Another Way

I came across a review recently. The reviewer and the book are not directly important to this post; I merely wanted to highlight this simple statement within the review:

Then I thought: but what if I’m taking this the wrong way?

The reviewer then challenges himself to consider his responses up to this point, and ponder if it is right.

How amazing is that? In this world of quick response statements about books, how great that someone actually takes time out to consider why they’re feeling a certain way and if their opinion is correct – more importantly, that they might appreciate a book better if they tried to understand it in another way.

Today, I share this viewpoint. I will confess that, years ago when I wanted to be a writer, I would view books in a very black and white manner, and such tones were calibrated by how I thought a book should be written, be it in plot or style, rather than trying to understand the creative process more open-mindedly. I sometimes consider revisiting works I had previously dismissed; maybe I’ll get more out of them this time around.

The amount of times people trash a book on a forum or a blog, merely because it wasn’t what they wanted it to be (or the more heinous crime, how they would have written it themselves), is disconcerting at times, and it’s so warming to see such a consideration in a review.

Then again, this reviewer does go to town on another book. You can’t win ’em all.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

12 replies on “Another Way”

I did a review of a Gene Wolfe collection a while ago and felt a similar thing. I can’t stand his short stories, but because so many people seem to highly regard them, I kept on questioning whether I’m assessing them “correctly”. In the end, I just said they weren’t for me.

It’s an effective rhetorical trick for some reviews, but not all, I think. And if a reviewer doesn’t say it, it doesn’t mean they haven’t gone through that process. I think I’d argue that with a good, substantive review you can guess that the reviewer has gone through that process without them having to say it; if they’re being rigorous about explaining why they think something, it means they’ve considered whether their reading is valid.

I think there is an important different between the first of those reviews and the second and that is the subject matter.

Roberts tells us two things about In Great Waters straight off: it has been highly praised and it is technically very good. And yet he doesn’t really like it. It is those two conditions that prompt him to ask the question you quote. I think most reviewers (and readers) come across works like this and have a similar reaction; Alex’s example of Gene wolfe is a good one.

For The Fires Of Heaven, on the other hand, those two pre-conditions are absent, hence no need for introspection.

Generally speaking, I’m with you. But there’s a thin line between reading about books and reading about the blogger. A good reviewer should definitely have the self-awareness to critically look at their own criticism, but I hope they spare the reader every line of their internal dialogue.

Also, a bit jealous of that blog entry. I wish I were half as good when it came to expressing my withering contempt of the Wheel of Time series.

I think this is a noble approach and I unreservedly agree with Mark that we can be too hasty, and shoot off our mouthes and feel damn foolish later.

Certainly when we read and review fiction, we can come to a conclusion too easily. We can end up disliking (or dismissing) something that we have not fully given as fair and as equal a chance to win us over as we might with something else that we have taken more time and effort to consider.

All fair enough, up to a point.

Some books are more difficult than others. A few of these are even meant to be this way. On the latter, we’ll leave my reservations about this style of writing to one side, and go with the simplest take. Difficult, complex, and ambitious (especially if ambitions are salted liberally with faults as they often are) novels are harder to like and easier to dismiss. But that said, not ever book that gets trashed in a review for being flawed or difficult or just coming across as poorly written, falls into the above. Not every bad book is complex. Not every bad writer is just misunderstood. Some are simply bad books and some authors are better at their craft and their art than are others.

Will everyone agree that a book is a failure? Unlikely, impossible almost. I find that books that I loathe, or at least find utterly formulaic or poorly constructed, can not only achieve financial success, but there will always be a host of other reviewers (most of them I might note, on the blogging end of the sphere which has taken over the bulk of criticism these days for better -or for worse, but that’s another battle for another long day when I don’t have writing to do myself), who will laude and praise the same novel to high heaven.

Who’s right and who’s wrong I think is not the main issue, and that’s what in part Mark is saying and which I applaud. You, the reader or the reviewer might get more or at least something different if you re-appoarch the work, or simply re-read it (if you can).

