that I did, took extreme perseverance... honestly, I hated it - or the part that I did read... Didn't work for me at all. Don't bother with XXX."

"Simply Unreadable."

BOOK THREE:

"I admit I only read the first 120 pages. Reading the entire book is not my responsibility. Instead, it is the author's responsibility to maintain my interest."

"Completely disappointing. Read to learn how not to write."

"The reason I hate this book is because it sucked! I was astonished that it got so many great reviews. The plot was extremely slow and dull. And the whole story seemed unoriginal, like I've heard it many times before. The author has been praised for his amazing characters and personally I found them flat, boring and predictable. They seemed to have no original thoughts or feelings and some of their actions were unrealistic in human nature. I felt as if everyone had a blank expression on their face and they were speaking in monotone... I think this is a horrible author and you would do good to avoid his work."

BOOK FOUR:

"I really didn't like this book. Maybe it's because you need an imagination to read it, and mine isn't always there. It just seemed too unrealistic, and I just hated it."

"I found this book the most boring and monotonous book I've ever read... I literally had to slap myself a couple of times to stay awake and read this darn book. I just found this book disgusting boring, but that's just my opinion."

"To call this book an enduring American classic gives America a bad name."

"This book was a profound disappointment. It offered nothing in the way of plot, characters, or theme. It is a long, painstaking, tedious read. Don't bother with this book."

"Simply put: What a lousy novel! Maybe this was his first novel...I don't know. Anyways, I sure hope he doesn't plan on writing anything else. I read this book, initially, in the author's native bulgarian language...and it was even worse! The translator was probably trying to do us a favor by touching up this P.O.S. novel, but I think it would take an act of God to save this text..."

And just what books are these (so you know to avoid them)?

BOOK ONE: Dune, by Frank Herbert

BOOK TWO: Beloved, by Toni Morrison

BOOK THREE: A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

BOOK FOUR: Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Anyway, these are just a few I picked out. Any book that's been read by a lot of people ends up with reactions like these. (Go look up one of your favorites.) My books have gotten a few as well, so even little me hasn't dodged the angry reader's wrath. (Except for Walk Through Darkness, which has only Four and Five starred reviews. Go figure...)

Oh, by the way, I highly recommend all four books. They're totally different, but I think they're each awesome in their own way. Does that mean I think everyone will love (or even like) everything about them? No, but unlike these detractors, I'm not saying I have the intelligence and knowledge and insight to damn them for all possible readers. I'm just saying that at least this one person (me) found something wonderful in each of these. That's quite different than suggesting that because I hated something everyone else will/should also. I like that kinder and gentler approach...

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24 Comments:

Blogger Joe Sherry said...

The Huck Finn reviews actually made me laugh.

"Anyways, I sure hope he doesn't plan on writing anything else. I read this book, initially, in the author's native bulgarian language...and it was even worse!"

Ha!!!

There is a tough line when reviewing, especially when you're one of the unwashed, unpaid masses like myself - reading is such a singular, solitary experience that a classic of literature (or of genre) can fail to connect in such a profound way that sometimes the only response is, crudely, "what a bunch of horseshit this book was". The trick is to say it without actually saying it.

Or, just put the book down and back away slowly.

Either way, I'm sure the reading experience is much better in Twain's native Bulgarian.

10:23 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Joe,

Look, I like the unpaid, err... "unwashed" (although you could do something about that) masses like yourself. And I've read many books that were well respected that I thought were horse shit, too. Among other things, I'm an African American that often views "classic literature" with plenty of skepticism. So I'm not a party line snob or any thing.

But some of this makes me chuckle...

You might, however, find that some folks take umbrage at the seeming distinction you make between "a classic of literature" and a classic of "genre"...

What's that about?

10:46 PM  
Blogger Joe Sherry said...

Semantics, really. I'm a genre reader, first and foremost. I read fantasy and science fiction and prefer fantasy (on average, though I see very few lines between the two).

The very best a genre can offer, I think, can stand up with the very best anyone can offer. A great book is a great book is a great book.

However, I do separate out more mainstream "literary" (read: non-fantastic) novels from my beloved genre.

