Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I Don't Write Book Reviews

Despite the fact that I write for a literature blog, I almost never post book reviews. If you click on the “book review” tab, most of the posts will be from Tricia.

There are four reasons for that:

1.) I only think critics are useful when they tell you about something new or make you look at something old in a new way. Most of what I read is at least 40 years old, often older than that, and I have nothing new or special to say about Emma, As I Lay Dying or The Souls of Black Folk. (The last three books I read.)

Compare this to Tricia, who is much more in tune with contemporary authors. I would have never read Maggie O’Farrell or Jim Fergus without her.

You all know who Jane Austen and William Faulkner are. If you have chosen not to read them until this moment, nothing I write will change your mind.

2.) Sometimes, I will read a book and have almost no emotional reaction. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. Won’t remember it but don’t plan to forget it. It just was.

But even when I do love or hate a book, I often have trouble explaining why. Usually, my explanation can be summarized as “because that’s how I feel.”

My review for As I Lay Dying would say, “I suspect this was a good book but I will need to re-read it later to be certain.”

That’s not substantiative or helpful.

3.) I don’t think my opinion is that important.

It’s funny to type that, because I am arrogance personified. (My co-bloggers will attest to this.) But I don’t think my opinion matters regarding most books.

If I stumbled upon a great, unknown author, I would write about him or her. But, in most cases, I’m reading authors you and I already know about.

If I were a braver or more selfless man, I would spend my time scouring the ignored stacks at libraries hoping to find the rare jewel. But I’m not that guy. My time on this earth is finite, and I want to read as much Thomas Hardy as I can before I die.

4.) I hate hurting people’s feelings.

I used to write book reviews for The News-Herald. My stomach would churn whenever I hated a book. I don’t mean those books that inspire mixed feelings. I mean the ones that felt like a waste of my time.

I may have hated that particular book, but somebody loved it. It might well be someone’s life work, and now a stranger is saying that the characters are clichés and the plot is predictable.

If I criticize a well-known author like Charles Dickens or Stephen King, it hurts nobody. Dickens is dead and a legend. King is rich and can write whatever he wants. But most review books come from little-known writers. And it doesn’t help anyone for me to tear them a new index.

It doesn’t help you as a reader because you weren’t going to check out their book anyhow, and it certainly doesn’t help the author who just saw his or her life’s work shredded.

But all of this omphaloskepsis is an introduction to my real topic.

A long time ago (at least months, maybe a year) Edward Stephens mailed The News-Herald a copy of his self-published book, Home Place: Gone but not Forgotten.

I was content to leave Home Place on the slush pile. After all, I don’t write reviews anymore.

But Stephens was persistent — polite, but persistent. Every few months he would call to ask if I had looked at his book. I tried to not promise anything but eventually agreed to write a blog post about it.

Then, I read Home Place, and my stomach started to twist.

I didn’t like it.

Home Place is partly Stephens’s memoir of growing up in small-town Kentucky and partly a compilation of his poetry. Neither part appealed to me.

Stephens tells stories that sound familiar. They begin with “Walking to school in the winter was always so cold” or “At the age of nine I wanted to start chewing tobacco.”

It’s not that Stephens tells bad stories. He has a few good ones. But his stories are not so astonishing nor his language so evocative that I wanted to read a book of them.

And his poetry?

They do not have meter or rhyme. Instead, Stephens writes them as a series of paragraphs.

Once again, his subject matter feels overly familiar. He writes poetry about his children, autumn and Hurricane Katrina. (“Katrina, you bad girl.”)

Home Place reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s admonishment. “The recent school of novel writers forget in their insistence on life, and nothing but life, in a plain slice, that a story must be worth the telling, that a good deal of life is not worth any such thing, and that they must not occupy the reader’s time with what he can get at first hand anywhere around him.”

Stephens’s friends and family will want to hear his stories, but I’m not convinced the general populace would. I wouldn’t mind being wrong. He seems like a nice guy.

So, now, I’ve kept my promise to Stephens and written something for the blog. But I’m not sure any of us are better for it.

-Jason Lea,

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