But that’s missing the point I think, or at least clouding the waters of good criticism. Sure we can, but should we be required to do so in the first place? I trust my instincts when I read a book. I’m an experienced reader, and rarely thrown for a loop by a conscious style or post-modern trick. If the book is worth it, despite the stylistic tomfoolery or the story meandering here and there for various reasons but still worth the telling, then I’m willing to wade through a lot of things that I might not otherwise like to fully experience a book that is well worth the time that it takes.

The review/reviewer that Mark cites, suggests that he had to re-wire his thinking about a fairly important premise underlying the book. However, how do we know that it is indeed meant as an allegory and not to be taken at face value? It is difficult to be sure of an author’s intent beyond the trail of the ink that he or she leaves on the page. Should we ignore then something that doesn’t feel right, or even transform it into something that sits better with the rest of the story? It’s a bit like making yourself not see the elephant in the room so you can vacuum around it. It’s still there, but you’ve tricked yourself into pretending it’s not. Is this right? Is this useful? Is this what we really want to have to do in order to either appreciate or recommend a book?

I don’t think so, personally at least. Honesty is better, and trusting in yourself gets you farther than self-deciet. Or even just blurring the lines set by your scepticism with a very creative act of mentally re-shuffling the deck. And unless we want to argue that we can not make a value assessment about anything (and if so, why bother with critics or reviews in the first place) being good or bad when it comes to books and writing, I think we are better served holding suspect the need to jump through hoops just to enjoy a particular offering. Again, this doesn’t mean that a careful reappraisal or even a re-start might be useful if you find a book that you have some reason to expect greatness from and yet you struggle to find anything to enjoy within its pages.

A good book I believe, knows a good reader. It treats them right, even if it pisses them off or confuses. There is an almost unmistakable sense of its genius or worth, which grabs the reader’s imagination or respect, and doesn’t let go from start to finish. Second guessing our feelings (rather than our hasty words, which is another argument and one I agree with wholeheartedly) will only lead us farther away from the true experience, be it good or bad or thoroughly mixed.

Focusing on a detailed review, and analyzing why you did not like the book or what it was that the author failed to accomplish in winning you over, that’s more useful for yourself and others than saying you haven’t tried hard enough to like it or look past its faults.

Just words, but those are my thoughts.


I think some of the comments toward the end of the second Roberts review you link are of interest, not just because I posted in it 😉

Reevaluation is a valuable thing, when it is applicable. Noting initial reactions has some value as well.

Oh, and a tangent: I have a post for you to read, Mark, that ought to generate some reaction 😉

I’ve mentioned this very point in reviews I’ve written. I called it the “it wasn’t what I expected so I hated it” phenomena. No attention is payed as to the writing or plot. All those points are blanketed by fanboy disappoinment.

Bloody nora Eric, the mother of all responses!

I know Phillip, I know.

Verbosity plus at least three typos, written off the cuff no less (I would have been 1st post but well, you saw it) – a travesty. I’m a terrible essayist in no small part because I’m of the school that says why use one word when you can have three? Or twenty three, why stop there, do I hear forty nine?

But Mark comes up with these delectable, thought provoking topics and I’m powerless to resist.

Well, I guess that’s it. Nothing more to say. We’ll just see how you like it. Total silence.


I’m always willing to admit that even when I don’t like something it could be my fault. I recently read a short story collection I didn’t like, but it was well written and it was case of it being me and not the book.

When I write reviews I always try to keep it in the back of my head (and show in the review) that i’m not an expert and what I am saying constitutes only my opinion, not some sort of absolute.

I agree that people can be too hasty much of the time. But, as a reviewer it’s important to be true to yourself. That’s why readers come back to see what you have to say, especially if they find they have the same tastes as you.

I’ve seen plenty of books that have received terrible reviews, but I keep searching to find if I personally would like the book if it at all interests me.

Comments are closed.