Now, I don't know what "Literature" means because I think science fiction is literature of ideas, of forward thinking, of examining society in the same way "L"iterature does.

Maybe I help perpetuate the "ghetto" of genre when I think about books and make distinctions (though I try to claim those mainstream novels like The Time Traveler's Wife as science fiction (or fantasy, really), because that's what they are no matter who publishes the book).

I don't know. Just a way to define things in my own head? An easy out in identifying what things are, or how they were taught to me?

11:15 PM  
Blogger Constance said...

I generally toss out the fawning reviews on Amazon, along with the downright nastiness - "it sucked" gives me NO insight. *g* Usually the truth lies somewhere in between. If you rely on only one source for your information, you get what you deserve.

Reviewing, even among the formerly trusted sources, has gotten so subjective that I no longer trust anything reviewed by corporate media or their minions. I think the Gerritsen post touched on the aesthetics of literature, a topic that makes many people bristle. "What I like" and "What's good" doesn't have to be one and the same.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Carl V. said...

Those were a hoot! So funny when you realize just what books they were referring to.

I generally don't give a lot of credence to the reviews of people who hate books that I enjoyed. I can listen to and respect good criticism, but if a book is wildly popular and has stood the test of time a good critic will give reasons for their dislike that at least make sense and can be viewed objectively, even if one doesn't agree with them.

These are the kind of ignorant reviews that one sees on Amazon.com from people who give a story a one or two star rating and then provide a list of reasons that make no sense at all.

There is nothing wrong with disagreement, but if one cannot do so with a degree of intelligence it is probably best to keep those thoughts to ones self.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Yeah, there's a lot of stuff like this. And not just on Amazon either. I've seen a lot of people who will reject a book outright if it contains any speculative element at all. Some people have very limited imaginations.

But where most of the Amazon reviews fall down is they they go on to blame their lack of enjoyment of the book on "bad writing", "poor characterization" and so on. Most of the time all that means is "I didn't like it and I don't know why."

9:41 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Joe, I know you're one of the good guys! But I still don't know what to make of the Bulgarian thing. Was that a joke, just told with an incredibly straight-faced tone of complete ignorance?...

Constance, I just finished a review for The Washington Post. Does that make me one of those "corporate minions"?...

Carl V, "keep ones thoughts to ones self"... Ah, wouldn't that be nice. If others would do it, I would do it, too. Hey, wait... Actually, I do keep my thoughts to myself on a great many things. But I'm out of sync with popular culture in a variety of ways. (Is there a football game on this weekend, or something? Not that I can watch it, considering we don't have tv reception...)

Cheryl, funny that you say that, because I remember at least two reviewers - one paid, one online somewhere - say exactly that about Pride of Carthage. They said they didn't like it, but admitted that they couldn't explain why. I guess there's some honesty in that, at least...

2:05 PM  
Blogger Constance said...

David, it depends. Did you give a just review, or did you regurgitate the company line? In other words, did you say or not say something for fear of offending your employer? If not then no, no minionism here. *g*

Hey, wait. I thought I was the evil minion. Did we switch??

3:29 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

The "company line"? Oh, no... Nobody TOLD me what the company line was! They just pretended I could write whatever I wanted to, so that's what I did... Such naiveté... I'll learn one day.

And, yes, you're still one the evil minions as far as I'm concerned. You know, by the way, that it's not easy to quit the minions. Union rules. Spoken (and assumed) contracts. You're in, with little to escape any time soon...

4:15 PM  
Blogger Joe Sherry said...

David: Because I am a literal person when something is in text, I can only assume that the reviewer is absolutely clueless as to who Mark Twain is and what his nationality is.

6:32 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Joe, I guess... I hear ya, it's just so weird... Perhaps we should give that person the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe it's NOT that good in Bulgarian...

8:31 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

When I try to write full reviews (and I sometimes fail at this), I try to approach the review from the angle of "OK, here am I, the Reader, with this Text, and I need to wrestle with it and see if the Author is saying something and if so, what is it and how likely am I missing the point?" I prefer quoting examples to back my points whenever possible, so others reading my reviews can see where I'm coming from.

