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Thursday Rant: So You Think You’re a Book Reviewer…

May 19, 2011

I need to rant about something and 140 characters in Twitter is not enough.

So Wednesday morning I’m looking at my feed and I see this one girl who fancies herself a book reviewer gave Slaughterhouse V 2 stars.  My immediate reaction was one of those old John McEnroe reactions.  Throw down my racket and start screaming, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!”

Yeah sure this is the Internet where you can say any dumbass thing you want and unless you’re in China or Iran probably no one’s going to stop you.  But there’s always the issue of whether you SHOULD say something.  A lot of stuff (like saying my butt itches) is completely unnecessary on the Internet or anywhere else.

But more to the point for me is that if you’re going to hang your shingle out there calling yourself a “book reviewer” then saying you didn’t GET Slaughterhouse V makes your credibility instantly evaporate in my mind.  It’s like if you want to call yourself a film critic and then say what a piece of shit “Citizen Kane” is because you didn’t GET it.

I mean Kurt Vonnegut is only one of the most respected American authors ever and Slaughterhouse V makes probably every Great Books list but you didn’t GET it so it must be crap.  How the hell can you expect anyone other than other morons to ever take you seriously then?  At the very least come up with a better explanation than you didn’t GET it, something people might consider a valid reason to hate such a well-regarded book.

Here are a couple of Terrible Tips if you want to be a book reviewer:

  1. Don’t bother with classics because everything that should be said already has
  2. If you are going to bother with classics, then bring your A-game.  You can’t treat a classic like it’s Snooki’s latest opus.  You just can’t.  Because if you’re going to say you hate Slaughterhouse V, you better have a really good reason or else people are going to think you’re a moron.

And this is why I haven’t reviewed many classics.  I did one for Great Expectations and just for fun I did one for Silas Marner saying the “Wishbone” episode on PBS was better.  But the latter was more just a reason to pimp that old TV show than anything.

Now all this isn’t to say you have to love every classic book.  I “read” Henry James (I listened to an audiobook) and positively hated it.  I’d probably hate Jane Austen too because all that manners stuff and waltzes just bores the crap out of me.  But if I’m going to fancy myself a book reviewer am I going to say that?  No, because no one should take me seriously after that except other dimwits.  Now if you’re wanting to write reviews for dimwits (maybe start a site called Blue Collar Book Reviews or something) then go nuts.  Tell everyone how fucking retarded The Iliad was to you.

Of course with my book review blog I have a whole disclaimer set up about all that.

OK, I feel better now.  Until some other Twit pisses me off.

Friday:  another gratuitous Star Wars reference…


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  1. Bwahaha!

    I liked Slaughterhouse V…however, Vonnegut does have a different style than most of today’s current books. Personally, I think that’s a good thing, however, I’m sure some of our younger counterparts may not. 😉

    Honestly, I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, but I thought it was a good book. Wait, that didn’t make sense. Holden Caufield totally pissed me off, haha! SO, the fact that the book got such a strong reaction out of me gives me the impression that it was doing its job and therefore was good.

    Okay, enough rambling. Until next time!

    • I should have remembered I actually reviewed “On the Road” and my reaction to that was the same as when I read “Catcher in the Rye”: had I been 15 years old I would have loved them, but as a cynical adult they didn’t do a whole lot for me. I still wouldn’t give them 2 stars though.

  2. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. I love how his chapters are one page long, and the snarky writing coupled with allegory. Slaughterhouse 5 was very entertaining as was Cat’s Cradle. The person that gave it a bad review, Mutt, is probably someone that expects very little as far as intellectual stimulation goes.

    • I don’t think Cat’s Cradle was one of my faves. I really liked Bluebeard because I thought it had a good message for writers.

  3. This is one of those rare posts where the comments are as entertaining as the post itself. I don’t even know where to begin!

