Some months ago, I was intrigued by Eleanor Catton’s December 2013 piece on the notion of elitism in literature. Catton points out that the “customer is always right” philosophy is a major influence on how we talk about books.
The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”
Catton is writing more about accusations of elitism than negative book reviews in general, but her words nevertheless speak to all of us who review books. She turns the beam of scrutiny back on the critic. No one likes every book she reads, but this is not necessarily because the book was bad. Sometimes we are bad readers. We don’t give the book the time or analysis it merits and accordingly do not reap what it has to offer. More frequently, though, I would say that when I don’t like a book, it’s because I’m the wrong reader.
I sort of shrug my shoulders at a lot of the 20th century “Great American Novels” written by men. This is not a humblebrag, as I’m not under the delusion that I somehow possess more insight into these works than the majority of great minds and devoted readers who have made these books classics. Objectively, I can’t help but see that the works of, say Faulkner or Hemingway, are masterful and represent important points of development in my country’s literary history. But I don’t enjoy reading them, even as I recognize their influence on many works I’ve loved.
Though there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these books, anything I told you would not be so much a criticism of their work as it would be an explanation of who I am as a reader. For instance, notwithstanding a level of flexibility I have for science fiction, fantasy, YA, and some Victorian literature (which together make up a large chunk of my reading) I am more likely to enjoy books by and/or about women. It’s not a preference I’ve consciously cultivated or can adequately account for.
I also have a strong preference for fairly linear and uncomplicated plots (so yeah, that pretty much does it for Faulkner, huh?). Kathryn Davis’s 2013 novel, Duplex, was a critical darling by and large, but I did not find that the effort of parsing its shifts between times and dimensions was repaid by any emotional or intellectual culmination. Is this bias of mine a limitation? Certainly. It represents an inability to cultivate empathy in certain kinds of literary “encounters” as Catton terms them:
“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.
As Catton points out, “describing and critiquing a literary encounter” is the job of criticism. But I would add that it is not its only job. Sometimes you just want to know whether you will like the book. And a good way to get an answer to that question is not always by learning about the book itself– it’s by learning how it was received by readers who have similar preferences and limitations to your own. It’s why you sometimes ignore recommendations from certain friends who may be very intelligent readers. If someone positively reviews a work of historical fiction, but you don’t like historical fiction, you will probably not enjoy the book!
Negative reviews from certain people can also be endorsements in disguise. After hearing a “nice girl” describe Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle as “a horrible, ugly book, about this girl who lives with her sister? And they’re recluses? And she tried to murder everyone by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl?” I thought, “Ho-ho-holy shit, I gotta read this book.” I marched directly to the library and did nothing but turn pages for the next two hours. She was the wrong reader for that book.
Sometimes we critics will be the “wrong” readers. This does not have to be a bad thing. A review demonstrating a critic’s failure to read a book “correctly,” can inform audiences as to whether they might be the “right” reader the book needs.