I think a large part of what's happening here is the natural reluctance of people to admit that something is beyond them or that they could be fallible people. I know I've been talked into reconsidering books (Moby Dick being one that comes to mind)that I disliked upon a first read. Much of the time, when given something to think about, the re-reads have made for a much more rewarding and enjoyable experience.

That being said, I'm nearing the end of Pride of Carthage and there's a passage from p. 88-90 in the tradeback edition that I've noted for inclusion in a review I'm planning on doing this weekend or next on my personal blog. Just thought I'd warn you. ;)

10:16 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

OK. I've been warned...

10:36 PM  
Blogger Constance said...

David, who says I want to quit? *g*

Larry makes some good points. I think the review needs to be approached from the angle of... it's not about me. It's about telling others what you found valuable or interesting in the book. What made it work or not work for you, and why.

Every book has some good points, and I approach reviews as if the author was sitting across from me at the table in my critique group. If I can't say it to his/her face, I'm not going to say it elsewhere. My mother wouldn't approve. *g*

10:57 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

*pant* *gasp* Sorry I'm late to the party. It's been busy at work.

Anyway, like Constance I weed out both the horribly written reviews as well as the OMGZ this is the best BOOK EVER!111 ones. But at the end of the day they're just opinions. It's up to the reviwer to make a compelling case that defends their opinion, and I think we can all agree that "it sux" is not a compelling case.

However, while I strongly disagree with the reviews on your blog (and admit I'm baffled by them) I wouldn't look down my nose at them entirely (well, I'd TRY not to). For some of the readers, things just didn't connect. For somebody to shrug and say that they just don't understand because they're not writers is a bit presumptious (yeah I know, I'm going back THERE).

I've read best-sellers that I know I just don't connect with. I may be in the minority when it comes to my opinion about them, but it's hard not to feel defensive when someone dismisses my feelings out of hand. "You're just too stupid to get it," seems to be the underlining message. Ack!

1:31 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Meghan, the cool people are always late to the party...

I'll sort of combine your and Constance's last comments in a single response. I'm very much inclined, as Constance is, to voice my opinions on someone's work with all the respect I can. I do that even more so since becoming a published writer and reading hundreds of different responses to MY work over the years. That's changed the way I comment on other people's work, which mostly means I'm never flippant in my criticisms. In fact, I'm never overconfident that I'm even right in my criticisms, so when I voice them I do so as thoughtfully (and respectfully) as I can.

I'm not really one to look down my nose at anybody. As a teacher I deal with student after student that just doesn't get what the hell is so good about... (insert author here). I don't think badly of those students. I just do what I can to encourage them to see more (and get more) from their reading efforts.

But I don't consider the comments I sampled above are just somebody stating their opinion. They're somebody going out of their way be nasty, dismissive and aggressive. When somebody takes a work that has a demonstrated history of meaningfully touching many, many people and says, "It sucks. It's stupid and boring and there's not one interesting thing about it!"... they are insulting not just the work - they're also insulting all the people that have been touched by it. It's THEY that are slinging mud - at the author, at their teachers, at people that liked the book, at anybody that might even so much as challenge them with the proposition that there may be more to the works than they yet acknowledge...

It's not derision I feel for them. It's something more melancholy. It makes me sad as much as anything else. That reaction, to me, is a failure not just because the person didn't get any of the myriad good things he/she might have out of the book. It's also disappointing because of the lazy, disrespectful, casual arrogance of it.

That's not something I'm ever going to be content with.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I totally agree. The reviews are not compelling arguments and are meant to be hurtful. It's a shame that people make things so personal and are so keen to attack the author and their work without keeping in mind that the author is probably reading their comments. It's rare that constructive criticism is found on forums like Amazon. But I thought the original argument in that one blog was really about readers that, regardless of HOW they presented their argument, are wrong because they disagree with the author about what makes a good book. Unless I missed something?

9:50 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Meghan,

I'm actually not too concerned about the author reading somebody's negative comments. That goes with the job. If you're going to write for people to read you're going to get crap thrown at you. Period. Doesn't matter who you are. That's part of the game, like sweating is if you're gonna play basketball.

