In a recent newsletter I shared a dilemma with you: how do I talk about books I don’t like here on the blog?
This topic is especially relevant right now. Right after that newsletter went out, I dove headlong into summer reading guide prep. I’ve read a dozen novels this month that won’t be published for another month or five: novels that haven’t been reviewed yet, novels that I can’t feel out by listening to other readers’ opinions.
A whole lot of them just aren’t very good.
I don’t want to slam anybody’s book. Real people write novels, after all, and I don’t want to stomp all over their work. But I don’t want you to waste ten hours reading a book that’s not any good, especially not if I knew it and could have warned you!
In the midst of this inner debate, I read something in Lauren Winner’s memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis that is shaping my approach to dud novels. She wasn’t talking about book reviews; she was probing her complicated relationship with her mother. No matter. She introduced me to art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s rules of thumb for reviewing works he doesn’t like—or, as he delightfully puts it, “work that isn’t immediately congenial.” He asks himself:
What would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree.
He goes on to say:
If that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively. Other times it’s just, “Look what camel has walked into the tent.”
My friend Heather, who works in publishing, says there are no bad books, only books that haven’t found the right reader. I wouldn’t go that far. I’m careful about what I read, and I’ve still read some pretty horrible books. (Most of those just needed another round of edits, but that’s another story for another day.)
But there’s a lot of truth to what Heather says. We read for different reasons, we approach books with differing expectations, we all have different taste. When I’m talking books with you, the most unhelpful things you can say to me are I liked it or I didn’t. I need to know why, and how. I need to know where the story stumbled and where it sung. I need to know what you specifically loved, or exactly what turned you off. If you don’t give me details, how can I know if I would like it or not?
This spring, prepare yourself for a lot of delicate reviews of books I didn’t like. I’ll be using this framework, and I’m hopeful—excited, even—about being able to discuss the books I didn’t love (at all) in way that feels fair, and gentle, and useful.
Do you hesitate to criticize books you don’t like? How do you approach this subject? Any tips or advice?