Whenever I read a story I want to write about it. The impulse is not to review but to crystallize my thoughts. If I publish what I write, it will be considered a review. If I don’t like aspects of a story, my readers will think I’m telling them to avoid the story. In actuality, I’m only describing my personal reactions. It doesn’t mean other people reading the story won’t enjoy it or have different reactions altogether.
I’ve been disturbed lately by reading essays by young people dismissing older books and authors because those books and writers don’t meet their modern moral standards. I recently wrote an essay about this, “The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past.” I’ve been thinking about why they do this, and why critics write about fiction they don’t like. At one level its a kind of censorship. The young are saying don’t read these stories because the author is morally suspect, or the characters express repugnant beliefs, or that the theme of the story is objectionable. Ordinary critics when they pan a story are merely helping their readers save money, or helping the writer by pointing out flaws that need fixing. These good intentions have the same censorship effect.
Stories need readers and the best way to get readers is by positive reviews and word-of-mouth praise. Protests by young writers often feel like they are implying, don’t read old stories, read our new stories. However, they seldom offer substitutes for the stories they protest against. Reviewers might think by warning their readers against poor stories their readers will find superior stories to buy instead, but again, they usually don’t offer superior alternatives. Of course, offering substitutes is hard. If you protest a 1950s novel, you should suggest another 1950s novel covering the same thematic territory that does meet your standards. If your review rips up a new novel, you might suggest another contemporary novel that tackles the same subject without those faults.
I’m wondering if I should only write about stories I believe worthy of reading. The real goal should be to promote stories I love, and not gossip about stories I hate. I realize now in popular culture there are two kinds of people out there – promoters and protesters. But it gets very complicated. Take climate change. I’m against it, and I’m all for the protesters who are also against it. But the problem isn’t pro v. anti regarding climate change. It’s really capitalism v. stable weather, a healthy environment, preserving species. It’s positive v. positive. This is why the issue of climate change is so divisive, it’s a fight over two positives. If fixing climate change didn’t involve dismantling capitalism, most people would be for fixing the problem.
We all have limited reading time. We don’t want to waste it on bad books. The real choice should be between all the great stories we could be reading. This makes me think when I mention a book it should be a book worthy of recommending. There are thousands of science fiction novels and short stories published each year. Reading about bad stories is only wasting your reading time – time you could be actually be reading good stories. It also wastes my writing time.
I don’t know if I can break my habit of writing about stories I don’t like. I think there is a strong drive in everyone to criticize what annoys them. I read a story yesterday that annoyed the crap out of me. I kept waiting for it to get to its point thinking the author would redeem a bad beginning with a good ending. He didn’t. I then wanted to write about my feelings of reading outrage. But why should you care about my reading meltdown? Other than people who think, “If Harris hates it, I’ll love it” there are no upsides.
There are still problems with only writing about stories I love. Stories aren’t always good or bad. Sometimes they are almost excellent except for a few flaws. Should I promote those books? I recently read an award-winning novel that I thought extremely creative. Yet, it left me emotionally empty in the end because it never developed a heart. It was a fireworks display of ideas and dazzling writing, but the characters were blah. Of course, other readers might have felt more for those characters and the book would be 100% satisfying for them. However, should I review it and say take a risk of steering you wrong? Ultimately, I decided if I can’t completely back a story I shouldn’t mention it.
Finally, there’s the problem of me loving a story but it fails to be loved by my readers. I can’t guarantee you’ll love the stories I do. I believe I have two choices. When dealing with fiction I can either write about what I love and hope you love it too, or I can give up writing about fiction and try to write fiction instead. I’d rather do the latter, but I can’t right now. But if I did get my fiction published how would I feel about people writing about it?
I’ve taken a lot of writing classics and workshops and criticism is very important. Critiques are a kind of marketing data for writers. Pure praise is useless, other than encouraging the ego. Complete criticism makes you want to stop writing. What is helpful are critiques that say these parts made me want to keep reading, and these parts made me want to stop reading. I wonder if this approach would also work for reviewing stories? It might be helpful to writers, but I don’t know if potential readers care.
Of the two approaches, which do you prefer? Only read reviews of stories worthy of reading, or read reviews which lists the highs and lows? Do you really want to run out and read a flawed book?
James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19