I actually mean it, though, when I say such reviews are attacks on other readers as much as they're attacks on the author. They're not just saying the author is stupid; by default they're saying that other readers are even MORE stupid, because they're the ones that liked the crappy author's work...

And, Meghan, forget about the "original argument"! That's old news. I wasn't advocating TG's argument, just mentioning it and talking about it. THIS post, however, is mine. So the focus has changed a bit. Change with me, Meghan...

11:20 PM  
Blogger gav(NextRead) said...

It has a lot to do with what you like and what your expectations are.

Some people are lucky enough that they're able to read and enjoy a wide range of books. But some people for whatever reason stick within their comfort zone and if they go outside that comfort zone and don't enjoy it they're going to be disapointed.

I'll try anything within reason. But I know that I'm going to enjoy certain books more than others. And the more literary titles are the ones that most often lead to disapointment. Often it's that the journey isn't one I see a point of or enjoy reading about.

Is that a failing of me or the book? Should a good novel drag you in and hold until the final page? or should a good reader carry on reading until the bitter end in the hope of a revelation no matter how much of a struggle it is?

gav.
Nextread.co.uk

8:37 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Gav,

Hi. Funny that over on Next Reads you had posted a similar quote from a negative review, via Amazon.co.uk this time. Great minds think alike, apparently.

I think that set of questions you ask isn't one that anybody can answer, but I do think they're appropriate questions to face individually each time you read. I hate not finishing a book, but I also hate wasting time with one that I'm not enjoying. So I don't finish every thing, by any means. I guess it's probably a toss up between how often a literary or genre title looses me.

The thing is, I absolutely know that some of the most significant reading experiences I've had have been with books that I didn't enjoy at the start, or books that a teacher needed to help me understand. I wouldn't want to loose those experiences, but neither do I think everything that other's say is great or important is great or important.

So what to do? The best you can. Do read adventurously. Try to give works the benefit of the doubt, try to see if there's more there than you're catching, try a little more... And then if you still want to quit do it! That's about the best I've managed to come to terms with this stuff.

5:23 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

So ... yeah. There is a point at which I agree that, by insulting a novel that has endured in some way, you are taking a swipe, intentional or otherwise, at those who were touched by it in some way.

But I also feel that there are books and authors that are touted and awarded simply because the "literary community" has decided that they deserve it, regardless of the actual quality of the work.

Andy Warhol comes to mind. His art was not groundbreaking. I mean, one of his films was a 10-or-so hour shot of someone sleeping. The avant-gard would say it had meaning, but really, it's just a long shot of a guy asleep. Warhol was not about the art, he was about what he felt about the art, and he really played to those who felt they were on the cutting edge to make his money. He understood more than most how to bleed the bourgeois dry by appealing to their ignorance.

Which is not to say I don't enjoy some Warhol pieces. But I enjoy them because of what they really represent - seriously, a ton of soup cans is not a "pretty" picture and goes with no other decor. But it is kitschy.

I've asked you, David, about Cormac McCarthy. Your response was ... guarded. ;) But I'll tell you what I think of him - he is, IMNSHO, the most egregious example of the Emperor's New Clothes that I've ever read in my 35 years of literary experience. (I'm 37; I've been reading since I was 2.) Even you stated that you feel at some point that he's pulling the wool over your eyes.

Most of the time I can understand what people get out of a film, a novel, a band, or other artwork. Sometimes I can't, but I can tell that the artwork HAS some sort of value, and I always state my opinions in terms that clearly express that it IS my opinion.

But in the case of McCarthy, I am actually offended that he is a published author, especially in the context that I have yet to sell a piece of writing. Even more so now that he has won a Pulitzer, for what I feel is not even a finished work.

I put a one star review up of The Road, and have become rather obsessed with disliking his work. I listened to an audio book of Blood Meridian and felt that if it had been published as a western and not "literature" it would never have even been read. I love exploitation films and slasher flicks, and I felt the violence in BM was excessive and pointless. I wish I could say one thing withering enough to make his entire publishing history dry up and blow away, and remove all those who have read and 'enjoyed' his novels from his Svengali-like thrall.

I say these things because, while I definitely agree that many reviews on either extreme side of the fence are puff pieces or pointless diatribes, there are times when someone is so upset or enthralled by something that they just have to express it, whether or not they have the vocabulary to do so.

