Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Negative reviews for books, not people

Recently I read (listened to) Mur Lafferty's The Shambling Guide to New York City and then I reviewed it on Goodreads, as usual. Then, somewhat unusually, I returned to that review to make sure I had been as fair as possible. Why did I do that?

I like a lot of the set-up of Shambling Guide: woman learning that there's this whole magical underworld all around her in the city, learning that she's an important part of it--which is a sort of epic fantasy plot with a semi-chosen one, but gender-swapped (girl editor rather than farm-boy), in a paranormal romance/urban fantasy setting.

And I also like Mur Lafferty, whose podcast I Should Be Writing features a lot of straight talk about the costs and emotional rollercoaster of writing. Lafferty has something of a name within the podcasting world (she used to be an editor of one of the Escape Artist podcasts and has podcasted a few of her novels), but Shambling Guide is her first traditionally published novel. In short: I want good things for this book because she's a good person.

Yet, though I like the set-up of the book and I like Mur Lafferty, there were several issues I had with the book. Enough so that my overall review probably reads neutral-to-negative. And that had been bothering me a little bit--just a little, somewhere between day-old paper-cut and "I have to remember to take the garbage out before those yogurt containers start to smell." Was I too mean to her as a person? Was I too nice to the book because I like her as a person?

Finally, today I went back to re-read my review and, luckily, I found that it was pretty fair. I pinpointed the points I had issues with, while making it clear what I thought the strengths were, both of the book and of the writer.

This probably only interests me, but I feel like a lot of academic criticism--and a lot of regular criticism--elides that distance between the person and the work: for the extreme example, I once heard a professor express distaste for someone else's theory by saying that he was surprised she had enough brain power to keep on living. As I said, that's the extreme, but there is that type of criticism: bad book probably means bad person. It's an ungenerous and often unhelpful me vs. you type of review that is rarely warranted.

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