Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is There Any Such Thing As A Bad Book?

Bill Crider recently posted about Duane Swierczynski's latest book, SEVERANCE PACKAGE.

I'm going to preface this by saying that this book is on the shelves here, Brian's already read it and is working on a review (he's never met Duane), and I like Duane. Anything else you might feel the need to know on a personal level has probably already been said, in the comment trail of the post Bill made about Duane's book.

It's actually the comment trail that I'm wanting to talk about here. I was alerted to the post because someone made comments that are actually about me, although I'm not mentioned by name. I'm not bothered by it at all. I didn't want to get into the thick of it when the discussion was hot and heavy, but have chimed in now.

What weighs on my mind is the argument over a person's right to trash a book, and who gives anyone the right to decide what's important or substantive. It ties into something I said recently to someone else, and that's that I'm not convinced there's any such thing as a bad book.

Okay, okay, I've certainly tossed a few books against walls and formed opinions about some books I've called bad. But I'm talking about universal bad. THE DaVINCI CODE is a favourite by many to pick on, but can I really say it's a bad book? Well, no, because I haven't read it so I wouldn't know one way or the other anyway, but TDC got a lot of people who normally don't read much to pick up a book. It reached the fringe occasional readers. Can I really complain about any book that gets people to read?

I'm not sure I can. I mean, there are books I don't like... This is true of everyone, I'm sure. And it can be argued that some books aren't well written, so there might be a reason they'd be bad to use in an English class, but ultimately the process of reading is valuable. I don't want to get into religion or any kind of propaganda or anything - let's not skew this into something else, but keep it to general comments on fiction.

However, Lee Goldberg's comments on SEVERANCE PACKAGE hit on a nerve with a lot of readers:

It's obvious that that Duane is a wonderfully imaginative, highly skilled writer...but, in my opinion, he's skating on flash alone...he's taking the easy way and not using his considerable talent to its full potential. He could be writing great books...noir classics...but instead he's going for gimmicks, in-jokes, and fights. It's as if in every scene he's trying to impress his friends, as if he's saying "hey, look at this guys, isn't this cool?" instead of trying to create characters and tell a compelling story. It made reading the book frustrating...I kept asking myself why is he wasting himself on this when he could be writing something with substance and staying power? This would have worked much better as a comic book...which it, essentially, is (the cover and the artwork interspersed throughout the book make that comparison inevitable).

You can read all the fall-out yourself. I've also weighed in, and not done so lightly.

Truth is, I very well could have just posted Charlie Stella's comments on my blog yesterday and let them serve for what I really wanted to say:

If bad writing is being published/well reviewed and/or honored because bloggers/reviewers have influence, don’t kid yourself, the buying/reading public will be able discern the good from the bad over the long haul. All fame (in whatever form it comes and however it comes) is truly fleeting (or some of the published/well reviewed and/or honored wouldn’t have taken such hard falls). More importantly, who cares what (or who) “they” promote (whether in the form of authors, reviews and/or awards)? In the end, it’s always the same number of people paying attention (count them). You (the anonymous) just might find some valuable relief in avoiding offending all the cliques out there. Life is way too short to go through with that (apparently constant) level of apprehension. What the fuck good is “your career” unless it’s yours?

Amen. At the end of the day, readers decide what's worth being published. If a book doesn't sell, all the positive endorsements on blogs in the world don't mean squat.

The thing is, not everyone is trying to use popularity and kissing ass to gain themselves blurbs and plugs. Some people are just genuinely nice guys who get along with everyone, and who write good books.

To me, Duane's one of those guys. I can only speak for myself, so don't hold him guilty for sharing any sentiments here. If you can't stand me don't dump Duane as a friend over what I think of him. I think he's a great guy. I think he's extremely talented. I think he's easy-going and generally, gets along with most people (I'm not aware of him having issues with anyone). If the fact that Duane is likable makes him cliquey to some, that's unfortunate, because I'm nowhere near the cliques and definitely not Miss Popularity and have enjoyed an afternoon laughing my ass off with Duane in the bar at B'con, and if he was really that cliquey, I doubt he would have hung out with me.

I like Duane, and I don't really get along with Lee Goldberg (who I've never met, and doubt I ever will) but I do stand behind my comments over there. It's only the volume of experience I have, seeing Lee say something again and again and again that's offended people, and ultimately what he once said to Sandra Scoppettone months back that make me think Lee often comes of critical when he actually means to be encouraging.

But it just goes to show that opinions are wide and varied and ultimately subjective. Sometimes, you have to learn to let the criticism slide, and that's a simple reality for those of us who write. I'm not saying it's easy to do, but between amazon comments and mainstream reviews, you never know what people will say and they're under no obligation to molly-coddle you.