    I’m a frequent critic of people who love “classics,” because (as I’ve said a lot) they often don’t relate that well to my life; almost every “classic” movie I’ve ever seen has disappointed — and sometimes the ones I think are classics leave the kids feeling underwhelmed.

    My view of some “classic” books was that they were terrible. I hated Anna Karenina. I was bored by Moby Dick. I thought Catcher In The Rye was overrated and dull.

    On the other hand, “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man And The Sea” left me thinking that I’d never be able to write such a good book, and I still remember them years later.

    I’ve advocated replacing some so-called “classics” with better books:

    And would continue to do so.

    It actually sounds to me like your point may be not so much that the reviewer didn’t like Slaughterhouse-Five (which, for the record, I think was one of the greatest books ever written, and which led me to read everything else Vonnegut ever wrote) but that the reasons for liking it were superficial, vapid, or facile, which is a fair comment; if I say “I didn’t like Anna Karenina because the typeface was stupid and Anna’s dress should’ve been white,” well, I’m a moron; there are INvalid reasons for not liking something.

    If, though, I say “I didn’t like Anna Karenina because I felt the story droned on for far too long and would have been equally effective as a short story,” that’s a valid criticism of the book (and is also the way I truly feel).

    I couldn’t find the review you talked about; you should post it and/or quote from it.

    But I do get your point, too, that it’s different if your review is not meant to be taken seriously, or if the point you are trying to make is not that the book is bad or good, but something else entirely. A critique which mockingly compares a classic to a kids’ TV show is not the same thing as someone throwing up their hands over a book that is widely-regarded as being great and saying “I just didn’t get it,” and then trashing the book because of that.

    So I’m kind of on my own side here, except that I firmly believe people should not comment anonymously.

    • At least you’re not calling me a hypocrite!

      What’s ironic is my first experience with Vonnegut was a short story in high school. I forget exactly what it was called, something about “Harrison [somebody]” and I really hated it.

      Then later in part because I was reading Great Books and in part because Vonnegut was a mentor to my favorite author John Irving, I started reading his books. I had to start with “Timequake” because my crummy library had only one copy of “Slaughterhouse V” and it was checked out and I didn’t have the money or inclination to go to B&N and buy a copy. But actually that was good because a lot of “Timequake” is an autobiography of Vonnegut so it gave me a little introduction to him before I started to read his work.

      I thought posting a link to the actual site would only infuriate her more, like I was calling her out, though I take it from the response on Twitter and number of hits coming from there she’s having a mob gather their pitchforks and torches. So what the hell.

    • I also think there’s a difference in that you don’t describe yourself as a book reviewer, at least to my knowledge. Though I do enjoy your reviews!

  4. I wanted to step in and defend “Moby Dick” as a masterpiece and attempt to explain why it is so great. In order to see its brilliance, you really need to examine it with “Deconstruction techniques” ala Terry Eagleton who wrote about them extensively in the 20th Century.

    Using deconstruction, you can take the first three words of “Moby Dick” which are “Call me Ishmael.” Now yes, you can say that this is the voice of the narrator. However, the “me” can also be the “book” referring to itself as “Ishmael” which is a Biblical reference to a person that “wandered”. If you accept this, then as you read “Moby Dick” you see that the chapters do indeed wander. They go from details of Ahab and his obsession over the white whale to chapters exclusively devoted to whaling and the techniques of the time.

    Aside from this being a fascinating example of a master at work in the construction of his novel, it is also an extremely important book because of its historical facts regarding the time period and the profession of whaling. Also, its prose is outstanding and often quoted because it sounds so good.

    So I would have to agree with others that point at “Moby Dick” as being a masterpiece and this should not be changed from curriculum taught in schools. I just feel that teachers need to point out properly the “why” and the “how” such a book is lauded as so rather than simply dumping it into the laps of people with the expectation to read the pages therein.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever re-commented.

