Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spreading the Snark - amended!

Dewey has created a meme on negativity in book blogging to which I give my best review - I steal it.

1. When you dislike a book, do you say so in your blog? Why or why not?

Oh yes, absolutely. I blog to interact with a community and to write from the flow. Neither of those can happen without honesty. I hope I don't go out of my way to be snarky, snarky can be too easy but there are times a book or a film just piss me off. Arrogance and ignorance do that most often. That can be the downside with having lots of author interviews, hype, and DVD extra features. When I sense a certain smugness and then the work fails for me, I tend to express that in no uncertain terms. I also think that writing is more exciting when it is filled with real feeling. When a work angers me, when I scream about it, that can, in its way, be a compliment. Sometimes I will rail that I feel a writer, actor, or director just hasn't done their job well. That's my opinion - love it or leave it. I was a creative artist for years. I got lots of reviews and other less professional opinions, thankfully none in the form of fruits or vegetables. I got some really negative reviews that I actually learned something from. Others were by jerks with no taste. Others mystified me. Whatever. I had a rule as an actor and I shared it with my students - it's not honest to insulate yourself only from bad commentary. Either put yourself in a place where you can hear criticism, or have someone clip all the reviews for you and save them for a time when you can. And if you're an artist, you need to find a reason to do your job other than other people's good opinion of you.

But there's a flip side to this in terms of the experience not of that artist but of those who read the criticism - when a work's theme produces a strong feeling in me - isn't that good? I don't read or go to films or theater to be sedated, alcohol or chamomile work just fine for that.

2. Do you temper your feelings about books you didn’t like, so as not to completely slam them? Why or why not?

It depends on the arrogance factor. A good honest failure can be an artist's ultimate triumph, it's part of the process. It can also be revealing to see how a great artist fails and valuable (to me). It depends how it hits me. I tend not to indiscriminately slam someone who has tried honestly to do a good job. But I see no reason to temper my feelings on my own blog. When I taught creative artists for years I tempered my feelings in that arena, but I'm not offering that service here; I charge by the hour for that. And I'm not offering feel-good therapy either for the creators or my fellow intelligent readers. I'm expressing something about my experience of their work. I try to keep my comments to the work, but other times it can be difficult to separate those two things and out it comes. My vast readership (ahem) is free to disagree or even ignore it.

3. What do you think is the best way to respond when you see a negative review about a book you enjoyed?

I usually don't respond. A person's opinion is a person's opinion. If I'm encouraged into a dialogue by knowing the reviewer or have a useful point to make, I might try to provoke that person to look at the work differently, or probe the point further to learn what lead them to that opinion, but mostly I just shut up and read.

4. What is your own most common reaction when you see a negative review of a book you loved or a positive review of a book you hated?

It's their right - honestly. When I really like the writer of it and have other points in common - like with my good friend and fellow blogger Sheila, I try to learn something about them. Sheila put a pretty negative comment about Anne Enright's book on my post about the the first 100 pages of The Gathering just the other day, when I really raved about the strength of the writing. I found it interesting and it made me read deeper. Also, when someone really raves about something, it usually perks me up. I think, wow - there must be something really important going on to get their dander up like that. I wonder what it is! It's fun to have friends you don't agree with all the time. If they always order what you order in the restaurant, how can you ever try any new foods?

5. What is your own most common reaction when you get a comment that disagrees with your opinion of a book?

I guess I just answered that. I haven't had to delete anyone for that reason...yet. Only because they are selling crap. Usually, I'd like to leave them up because I've been deleted not for being obnoxious but merely for disagreeing with the crowd on a couple of blogs. I found it narrow minded and felt it reflected a certain insecurity of their own opinion. But it's their real estate and their atmosphere, so it's their right.

6. What if you don’t like a book that was a free review copy? What then?

I have no qualms at all about giving a free review copy a thumbs down, and even an intense one at that if I think it's really deserved. I always tell the publisher, writer, or publicist that up front. This is my blog, I write my opinion here, this may be marketing for you but my writing is an extension of my soul and, as the song don't own me.