Just offering up an alternate viewpoint.

And I think that reviewer is right about Huck Finn, but Tom Sawyer in the Bulgarian is a pleasure.

1:31 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

Thanks for the extended alternative opinion. I tried to look up your one starred review, but as there were 111 other one stars for The Road I didn't try hard. I bet, though, that your review combines examples, reasoned thoughts and a good deal of insight mixed in with your emotion. By no means do I question all negative reviews. But not everyone is as thoughtful as you.

I can't say that I don't think McCarthy should have been published. Nor can I attribute all of his success to some pop-intelligentsia thing. Remember that he'd been publishing novels for about as long as you and I have been alive BEFORE he began to get real national attention. Also, many people in my extended family overseas - people that have no interest in the flavor of the American moment - have found his work striking and unique (in good ways). And, I myself have been bowled over by his work at times. Other times I've hated aspects of it. And still other times I've thought his writing highly flawed but still, for some reason, liked it... So, for all those reasons he very much deserves to be in print. Whether or not The Road deserved the Pulitzer is another issue...

What I will say is that McCarthy feels like a writer of the moment. It may have taken him thirty or forty years to have his moment, but he's got it now. Problem with being a writer of the moment is that future readers may not get what was so special about it. They may not get it at all. If I'm around, I'll be very curious as to how he's perceived in forty years or so...

7:09 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

So, here's my review, FYI. Reading it now, I realize I could have been a bit more levelheaded, but I think when I posted it I was just so angry about way the fans were treating the people who didn't like it. They were being insulting and rude, and going out of their way to call the 1 star reviewers idiot and the like. It was the same old "If you don't like it, you didn't understand it." stuff that just boils my blood. So, I guess I reviewed the reviewers instead of the book, and I bow my head in forgiveness.

Oh, BTW, I just saw that your paperback of Acacia is to be published on September 9. Barring receiving a copy of the hardcover as a gift (everyone I know knows I really want to read it), I will be at Mysterious Galaxy shortly after that to purchase my copy and say "Hi" when you come do a signing. ;)

***
Corby's review of The Road.

I wasn't going to post a review of this "novel", since anything that I could say has already been said. Like many of the unimpressed readers, I found the story uninvolved, the prose prosaic, the dialog banal, and the lack of proper punctuation disturbing. I didn't really need a poorly-written book about the end of the world to tell me parents want to protect their children and humans can be animals. I got the point of this pablum in the first few pages, and the repetition of the words "Okay", "gray", and "ash" didn't drive it home any better.

I actually came here to see if I'd missed the point of the "novel". What I've seen of these "reviews" is more disturbing than the "novel". It seems that there is no way to actually dislike this work, since if you do, the McCarthy apologists (or "fans") run to your post and call you names or discredit you by attacking your spelling. This is the crowd he's attracting? You should all be very proud.

But what's even worse are the people who say they dislike the "book" in every conceivable way, and give it 3 stars anyway. Why? Group-think. They see that more people have given it good reviews, and they don't want to be attacked like the 1 and 2 star reviews are.

This may be a pointless gesture at this point, but even though I think the book should get maybe 1.5 or 2 stars depending how forgiving I am being for pretension in any particular moment, I feel I must deliver a 1 star review (since I can't give a no star review), as some sort of balancing measure.

I understand that this a Pyhrric gesture at best, but there it is. I enjoy tilting at windmills. (Yes, I know I'm mixing my colloquialisms.)

****

I hope you aren't too disappointed in me, David. I don't normally do that sort of thing, but as I said, I got a little obsessed.

I'm better now.

5:09 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

That's not that bad. I mean, that's not an example of the type of reviews that I was pointing out. You clearly didn't like the book. You didn't like that it seems there's a cabal that will attack you for saying so. And you couldn't quite help but be a bit sacrastic...

But at the same time you wrote with an even, clear-headed tone. Many, many one starred reviews don't. But it's not the one star I object to; it's the aggressively abusive way that some people chose to express themselves. As far as I'm concerned your review adds to the discussion of the book.

You might want to watch those mixed metaphors, though...

5:35 PM  

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