One other side note: to me, the fact that authors who don't normally participate on the blogging community felt the need to not only read the discussion, but to comment and to stand behind their endorsement of the book speaks volumes. It's the proof of the awareness that the backscratching exists, and that many endorsements are meaningless. The most meaningful bit of praise you'll ever get for your work will come from readers, not authors, as nice as it is to be liked by writers you admire. I'm in the process of making the list for who will get a copy of THE FRAILTY OF FLESH, as I'm getting arcs soon, and I must confess there aren't many authors on the list at this point. I can't think of many who'd be willing and have time. So many have non-blurbing policies, or only blurb upon request of their agent/publisher, I can't keep it straight, and I've become so skeptical about the whole process. This whole year has been a lesson for me about some who pander to cliques and take sides.

And I'd rather be on a whole different playing field than deal with all of that.


Randy Johnson said...

Interesting post. I read Severance Package and I come down on the side that likes it. It was different. I've not read any of his other books, but I certainly plan to look them up based on my experience with this one.
I'm a fan of Lee Goldberg's books as well, but I certainly have to disagree with him on this. That's okay. No one likes everything and some of us may have overlapping tastes as well as sharp disagreements.
I'm not a professional reviewer or a writer, just a reader. I know what I like and dislike. I post reviews occasionally, but have never posted one for a book I didn't like. I don't even review every book I like. All I do is tell potential readers what I liked and why they might enjoy it.

Bill Crider said...

Thanks for chiming in, Sandra. That comment thread was by far the most interesting ever to appear on my blog. I post reviews all the time, and almost always they're of books I like (I can think of one recent exception, and instead of blasting the book, I just didn't say much of anything.) I started my blog for fun, and it's a place where I write about things that amuse me in one way or another. Books included. These days, if I don't like a book, I just don't bother to finish it. At my age, there's not enough time for that. I just move on to something else.

Barbara said...

In answer to your question - though possibly off on an irrelevant tack, here - actually, I do think there is such a thing as a bad book.

One kind of bad book is a really badly written book. Sorry - I know that's subjective, but it's the kind of subjective I can live with. (I grade student papers with that in mind, too.) That doesn't mean it won't be a book many people enjoy. I haven't been able to read more than a page of James Patterson because the line-by-line writing is painful to me. But he obviously succeeds in telling a certain kind of story in a manner that works very well for millions of people who want to read exciting, fast stories and don't care about the quality of the writing. I would still class his paint-by-numbers efforts as successful but bad books. And by saying that I don't mean to insult those who enjoy them or suggest they shouldn't read them.

A second kind of bad book is one that deliberately sets out to influence readers to do bad things or to see the world in a distorted way. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a bad book. I think books that glorify torture and misogyny and hold up violence as a manly and/or patriotic virtue without any nuance at all are also bad. (Duane's books do have a point beyond biff, pow, blam - I'm not talking about his books. I'm talking about books that mine our fears and turn out books designed to make you less thoughtful about them and more brainlessly comforted.) I wouldn't be in favor of censoring any of them, or telling people they ought not to read them. I am in favor of discussing why they are problematic. And I think in an odd way we need them, because they provide a telling barometer of the times. The response to The DaVinci Code is far more interesting that The DaVinci Code itself.

Here's the footnote: This question came up very early on in my first semester in library school, in the one course that made me think maybe I hadn't made a terrible mistake giving up that Slavic Studies fellowship to study librarianship. The teacher was Don Davis. He asked the question that is your post title, and everyone said "of course there's no such thing as a bad book." And he said something like "can books do good?" Of course they can. "Well, if books have the power to do good, surely that extends in the other direction. Do they have power, or don't they?"

This is totally not what you were talking about, but his point has stuck with me for many years, and I truly believe that we can't dismiss the potentially negative impact of books unless we concede they have none at all.

More on point - I think people should be able to say they didn't like a book and why. If it's backstabbing or logrolling (which I find at least as obnoxious as negativity), it's not about the book at all, so it doesn't count. Saying "I think this writer could write the kind of book I value, and he's chosen to head in another direction and I wish he hadn't" doesn't strike me as character assassination. If you say "I hated this book, and here's why" it's criticism, not trashing.

Coda: I love books, but I really hated high school and don't want to live there anymore. :o)

Anonymous said...

I liked Duane's book, but was disappointed, mainly because his first two were so much stronger. And I said so on my own blog.

However, if I hated it, I likely would not have reviewed it at all. Unless The Rap Sheet, January, or Crimespree (or Spinetingler, if the editor is inclined to run my inane ramblings) asks me to review a book, a negative (as opposed to a "bad") review is a waste of energy.

Besides, it has my stepson curious now. Don't know if my wife will let him read it, but if he's curious, he will read.

Sandra said...

Randy, I love your approach to discussing books. There's nothing wrong with your philosophy at all. I'll come back to it in a second.

Bill, I don't blame you for not finishing books you aren't enjoying. I've definitely abandoned a few. As time goes on, I'll probably abandon more and more.