    I read her review, and commented over there, too. I think the big problem was that she didn’t like that KIND of book, which makes it unfair to review. I don’t like nonfiction and read almost none of it; I wouldn’t really want to review a nonfiction book.

    I think she also missed the point of the book, but, honestly, I can’t hold that against her, as I’ve always thought that a book should stand or fall (like a painting or piece of music) on its own merits, even without the additional storyline. You can enjoy “Tears In Heaven” without knowing why Clapton wrote it; while having the backstory makes the song more moving, it shouldn’t be necessary to listen to it.

    Which is why I don’t agree with Michael about Moby-Dick; knowing those facts may help me understand portions of the book, but it still remains dreadfully dry and dull. And as for the symbolism, I’m always wary of that, as I’ve explained in formulating the “My Aunt’s Dog Theorem.” (I once explained how “Hound Dog” was actually an allegorical look at the Bank Panic of 1907.)

    Rogue, you should do a point-counterpoint of her post, though: her defense (as posted on her blog) boils down to “everyone has an opinion and nothing is wrong,” which is an argument that I hate; of COURSE opinions can be wrong. All opinions are fact-based and if the facts underlying the opinion are incorrect, then the opinion is, too. And the opinion, too, could simply be wrong — as is the case with those who are of the opinion the Slaughterhouse-Five is a bad book.

    • I’ll have to let you two fight it out about Moby Dick. I haven’t read it. It’s on my eventually I should get around to this pile. Or maybe I’ll just watch the miniseries that was on USA or something with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. Does that actually exist or do I just want it to exist? I know there’s one with Gregory Peck as Ahab.

      I really don’t want to go to her blog and make a bigger thing of it and face more reprisals–such as flagging my reviews of my books on Amazon. I honestly thought I’d vent here and hardly anyone would pay it any mind–the usual 20-30 views–and we’d move on. I didn’t think it’d get over 170 views!

  6. That’s what you get for taking such a controversial stance as “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a great book.

    • Admittedly I could have done that in a more polite fashion. This is why I need a publicist.

  7. Yes, I’m one of the people who have been brought to your site by Kara and you’ll notice I’m 100% laying myself out there. Here’s the thing: I’m going to say the same thing to you that I said to her – you are entitled to your own opinions. As is she.

    While I don’t find the name calling and backlash that’s happened here to be in any way productive, I hope that you can find some sense. The obnoxious comments do nothing to elevate you as a person, nor as a writer that I would ever, in my right mind, read.

    That’s what it ultimately comes down to. Right? You want people to respect your opinions and taste so that at some point, they’ll take you seriously?

    It’s okay to run into people with differing opinions without the assumption and assertation that their complete morons. That my friend, takes intelligence.

    DISCLAIMER: I have not read Slaughterhouse V, but it is (even after Kara’s interpretation) on my list. Why? Because while I respect book bloggers, they aren’t ME. I have a brain of my own and can decide for myself whether or not a book is worth reading. Kara’s experiences have led her to where she is and those are completely different from yours or mine. Does that make them wrong? No– it makes her a different person. And that’s okay.

    • You bring up an interesting topic that should be a blog entry. Do you have to be a nice guy to be read? My answer: hell no. Hemingway, Faulkner, Chandler (among others) were all alcoholics. I doubt nice alcoholics either. I don’t choose authors because of their personal politics or because I LIKE them; I read them because their books sound interesting.

      I really don’t care if you like ME as a person. That has nothing to do with my work. That’s the problem people have all the time with celebrities and athletes: we think they’re the people on the movie screen, the TV, or the stadium. Then we’re bummed to find out they aren’t. Just because Ahh-nold is a philandering jerk doesn’t mean I’m never going to watch “Terminator 2” again. Just because Tiger Woods is a philandering jerk doesn’t mean I’m never going to play one of his video games again.

      So if you want to seem intelligent, learn to separate the art from the artist.

