For a long time, I’ve been struggling with how to write about books on this blog. I would never call myself a ‘book blogger’ (though I do blog about books) and I would never call myself a ‘reviewer’ because I am still in an exploratory phase, trying, as I have been for years, to understand what a book review actually is (I am no closer to an answer.)
In deciding how far I wanted to take the discussion of books on my blog, I set rules for myself:
1. I will never label a post about a book ‘a review’.
2. In an effort never to be obligated to anyone anywhere, I will not accept review copies of a book. (Admittedly, I have broken this rule and it’s getting really difficult to keep because I receive email pitches daily and sometimes I do want to read the book…)
3. I will only share thoughts of books I love (or think are especially well-written.)
And the only reason that I had to set these rules for myself is because of these pitches, which I began to receive, seemingly out of no where, about a year ago.
Number three is the rule I feel most strongly about. I see no reason to talk about books I dislike or even find mediocre on this particular blog. Since I eschew the label of ‘book review blog’ I feel no need to balance my blog with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reviews (because, you see, they are not reviews.)
And there are reasons beyond that. Since the readers of this blog are predominantly writers, I go back to the thoughts of a screenwriting professor I once had in film school who said that we can’t learn to write well by reading things that are poorly written. Why would we ever watch bad films and spend hours talking about them? What a waste of time. We’re learning.
And then I go back to nursery school where I learned that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.
However, ‘niceness’ in online book culture has been receiving quite a bit of scrutiny in virtual conversation. And, for once, the discussion is not just about book reviewers writing about books, it is also about writers writing about books.
Jacob Silverman wrote about The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture for Slate. Cally Jackson wonders Are We Jeopardising the Indie Book Industry By Being ‘Nice’?
Lev Grossman meditates on the despair that comes from hating a book in this enjoyable piece I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation.
And in a very charming ‘By the Book’ interview in the New York Times Book Review, author J. Courtney Sullivan said, “I would sooner eat glass than hurt feelings,” when asked if she could name a book that disappointed her.
As someone who is still regretful about a comment I left on a blog over a year ago where I spoke poorly about a particular book and writer, the thought of publicly writing about books I dislike leaves me just as unsettled as Sullivan.
But I do wonder how important it is to the online literary community to write about the books we despise. Silverman implores us to ‘think more and enthuse less’:
A better literary culture would be one that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.
In person and through email, I am ruthless when it comes to books. I rant endlessly to friends about a book I wanted to throw across the room. I would never do that in this space. Why?
I still believe in a culture of ‘nice’ on this blog. I can’t imagine it ever becoming something other than a space to recommend and learn from the beauty of the best books, rather than the ugly of the worst.
But I do wonder what we might lose by being nice? Since ‘best’ and ‘worst’ are subjective is there not a natural balance out there anyway? And what does it say about ourselves that we are so fearful to publicly critique?
How private should the discussion be when it comes to the books we ‘hate’?