Bad reviews…

Not of my own writing (thankfully!), but book reviews generally are on my mind today. This article on i09 led me on a digitally intertextual journey to Slate and then to Metro to discover Eleanor Catton’s piece on literature and elitism.

Moved to respond to online criticism on Twitter over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in a Paris Review article, she explores whether the use of a large and informed vocabulary is indeed evidence of elitism. Where does the writer stand when deciding which adjective to use: should she assume a higher level of erudition in the reader, or dumb it down to appeal to the masses?

Catton took some time to research poor reviews on Amazon and Goodreads in order to ascertain what was eliciting negative feedback. In doing so she is able to draw a clear distinction between criticism and product ratings:

I noticed the recurrence of three principal objections: (1) this book was confusing; (2) this book was boring; and (3) this book was badly written … “Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

Most it seems are written in the same manner in which people review everyday products such as toasters and televisions. This seems to reflect how many have now come to see art as just something else to be consumed, rated and discarded with a single star if it proves too difficult.

And what does what we choose to read say about us – and should it even matter?

I’ve moaned in the past, to anyone who will listen, that adults reading Harry Potter books are a sign of society’s increasing infantilism and resistance to anything worthy of effort. I’m probably wrong. I’m probably being elitist. And I readily accept that people are probably saying the same thing about me when they see me leaving the comic shop laden with the latest X-Men and Batman issues.

So apparently we make judgements about each other for the slightest reason, from our choices of clothes, to our accents, to our taste in literature. Wasn’t it ever thus? The difference is that our shallowness (or snobbishness) is now on display for the world to read through star-ratings and feedback boxes in websites.

But these are obviously not worthy of our time and for the most part should be ignored. This is not elitism but is what I’m going to boldly assert as a statement of fact: if you consume books as you consume everything else in life, then your opinion is of very limited (if any) value to most people in the literary world. It will perhaps tie you to one particular marketing demographic but that’s all. Stick to ghostwritten celebrity biographies (are autobiographies still autobiographies if they are ghostwritten?), and stay with the reading books by authors who don’t have any expectations of your level of intelligence.

Did I just make a horrible judgement there…?

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