      • While there is truth to this, we live in a highly socialized world. To the average person, you’re right; they’re not going to know nor care about whether or not a person’s a jerk in real life. Should they? I guess it’s up to each person.

        Now, I never said I disliked you, nor did I say I disliked your words. In fact, it’s necessary to this dialogue. Do I agree with you? Not at all.

        Ultimately, it comes down to– are you happy with your stance? If you are, then oh-the-hell-well! Carry on. LOL!

  8. Lindsaywrites permalink

    I think we should all be nice 😦 book blogging is a community. Lets all be friends. Were all fun-loving nerds here, right?

  9. Excellent response Carissa.

    Anyway…Brian…okay, so “Moby Dick” is albeit dull and dry. However as an example of incredible literature you can’t deny how brilliant it is. The author wrote it as a dedication to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote the equally amazing “The Scarlet Letter”. And as for books being able to stand by themselves…I don’t think this is correct. “Ulysses” by James Joyce is clearly not meant for a light read and there has to be some background on who he is as a writer and the people to whom he wrote the book for you to be able to understand much of the material. Faulkner in a way is similar. Absalom, Absalom might confuse people that don’t understand the way Faulkner writes which again…is brilliant (if you haven’t read it, you should because I love the way Faulkner keeps going back to details in previous chapters and continues to build chapter after chapter when you suspect he’s dropped them).

  10. I had to check back after I finished what passes for work in my office; this is a great read.

    I’ve never even WANTED to read “Ulysses.” I’ve struggled through some dense books — The Satanic Verses, Foucault’s Pendulum– but given up on others, like the amazingly bad “Infinite Jest.” We may measure “brilliant” differently; one mark of brilliance in my book is creating a work that is readable, and Moby-Dick doesn’t hit that stride. If you want to convey a message, that message is best conveyed in a way that makes people want to hear it and/or pay attention to it (even if the message is, “Hey, here’s a good story.”) Moby-Dick’s brilliance, if it’s there, is obscured by the difficulty of reading it and the tiresome way it’s presented, which makes it less brilliant.

    (I felt the same way about REM’s lyrics, by the way.)

    On that note, let me turn to Rogue’s maybe having to be more polite (or not). If people like you, they may be more inclined to want to read you, but being nice isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to success. Rush Limbaugh made fun of Parkinson’s, and is doing quite well (not that he’s my role model). I’ve many times said that being nice isn’t always required, in a variety of contexts. Your brusque comment on the Slaughterhouse review has led to more discussion (and more readership for you) of that issue than polite commentary might have — it remains to be seen if your 26 comments (so far) will keep up, but getting people’s attention is half the battle.

    Am I suggesting that people be deliberately outrageous simply to attract attention? No — because contrived controversy won’t last. But you had a gut reaction to the review that you expressed in visceral terms, and it worked (in part, depending on your goal.)

    • I wish I were that clever. I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be back down to 15 views and two comments. That’ll be a real bummer. If I were going to get that much traffic, I would have liked it to be one of my better entries.

  11. I’ve always felt like a lot of classic works aren’t so great for modern readers without some appreciation for the times they were written in, so I have read a great number of ‘classics’ just so I could say I read them but hated them. I don’t recall if I reviewed them or not, but if I had I would probably have just said how I felt, whether it made me look like an idiot or not. .

    As for being polite. It’s Rogue’s blog I suppose. He can do what he wants.

    • Well again, I don’t think you’re going around billing yourself as a book reviewer. If you don’t have the skills to grasp the fundamental concepts of “Slaughterhouse V” then why should I trust your reviews?

  12. Haha. I haven’t yet read Slaughthouse V, but I have read Vonnegut before and I get where you’re coming from. I think you can review and say whatever you like, but there has to be a reason. If you don’t understand a book, at least put reasons and exampels of why and how it could be confusing. It’s also okay to say you didn’t care for a book, but to call it bad writing because of your personal taste. *shakes head and sighs*

    ❤ Gina Blechman

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