negative book reviewTwo things happened today that were strangely linked.

  1. I just read a fantastic piece by writer Kat Howard on BookRiot: The Seven Stages of Not Loving an “It” Book
  2. My sister-in-law (one of those delightfully charismatic people who rarely minces her words and gets away with it) called. We chatted about books. Authors, actually. Her question of the day tasted like “Can you please tell me why [insert name of bestselling author] keeps getting published?”

I won’t tell you what the SIL called [name of bestselling author]’s work, but the term she used was reminiscent of those white rolls you buy in the supermarket and place next to the commode in your guest bath. To her credit, she retracted the statement immediately, not wanting to sound unkind.

And she didn’t sound unkind. Moreover, she articulated the reasons she didn’t care for [bestselling author]’s books–poor copy editing, instances of mislabeled characters (likely editing artifacts, I explained), story lines that held no appeal for her.

Hey, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, right? Of course right. If you’re a scrivener (and why else would you be reading my ramblings about writing?), you’ve either already heard about subjectivity in the publishing industry or you’re going to hear about it.

  • It might come in one of those polite rejection letters from a literary agent: “This is a subjective industry. What doesn’t work for one agent may very well work for another. I encourage you to keep querying.”
  • You’ll see it in editorial feedback:
    Editor A: “This is so unique!”
    Editor B: “This isn’t unique enough.”
  • The star pattern over at GoodReads.com will begin to look like one of those old aptitude tests you took in school: Five stars, one star, three stars, one star, four stars.

Yeah, that’s either the way it’s worked or it’s the way it’s going to work. For one simple reason: No one likes every book. Ten will get you twenty that some people even hate some books.

For those of you who fancy predicate logic, I’ll translate the above:

∀x∃y (HATE (y, x))
‘For every book x, there is at least one person y such that y hates x’

That was fun, wasn’t it? Now that I’ve gotten my truth-conditional model-theoretical semantics fix for the day, I’ll get back to the main point.

There are tons of books I love, a goodly amount of books that make me shrug and say “meh,” and a handful of books I truly hate. I wish I could unread them in the same way people wish they could unmarry their ex-spouses or untaste the spoiled milk they drank from the two-week-old carton in the fridge. But I can’t. Those literary dirty-birdies are with me now. Forever. Which is funny, in a way, because as much as Titles A, B, and C make me want to go all Oedipal and jab my eyes out with pointy earrings, the effect those titles have on, well, pretty much everyone else in the cosmos is the opposite.

You want to know what the titles are, don’t you?

Believe me, I’d love to share them with you, if only to spare you the same pain they inflicted on me. But I won’t. There’s no way in friggin hell I’m going to publicise my literary dislikes. Not when my own novel might end up on the desk of whoever acquired or edited Titles A, B, and C. No way. Even if I did want to commit publishing suicide, I’d probably refrain from posting a list of books I hate for other reasons:

Reason #1:
You might actually like those books. Since the rest of the cosmos did, I wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe they’re fantastic and I’m fantastically obtuse. I’m not really into public shaming.

Reason #2:
You might hate the books, too, but not want to admit it. Hey man, I don’t blame you for not wanting to be on the same side of the fence as some unpublished cranky old bitch. Especially when the entire rest of the cosmos is on the other side. So I’d still be standing alone.

But what if I’m not really alone? What if the number of people who say they love a book don’t really love it?

It’s this question I want to explore.

We could call it the Emperor’s New Clothes Phenomenon, the Bandwagon Syndrome, or Argumentum ad populum. Hell, we could even call it the Christina Dalcher is Wrong About Everything Problem (and these books really are the best thing since sliced bread, so you and the cosmos are right in loving them). But I’ll call it by the most descriptive four-letter word I can drum up:


That’s right, fear. Fear of being the only one at your book club meeting to say something different. Fear of sticking out like a sore thumb. Fear of being labeled a philistine because you’ve read–oh, I don’t know–Jane Austen and you Just. Don’t. Get. It. Fear of thinking something might be horribly wrong with your literary wiring. Fear of another reviewer (or even a cranky author) lambasting you on GoodReads for speaking your mind.

It goes the other way, too.

You’re at a party. You’ve read Fifty Shades of Whatever and enjoyed it. The hostess calls it the worst piece of trash to ever hit the shelves. You eye her bookshelf and see that it’s loaded with Styron, Dostoevsky, and the collected works of John Donne. What do you say?

Here’s my suggestion: “That dip you made is divine. Can I have the recipe?”

The point is, friends, that not everyone likes the same thing. And that’s good. If we all  read the same stuff, our world would be a grey place indeed.

Which puts me in mind of an old Spanish proverb:

Para gustos, se hicieron los colores.

For tastes, they made the colours.