Thursday, April 17, 2014

"I don't like it" vs. "It's bad"

Some time ago I developed a small following because I criticized a massively popular book.

And I mean, I didn't just say it sucked and move on. I more or less eviscerated it. Because it was a bad book.

And fans of the book, if you can believe it (gasp!), had a really hard time dealing with my criticism. They were so offended and so angry that I would dare to crap on their baby, which resulted in a disturbing amount of hate mail. Most of said hate mail amounted to "I LIKE THIS BOOK AND THAT IS MY OPINION. YOU SHOULDN'T TRY TO MAKE ME HATE IT."

In case it's not clear, most people who dislike books and say so are not trying to make its fans change into haters. Most of us are reasonable people who simply disagree on what constitutes a good book, and if "THAT'S MY OPINION GOSH DARN IT" is good enough to justify you liking it, then it should also be good enough to justify me hating it.

That said, I never trash a book entirely on the basis of personally not enjoying it. I have never once written a book review that amounted to "Nice writing, but I just don't like books about this subject" or "It was okay, but I'm giving it a low rating because I don't relate to the character." Oh no. Not at all.

As a person with an editorial background, I have VERY frequently been in a position to read books I had no personal interest in. And I have retained the ability to keep my personal feelings out of my reactions (to a great extent, anyway); I won't go as far as to say I am objective (since most people who are biased think they're just speaking the truth and I know better), but I will say that whether I personally enjoy a book has very little to do with whether I judge it to be a good book.

The trick is understanding audience and context. Who is this for? If I was less than enthused about the book because I'm not in the intended demographic, do I think being in the intended demographic would increase my connection to the material, or do I think that wouldn't help? For what reason is this written? If I don't agree with a message the author is trying to establish, do I still think they do a good job establishing the message for people who do? I keep these things in mind when judging the quality of a book. My own enjoyment does figure in, but it isn't the central aspect of my rubric.

A while back I read a series of fantasy books aimed at young adults. Usually very much up my alley. But as I read the adventures of the four children who made up a magical group, I just didn't feel very connected, and as the climax of each book barreled toward life and death struggles for the characters, I didn't find myself invested whatsoever in their well-being. I was just following along, reading what happened, appreciating that it was well told but in no way feeling a drive to read on. In fact, if someone had asked me to stop reading right then, it wouldn't have bothered me to never find out what happened. And when the author began a second series including the same characters and based on the same premise, for some reason I picked up book 1 and started reading, only to be reminded of why I didn't care for the author or her writing style. I decided to stop wasting my time reading it since I would have described my emotional state while reading as perhaps one notch above bored.

And yet, I did not think these were bad books. I thought they were well-written and smartly plotted, with a premise that felt innovative and a fantasy world that felt authentic. I don't know why I didn't care about the characters or find their adventures particularly interesting. If I were breaking up with this series, I'd definitely reassure it as follows: "It's not you, it's me."

However, with most books I do not enjoy, there is a legitimate quality issue that limits my ability to feel satisfied. Usually it's inauthentic characters that alienate me, but sometimes it's obnoxious storytelling, or plot that feels driven by the author's outline rather than character choices, or crushingly predictable story elements, or feeling the author's word choices are pretentious or too present (as in, I hear the author's voice more than the characters'). And when THOSE things make me not like a book, well, were I to break up with THOSE books, I'd dump them for being bad partners, not for simply being too different from what I wanted.

It's when a book is in the second category that I tend to heap more criticism on them. I call them out for their bad behavior, and when readers didn't see the flaws in their favorites (or enjoyed the books in spite of the flaws), they sometimes seem baffled that anyone would criticize. Well, sometimes you like something even though it's bad. But if I say I think something is bad and I give good explanations of why, I think it's ridiculous to react to my criticism by suggesting I am a senseless hater, am possessed of personal problems, or am not entitled to a negative opinion.

Bad books are different from books I just plain don't like, though I usually don't like bad books either. That's it.

And now, for fun, I will share some quotes with you from people who reacted inappropriately to my negative reviews. Observe how they attack me personally, assign me flaws, and insist that their own perspective is somehow beyond criticism in the name of FREE SPEECH AND PERSONAL OPINION while mine I guess is not. That and most of them assume I have never written a book myself--or that if I have, I must be bitter about my failures and am forced to get my jollies hating other writers for being successful. Hilarious.

writing is not a simple thing to do. im sure you understand this as well as others. i dont think it very appropriate to down ones work when you have not produced your own. If you dont like the book then shut up about it, but if u really want to make a change how about you show everyone how a good book should be written in your eyes.Until you have produced a book of your own i think you are merely jelous that a young man is reaping the fruits of his work and that you can not do the same.

Overall, I thought the book was very intriguing. I believe that you are searching for something to hate. Yes, there are some minor writing flaws, but beyond that it is a very fun book that I had trouble putting down.

