Good Bad Reviews

Posted: December 29, 2010 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Internets, I have a confession to make: I have become deeply addicted to Goodreads.

At first, it was just little things, like compulsively updating my reading progress, checking to see how Solace & Grief was doing and compiling a vast, improbable list of novels I haven’t yet read, but want to. Then I started adding people as friends – complete strangers, most of them, and yet there was a vicarious thrill every time I perused their reading choices, reviews and ratings. Still, I had managed to keep on the safe side of the boundary between interested and obsessed, until I started checking the site for updates with roughly the same frequency as I check my email, lingering on the homepage even when there was nothing new to see and trying to think of which books, which authors I might look up and read about. Now in the final, debilitating stages of true addiction, my main use of the site has expanded into what can only be described as a combination of schadenfreude and masochism: an active search for negative reviews of books I actually like.

Over and over, I ask myself why I’m doing this. What can I possibly gain? What is the attraction in hearing about the bad things complete strangers have to say about some of my favourite stories? Many times, I’ve told myself to stop. As an author myself, I should find no joy in seeing a good book ripped to pieces; certainly, seeing my own work criticised is far from fun. As will always be the case when enough pepople weigh in, some of the reviews I find are pure pejorative, absolutely devoid of critical merit and so deeply subjective as to be useless. Others are written sarcastically with entertainment value as their main purpose, in keeping with the principle that mockery is both easier and more enjoyable than explaining why something is good. I might laugh at some of these, especially if they’re well written, but I don’t particularly like myself for it. I do look for positive reviews, too, particularly of books on my TBR list, but overall, my fixation is on the negative.

But gradually, I’m starting to understand why.

For a while now, I’ve been a member of the (very excellent) SuperNOVA writers’ group in Melbourne. With the exception of a handful of creative writing workshops when I was still in school, it’s been my first real experience with constructive literary criticism, both as a recipient and a critic. The learning process has fascinated me, not only in terms of upping my own game, but with regard to how different people percieve different stories. Reading first in a critical vacuum as a child and then, as a teenager, in a context where recommendations were generally restricted to “read this because it’s awesome” – all within the one genre – it became easy to assume that I was, somehow, reading the right books, with the implication that there were also wrong books out there, and I was avoiding them. This didn’t mean I always loved the books my friends suggested, but as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere, it did encourage a weird conservatism in my outlook: that somehow, I had been lucky enough to stumble on the works of a finite number of authors whose books were worth reading, and that beyond their pages lay chaos.

Obviously, this was a stupid attitude and one which I’ve subsequently abandoned. But one of the consequences of all that endless, prejudicial rereading was a type of critical stagnation. By drawing everything I read from such a small pool and sharply restricting the influx of new blood, I was inbreeding my intellect. I knew what I liked – I had, after all, taken great pains to surround myself with it – but I didn’t really know why, because my basis for comparison was so small.

As a fledgeling writer, the one thing I’d always prided myself on was an ability to edit my own work. The hardest lesson I ever learned about writing, but one which I learned early, was that just because I’d written something – that it had taken time and effort – didn’t mean it was good, or unable to be improved upon. I abandoned hundreds of thousands of words in the name of self-improvement, whole drafts set aside because I knew I could do better. So when I realised how narrow my understanding of literary criticism really was, it completely upended everything I thought I’d known about my own style.

Which brings us back to my current obsession with Goodreads, and its oh-so-many negative reviews.

Because when a stranger lays out their problems with a favourite book,  I have to ask myself: can I understand their criticism? If so, does that negate my enjoyment of the book, or can I acknowledge that I liked the story despite its flaws? There is a sensation I often have when reading, like rowing across a rippling lake: the thought that, if I were seeking to be a more critical reader – if I wished to peer beneath the surface, rather than simply be carried – certain lines or plot points would bother me more. They’re the kind of thing I think about after the fact, because I don’t enjoy adversarial reading. The idea of pitting myself against a book, daring it to offend me, constantly on the lookout for problems, doesn’t appeal. Which isn’t to say that I’m never jerked out of a story, or that I’ve never persevered with a book through spite. We all have our own bugbears, particular things which, no matter our desire to cross the lake smoothly, will rear up and rock the boat. But I still like to think about the why of stories, and in this regard, the criticism of strangers can be invaluable, particularly when they involve a more detailed, thoughtful catalogue of things I chose to ignore, but nonetheless notice.

The other side of the coin is when I simply don’t agree; when the criticism offered fails to make sense. But even then, I still have to think about why I choose to disregard that opinion. Possibly there’s still a bit of schadenfreude in the equation, or masochism, or whatever. I’m only human. But with all the reading, reviewing and review-reading I’ve done this year, I feel as though I’ve come a long way towards a better understanding and apprecation of writing – not just with regard to the works of other people, but also of my own.

Comments
  1. […] So when I said recently that I’d become a little obsessed with reading negative reviews on Goodre…, the thing I didn’t admit to was the fact that most of the bad reviews I read were of YA books aimed at female audiences, and that the grounds for their being criticised by adult, female readers was, 99% of the time, to do with a perceived failure of feminism. It might have been J.K. Rowling who made the adult world sit up and take notice of YA novels, but it was Stephenie Meyer whose work provoked the greater degree of feminist scrutiny. And here’s where things really start to get controversial, because as far as I can see, the issue at the heart of the YA mafia sentiment – the logic which underpins so many critical, bad or outright scathing reviews, and which is therefore in no small part responsible for the stances of those  authors, publishers and agents who object to them – is twofold: firstly, the objections of adult, feminist readers to a perceived lack of feminist values in a number of books aimed primarily at teenage girls, and secondly, the open admission of particular authors and agents that yes, it really is best not to ruffle any feathers. […]

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