So earlier this week I posted a review of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars to GoodReads. I am a huge fan of the work of John and his brother Hank, but I wasn’t a fan of the book. So if you’re a fan of The Fault in Our Stars, I don’t overly recommend you read that review. It isn’t written for entertainment, and is a rather meticulous explanation of why I don’t think the book carries weight. It does however include praise for the funeral chapter of the book (not really a spoiler, given the cast) as it is genuinely a perfect representation of just how shitty and subjective funerals can be.
Anyway. The point that has been bothering me since then isn’t so much the content of the review, but the fact that I felt inclined to share it in spite of that content, and just how much depth I went into over something I clearly didn’t enjoy.
I’m not really a believer in “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all” or similar cliches. I’ve seen artists look crestfallen when an audience refuse to give them constructive feedback, and understand just how important it is to be told where you are going wrong, even if you don’t agree.
It is a generally accepted truth in publishing that the more popular something becomes, the less important positive feedback becomes. You don’t need someone to tell you that you’re doing well, because the sales figures and market shares are already telling you that. Negative feedback can often be more vital, because it tells you where you’re going wrong within your success.
When all this is said and done however, bigger successes seem to draw greater negativity. The more popular something is, the more it seems to split people down the middle into those that passionately love it or hate it. Those who didn’t mind it particularly either way are always in the minority.
I am guilty of this. I have read many, tiny, inconsequential books which have left me feeling disappointed and deflated, but I have felt no real desire to review them or tear them down in public. Even Crap Looking Books doesn’t really care for truly bad books, that’s not what we’re about.
Yet along comes a book like The Fault in Our Stars and I feel pressured to not only respond to what I don’t like about it, but to do so at great length, and thoroughly.
I can think of three main reasons why this happens.
Escalators Gonna Escalate
When the south build better weapons, the north need better weapons to defeat them. When the north build those weapons, the south need even better weapons to regain their lead. I see your dragon and raise you a nitrous-fueled manticore… we see your manticore and raise you seven armour-plated attack leopards, that sort of thing. (Not sure what period of history this is.)
When something is as popular as The Fault in Our Stars (or Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, 50 Shades of Grey… anything big) there is a greater abundance of fans on-hand to put down any negative remarks. If you have something critical to say, there are a thousand voices telling you that you are wrong, that you missed the point, or employing that awful cliche Haters Gonna Hate.
Haters also gonna make some good points, and this kind of response doesn’t discourage them, but rather leads them to clarify what they mean, to stand their ground rather than let themselves be dismissed. When fans are (perhaps wrongly) perceived as worshipping every facet of a text with starry-eyed blindness, detractors are more inspired to point out specific problems or disappointments. It isn’t hate, it’s honest reflection, and the desire for discussion. Hate is quite happy to sit hating and gathering more hate to its cause, and usually comes from a separate place utterly irrelevant to the quality of the book itself.
Consider my review of He Who Hesitates, a terrible and unsettling crime novella by Ed McBain. Given the obscurity of the title, there isn’t an apparent fanbase for it, and at no point was I challenged by Ed McBain fans to reinforce or qualify my opinions. I’d actually welcome such a challenge.
However within moments of sharing my review of The Fault In Our Stars I was presented with many counterpoints, all of which, I’m pleased to say, were valid and thoughtful.
I Hear It’s Supposed To Be Good
As I mentioned, sales are a sign of success. Not only does a writer know that shifting a few million copies means they are doing something right, but potential readers see this as a sign the writer is doing something right.
If someone recommends a book to you, the understanding is that it is worth recommending, and therefore worth reading. If five million people all gush about a book, that is essentially five million recommendations, and five million readers who think the book is worth reading. As such there is an undue pressure on the book to perform, to stand up to its fandom and prove that it deserves it.
If a book no-one has heard of falls flat, that makes slightly more sense than a widely read and revered book not being up to scratch. If a book or text no-one likes turns out to be a bit lousy, then there is no surprise at all.
As a reviewer, I have to make the effort to remember and reflect on how important hard work is. There is no point calling a book rubbish or pointless and telling the creator that they are wasting their time. That’s not constructive criticism, that’s malicious and vindictive.
As such, meticulous blow-by-blow reasoning is more likely in criticism than it is in praise. You don’t want to offend someone by telling them they’re doing a bad job, so you try to tell them why you feel they did a bad job. If you think they did well, there’s no pressing need to specifically tell them why they did well.
I subscribe to a LOT of creator-driven YouTube channels. As such, I regularly see a lot of material that doesn’t quite work, or that simply doesn’t work for me. My general attitude at these times (I’m a compulsive commenter) is never one of decrying something as shit, but rather appreciating the hard work that went into the content, being grateful for it as a gift, and enthusiastically supporting the creator in their next endeavour- in the hope of course that it will be something better.
So what about yourselves? Do you express your negative views or keep them quiet? Why do you feel that popular books get more stick than those that fly under the radar? I would love to hear what you think, either in the comment box below, or over on our Facebook Page.