Your entire review had a bitter, shaky tone about it that made me think you’re just a frustrated little girl that can’t figure out why another young writer was so successful. The evidence is throughout this entire piece of unmerited garbage that you call an essay. Any serious writer that takes the time to shoot down a book is no writer at all.

u r retarded ok if u r going to argue with everything about this book fine but find other ways of doing it. so its a little over dramatic with the said things and mabe it doesnt quiet equal tokien but it was a good book and the second was spectacular it has absolutely nothing to do with lotr and for your info i have read alot of great fantasy books now stop being retarded dont make a whole webpage about a book u dont like.

Okay, you think the book is bad...GOOD FOR U! But why criticize, put down, and tease the author? He didn't cause you any grief...who cares about what you think ANYWAY? ?You're just an egoistic jerk...

wow, your really mature. i'm not gonna draw this out because it will be pointless to try to talk some sense into you without u aving some "smart and witty" comeback but let me just say this. all that matters he's making money because people are buying his book and you arent. :)

btw u cant really create something completely new and original these days. most ideas are used up and sometimes you might think you have and original idea but someone else might have already used it. basically what i'm saying is most authors get their inspiration from others but don't copy it. what's wrong with a good old-fashioned fantasy book?? its not like he completely copied it jesus christ. go ahead make your little quip or "smart ass" remark.

Wow, your an ass. You don't like the book so this is what you say "omfgthisbooksuxkkthxbye" What is your problem? I thought this was an excellent book, and if you don't like it fine, I won't try and change your mind; However, you go to this and make an essay on how much you despise the book. That's just low and stupid. have some serious problems. But back to the topic. This is a fantsy novel, I have no idea why your making such a big deal over it. I'm just sending this comment to just show what a complete ass you are. Hey, how about next, you do this for Harry Potter! Yeah, makes thousands of people hate you just because YOU suck at writing so YOU have to critize others writing and so YOU can look like a complete ass to the entire world. You stupidity in making this site is only exceeded by your crappy comments and most likely, crappy writing. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Ok, boy-who-does-his-homework, if you really invented something completly diferent, never done before, i'm really want to read. NO ONE never did, some writers (FAMOUS CLASSIC WRITERS) even like to tell everybody about wich story they used as basis, and even then the book stil is a success.

Do you ever heard about joseph campbell? well, this guy wrote a book caled the hero with thousand faces, an examination of the archetype of the hero. and you know what he says? exactly what i'm teling you, he wrote that almost all hero stories can be shown to contain at least a part of the same patterns. so it's not just me that's saing, there's a lot of other psychological reserches (campbel's the most famous) that comprove what i'm saying.

Why are you sayng such nonsense? maybe you're just angry because [author] is becoming more and more famous. maybe(that's what i think) you're a litle jealous. after all, he mixed all these sources and made a best seler. after all, i would say that he did a pretty good job

Your comments about many of the ideas in [book] originating elsewhere, while valid, do not diminish the value of the book. Your criticisms that the style and content are clearly indicative of the author's immaturity are similarly irrelevant, and seem to manifest your own envy at not having been published more than anything else. I note that nowhere is your full name or "pen" name revealed. The books are, although imperfect, more entertaining than a vast number of published fantasy books, and a fine first effort on the part of [author], from which he is fortunate to benefit, since this success will give him the means to hone his craft further, without worrying about living in poverty. Obviously, I need to hone my craft further, as well, to learn how to avoid run-on sentences. You and others would do better to focus on more positive exertions.

He might not be able to write, but he seems to be doing pretty well for himself. Instead of writing mulitple criticisms, you might actually want to your time reading literature that you actually enjoy! Even though it's been done better, (which I agree whole heartedly that it has) the only the thing you gain from writing this is showing the internet the bitter side of you that would rather criticize an author who wrote an okay book than do something meaningful with your talent

I sure wish I was doing something meaningful with my talent. Since after all if you see a negative review of something on a website, that's sure to be its author's entire body of work and is representative of everything they think or feel. ;)


  1. You've got a bunch of doozies here. And in regard to this: i dont think it very appropriate to down ones work when you have not produced your own.

    Wouldn't this disqualify probably 95% of the reviews on Goodreads?

    Okay. I have no idea what percentage of reviews are written by 'writers', but I'm sure it's pretty small.

    1. Yeah really. My go-to response to that is "so you can't say the food at a restaurant is disgusting unless you're a chef?" There's a HUGE difference between being a producer and being a consumer, but I actually I think I have a finer appreciation for literature as a person who HAS "produced my own."

  2. Wow. The grammar & punctuation issues alone are enough to make you want to crawl in a hole, n'est-ce pas?

    1. Yeah. I do find it a bit inappropriate for people who are clearly NOT accomplished at the basics of using language to tell ME I don't know what I'm doing.