A couple weeks ago, The Guardian published an essay that got the reading and writing world buzzing. Author Kathleen Hale received a particularly negative semi-review of her novel No One Else Can Have You and she kind of lost her mind over it.
Hale scoured the Internet for information about the reviewer and eventually showed up at the reviewer’s home and then called her at work under false pretenses. Hale did not threaten the reviewer, nor did she actually harm her physically. But it’s still just slightly creepy.
In another case, self-published British author Richard Brittain, known for bullying behavior on Wattpad, traveled to Scotland to assault a woman who left a negative review of his book on Goodreads. He sneaked up behind her and bashed her in the back of the head with a wine bottle.
There exists a website called Stop the Goodreads Bullies that takes on a number of reviewers and bloggers who criticize literary (and I use that word loosely) works. The site has given out some of these reviewers’ addresses and daily habits, encouraging members and blog readers to track them down.
More benign, but in the same vein and more to the point I’m coming to, the latest trend is that people are not allowed to give honest reviews of books if the honest review is negative. The common criticisms of such critique are, “it’s subjective so you can’t judge it”; “I admire anyone who can finish writing a book”; “the author worked really hard on it and it’s like a baby.”
Let me take these on.
First, “it’s subjective.” Whether a particular reader enjoyed a particular piece certainly is subjective. However, there are some very specific elements that make a literary work good or bad. These include grammar, avoiding alliteration (unless it’s purposeful and works), avoiding redundancy, using words correctly, pace, plotting … There are many more, but I won’t list them all. Some current popular books lack one or all of these elements, yet people give them five-star reviews. Those five-star reviewers, whom I suspect wouldn’t know good writing if it climbed up their rear ends, attack anyone who disagrees with their assessments.
Personally, even if I didn’t enjoy a particular read, I will never give fewer than three stars if I recognize it’s well-written but just wasn’t my thing. If you go to my Goodreads page and see one or two stars, it was a BAD BOOK. That doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it, but call it what it is!
There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ comedy History of the World Part I where the first artist paints on a cave wall and immediately after, the first critic arises. In other words. critiquing art has been round as long as there has been art. People make entire careers of it. They critique books, movies, television shows, visual art, dance and even each other. If you search through Goodreads, you will find thousands of one-star reviews of Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain … If those legends garner poor reviews, what makes someone like Hale think she won’t?
I long ago learned not to choose books to read based on Goodreads star ratings. I have utterly despised books that had average rating above four and loved books with much lower ratings.The average reader doesn’t know anything beyond, “I enjoyed that.” And the average reader probably isn’t nearly as critical as I am. I also question the quality of books the average reader is reading, based on the average quality of professionally published books in the last ten or so years.
For that matter, I just yesterday finished a novel I bought solely because it boasted a positive review from George RR Martin on the cover. (For those who don’t know, Martin wrote/is writing the A Song of Ice and Fire series that the HBO show Game of Thrones is based on.) The book? It sucked. It was dull, poorly-plotted. The character development was beyond bad. And that’s terribly frustrating.
But what is this trend of not being allowed to criticize something because someone worked hard and finished writing a book? Why do we admire a poor end product because someone “worked hard” on it? I admire writers who take the time and effort to perfect their craft. I admire writers who learn grammar and punctuation and who follow or break writing rules in a deliberate way that improves the product. I don’t admire someone who just slaps words onto paper and calls it a book and demands praise. I cannot support the popularization of terrible books.
To be clear, I am not criticizing subject matter or content. You like erotica? Great! But skip EL James and find something someone actually wrote WELL. Something with plot and character and, well, that’s written in a recognizable form of English. I’m not a fan of dystopian literature. It leaves me feeling very dark. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant novel. I’m not so sure about The Hunger Games, though. I only got through chapter six. It bored me and the writing, well, it wasn’t all that wonderful. I also suspect she stole a lot of the story and ideas from other authors.
Many who say we shouldn’t criticize call anyone who does “jealous.” Do I want to be a successful author? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I am jealous of others who already are. If that were true, I would hate JK Rowling, Stephen King, Amy Tan and many other talented, published, successful writers. I don’t. I only have a problem with books I think are not up to par, that don’t live up to the wonderful works those authors have put forth.
Read The Shining, then read 50 Shades of Grey and tell me again that EL James is a great writer.