Actually, I'm amending my answer to this question because I don't feel more of an obligation to "be nice" with free review copies, in fact, I think it is even MORE important to deliver the content straight, no chaser. And it is more respectful too. If I'm writing a post about a book I chose I may not like it because it didn't live up to my expectations of it, or I may have not been in the right mood to receive it. Boo hoo, I lose. But if I'm given a copy for the purposes of publicity then, let's be honest, books are sold (like most things) on hype, sometimes not too infrequently, on ridiculous hyperbolae. I feel then that I'm not only responding to the book, but when received from the publicist, to the marketing. If they've trumpeted the book as the next DaVinci Code or the next David Copperfield then I'm going to respond - yes you have reached high and you have succeeded or - you know what, um, no. No, you're not the next Dickens. If a writer sends me the book, then to write less than my honest response is disrespectful and I have tremendous respect for creative artists. Sometimes when artists ask my opinion I turn around and ask them what they would like the feedback for. If I read an early draft of a play I may send the writer comments that constitute my first impressions, and couch them as such. Sometimes I'll say - do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know that I liked it. If the answer was the second, I will often decline to offer anything but general emotional support, because that is actually what is being requested. Sometimes as a director reacting to preview performances I will not offer my opinion at all, aside from a brief appreciation of the person, because I feel it could have unintended consequences as the work is not finished and I am not actually part of the creative team. But when a professional artist or publicist sends me a finished piece of writing asking to use my forum and to express my views then I respect them by doing just that as honestly as I can.

7. What do you do if you don’t finish a book? Do you review it or not? If you review it, do you mention that you didn’t finish it?

If I haven't finished a book I might still write something about it. I will always be clear about how much I read and exactly why I stopped. Life is too short for bad books or bad wine.

Now it's time for school - which some days can be one endless bad review. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so steal this if you wish.


Logophile said...

What excellent responses! Reading your post makes me trust your opinions more. I also think honesty is the best policy when it comes to reviewing, provided there's some supporting evidence (so "I hated it because of X" rather than "it's just plain rubbish and I hated it"). Such an amount is spent on publicity when a book is published that bloggers should not feel obliged to give a glowing review just because they got a free review copy. Fair, considered and, most importantly, honest responses should be what publishers get...

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ack - I totally didn't mean to come off as negative or like I was slamming something you liked!! Hope it didn't feel that way! I think her writing is superb - as I mentioned - but the bleak Irish family setting really wore me down.

I love your thoughts on why you write here - to engage with a community - and I also am in total agreement about the smugness factor. When there appears to be a universal clarion call of "this is the best book ever written - right? Right?" - I tend to be a bit more skeptical.

Sadly, this is why I have not read Zadie Smith yet - which is TOTALLY my own contrariness - since everyone I know has read her, loved her, and told me I would love her. I will definitely get to her!!

Ted said...

Thanks. I think w/ review copies in a way it's even MORE important. In fact, I think I'm going to amend my post.

S - Not at all, I loved that comment. As I said, it helped me read more closely and one of the reasons we're such good friends is because we're interested in what the other thinks - not because our own opinion is always echoed - right? You better say right.

Anonymous said...

Logophile is right: "I hated it because of X" rather than "it's just plain rubbish and I hated it" and you are on the right track. And it is important too: if the plot is overly convoluted, the characters unbelievable, the witing clumsy etc. then the reviewer should say this.

I'm rarely "snarky" however (a term that I have to admit I think is entirely stupid) because I have a fairly good idea most of the time whether or not I'm going to like a book before I open it! Rarely does a book come without a context ...

Ted said...

Mark - Indeed, context is all. Without explaining the "why" of our opinion, all one has done is rated the book, not reviewed it. If one is interested in reading a particular reviewer it is because one likes the context they bring to their experience as a reader and are able to reveal that to others.

And reading itself relates to context: When friends are surprised because I read the Book Review in the Sunday paper before the "news," (often instead of, actually), I always answer - but it is news. I don't use the reviews I read merely as a rating system telling me what I should buy next, but rather look at what people are reading as an indication of what we are thinking about as a culture. I particularly admire when a good review reveals something to me about the context in which we are living, through their reading experience.

Ted said...

Man, that veered off in another direction,but I guess it is worth talking about what a good review does, whether in the context of being negative about the book or positive.