All I can say on it for myself - and this is just me - is that I've chosen to review for Crimespree, Spinetingler and Mystery Bookspot. To me, that's different than having a blog for fun, which is an equally wonderful thing... just different. If I choose to take on the mantel of reviewer, then I think doing the odd review of a book that didn't work for me is part of the territory. If I'm going to dismiss books based on author personality, then I'm not being professional. I only avoid reviewing books by someone I've had a very public issue/disagreement with around that time, so that if I do have any negative comments they can't be misconstrued as being personal attacks. I want the reviews to be about the books, and I want them to be fair assessments.

I've never liked setting myself up as judge and jury, and that's why I can accept that others have differing views. I may be passionate in my praise and it may feel like badgering to some, but always at the core I try to understand how others think and see things, because the human mind is a fascinating thing, and if I wasn't fascinated with different people and didn't try to understand how different people think, I'd be a weaker writer.

I chose to review in part to avoid the blurbing game. I only put the weight of the occasional negative review on me. It's my feeling it's necessary from time to time, although Brian will tell you that I begged to stop reading one book I ultimately gave a negative review to, and only finished it because he really wanted to discuss it with me.

Barbara, you have gone off in an interesting direction. You've raised an important point, and in general, I'd agree with what you'd label as bad. As you know, I was trying to limit my scope to general fiction, and the endless arguments that are of a subjective nature.

I agree from an educational perspective that some books are badly written. That said, there are books I find clunky that have been huge bestsellers and encouraged kids to read. I'm at a loss for criticizing them just because I don't like them when they've ultimately had such a positive widespread influence.

The power of books is ultimately what's behind every move to ban a book. Either that, or politics, and I've pulled out enough hair over politics. I didn't like high school either. Finding a way to avoid it and all the b.s. is nearly impossible if you stay online, anyway.

I just hope that anyone who felt the need to argue on this book did so based on the merit of the work, and not for personal reasons. I agree with Barbara, that Lee is not staging a personal attack. It seems some are interpreting it that way, and then others are using the 'clique' accusation to justify why some have defended him. I can't speak to everyone's motives, but I felt that most of the commentary went to the book, not the person, and the personal question was a way of derailing the discussion. Kind of "if you can't win a fair fight, win an unfair fight" mentality. Unfortunately, in those scenarios, nobody wins.

Evil J, I'd publish your inane ramblings any day. And fair enough points to make on your own view.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

There are plenty of bad books out there. I just don't feel like taking the time to talk about them.

And I'm with Barbara on the high school mentality thing. It's why I'm blogging less and less.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Though if I were a reviewer, I'd have no qualms about writing a negative review.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patrick, I think blogging has to involve your own focus. As Bill said, he has his blog for fun and entertainment. His purpose isn't to stir up controversy or debate the merits of books. Other blogs are strictly marketing tools for self promotion of the writer. Other blogs are for other things. I do believe Brian subscribes to a blog that's done by strippers...

At some point, we all have to say 'there's my line, and be damned with anyone who doesn't like it' because we can never please everyone. And sooner or later you'll be on a panel or at a convention in the bar and say something that will mortally offend those people who take easy offense anyway. I just can't live behind a public facade, so I don't even try.

Bill Crider said...

Sandra, years ago I reviewed for many different mystery fanzines (this was long before the Internet). I reviewed books I didn't like, and I said so. Got into some good arguments now and then because of it. But the days when I'd read a book I didn't like are long gone.

colman said...

I don't review books though I have expressed opinions or commented on them on various forums or blogs. Not always in a positive fashion, but hey if I've ponied up I'm entitled to an opinion, be it on a book, a film or even a meal.

If I've enjoyed something, I'll be positive and recommend it to others, but I'm not conceited enough to think that my opinion has any merit or influences people in what they read.

If I've been rocked by what I've read, and the author blogs or has an e-mail address, I'll possibly send them a mail and express my enjoyment.Hopefully, I don't come across as a sad sycophant or groupie!

Sandra said...

Bill, when I stop reviewing, I'll definitely follow suit. Life is too short. :)

Colman, I don't think it makes you a sad groupie. I can understand why people like seeing their book praised on blogs and forums - it's nice to know people like your stuff. Everyone likes a thumbs up or pat on the back every now and again.

But I can say for me that the greatest moments are when I get a letter from a reader in my inbox. That someone not only read the book but took the time to e-mail and say they liked it, well, that's wonderful. It makes my whole day.

I have no idea who finds my opinion valuable, but some publishers and authors have asked me to blurb books, so I'm guessing someone thinks it's a worthy recommendation. Or something. I don't know. Once you're in that position, you have difficult decisions to make. Some blurb every book they're asked to blurb, some admit they don't read the books and still blurb them, and some don't blurb... I've decided to stick mainly with reviewing. People can quote from it at their discretion, but it means that I just read the books I a) have time for and b) find appealing on some level. And hope like heck they measure up, because the more limited my reading time, the more tempted I am to let the reviewing slide. :)