Friday, August 10, 2007

Can't We All Get Along?

By Barbara D’Amato

This week, on one of the mystery lists, I came upon an extremely hostile reviewlet of a new crime novel. It brought back thoughts of a specific type of comment about books that has puzzled me for years.

I’m not talking about negative reviews. They’re legitimate. A good reviewer is able to say, “This isn’t my favorite kind of novel, but it’s a good example of its type.” I’m talking about the comment in which the reader or reviewer is angry that such a book even exists.

It would be understandable if the reader were upset that a book dissed his religion or ethnicity. It’s even reasonable to have a distaste for a book that appears to the reader to be gratuitously bloody or cruel -- although in those cases I would say just don’t read it. But these, oddly enough, are stylistic objections.

Intentionally, I am not going to quote from any of these diatribes, nor name names or publications. It seems unprofessional to leave out all the proof of what I’m saying, but I’d rather not add to the back-and-forth. And anyway, we’ve all read some of them, haven’t we?

It’s not the writers who come up with these angry blasts. Virtually all the writers I know are supportive of other writers. They know how hard it is to write a book, and they are appreciative of others who do it, even the book isn’t what they like to read.

These are readers who are outraged that noir, or chicklit, or whatever they can’t stand, even gets published. They are outraged when a fast-paced adventure novel is low on characterization. Or they are furious that a chicklit book may be “light.” Or they can’t stand it that a traditional puzzle mystery is more intellectual than emotional. Hello? What were you expecting?

A sentence from the 60s comes to mind. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

If books had misleading cover descriptions, so that you paid money for an updated Rambo and got a knitting boutique, anger might be understandable. But mostly that isn’t the case, and, in addition, a lot of the outrage comes from reviewers and critics who get advance reading copies free.

What in the world triggers this anger? Maybe it comes from fear of the foreign, a kind of xenophobia: how can any person be so different from me as to enjoy this book?

I’d be interested in your thinking.

22 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

Barbara, interesting assessment. I can go multiple directions here.

One: A book I tried a few months ago was a case in point of the cover not matching the contest. The cover was dark and the description suggested a suspense-filled book, our protagonist against the world, alone as everyone turned on them and doubted what they knew to be true about a killer. The reality was that by page five the protagonist had patched up their issues with their spouse, who was suddenly on their side, and five pages later their old boss changed their mind and believed them and suddenly everyone wanted to help them. It went from 'one man against the world' to 'the three musketeers and all their friends take down the bad man'. The latter might have been fine, but I was expecting the former... Let it be a note to publishers, anyway. Covers matter. I threw that book against the wall.

Two: I actually am seeing these types of comments made by writers. Lately, a lot. For a while, it felt like every other article I read/interview I listened to/blog I dropped by was attacking certain types of books that didn't suit their taste. And it definitely produced some frustration on my part and my honest feelings about some of the things said, because they were hurtful. Not just to me as a writer, but to me as someone who's experienced violence and abuse. My ultimately conclusion has been to read fewer blogs, talk to fewer people and stay with my own kind, I guess. Being offended and having that cause problems between yourself and others just isn't productive.

Now, to the root, with reviewers. We have a 24-7 Book Television channel here in Canada, and not too long ago I watched a round table discussion on reviewing, discussing the latest trend in trash reviews. We had the for and against sides. They were quoting this one review that just trashed Martin Amis, because the reviewer felt 'personally betrayed' by Amis because he didn't like his latest book. It was basically a long tirade about how Amis had let him down.

It was a fascinating show to watch, although it made my blood boil. I wanted to smack the pro-trash people, because I firmly do not believe in trashing books just for the sake of trashing them. On the other hand, the ones saying, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say it at all" were not being professional. Good sandbox rules don't always apply to journalism.

The reality is, books should be assessed on their own merits or shortcomings... You do not say a romance isn't any good because it isn't a thriller, or that a thriller is a piece of garbage because it isn't a mystery. Books and authors should be assessed for whether or not they are what they're intended to be, whether the plot holds together, whether the characters are believable, whether the writing is good. A review is not about the reviewer, and it's not even about the author. It's about the book and readers, and providing enough information to let readers decide if they should read that book.

My belief is, when reviewers go on tirades against the existence of certain types of books, it's because they've forgotten their place and their purpose. And there are some who've decided to sensationalize reviewing by trying to make it controversial. I don't believe that really serves anyone, least of all the readers.

However, this reinforces one of my key beliefs: It is better to send your work to reviewers who are interested in your genre than to just send them blindly to any reviewer. I am unlikely to do erotica justice in a review. I doubt I could even do a cat mystery justice, because even my feline Rebus has no experience with solving cases.

Give me a police procedural, though, and I know what I'm talking about. And as an author you'll likely be happier, because when I pick up a police procedural I'm predisposed to like it. I want it to be good.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Sandra, for the great comments.

It's not good for anyone when a cover misrepresents a book. The customer is disappointed and the novel also may not find its real audience, which isn't good for the author, either.

I am dismayed to hear that lots of writers are dissing other writers. Maybe I don't read enough blogs. The writers I know are appreciative of books. The negative stuff makes the person who says it look bad.

About critics--absolutely, books should be assessed on their own merits. I guess we learn over time which revieweers are fair and trustworthy and which aren't.

Steve Z. said...

As a reader of mystery and crime fiction for three decades or so, one thing that I try to remember is that books don't come with money back guarantees. I love the work of Donald Westlake, and have probably read fourteen or fifteen of his novels, and all but a couple of them were great. That leaves two that were disappointing -- they just didn't do it for me, for a number of reasons. Ruth Rendell is a fabulous suspense writer, maybe the best alive, but have I and will I love everything she's written? No.

When I like a book a lot, I recommend it to friends. When I don't, I don't. Simple as that. An ancillary joy of reading is finding new writers friends will like.

It's very rare that I buy a book that is falsely advertised. If I did, I'd be disappointed ("I paid twelve books for that book!"), but furious? Nope. And who should I be angry at, anyway? The writer, or the marketing department at the publisher who misled me about the book? Or myself? Was I in a hurry when I bought it? Maybe I should have perused it a bit longer before I bought it.

Maybe some of this anger among readers is what us Krauts refer to as schadenfreude: enjoyment of the misfortune and failure (real or imagined) of others. Sadly, this seems to be growing in our culture, as does a general mean-spiritedness. And sometimes it's not only failure that is ridiculed -- if something becomes popular, you can bet there's somebody out there just waiting to tear into it.

I'll never live long enough to read all the good books in the world, and that's a good thing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Maybe I don't read enough blogs."

Barbara, you're probably reading just the right number. Although in actual fact, some of these discussions stemmed from comments authors made on radio programs and in news articles and interviews. They just spilled over to the blogs, probably in part because people were frustrated with what they'd heard/read. There are a few blogs I do avoid, but then, others may find the blog perfectly suited to their taste. Blogs are a bit like books that way...

Generally speaking, most writers are supportive of other writers, even if not in the same genre, never mind different ends of the same genre.

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