Friday, March 9, 2012

Reviewing books is kind of dumb but at least sort of helpful

Lately I've started reviewing all the books I read. All of them. (Yeah, "lately" is pretty recent.) I started doing this because I thought it would be a good exercise for the ol' brains: thinking critically about the texts I read, engaging with them, manning up like a real bro. You know how it is.

Anyway, this is good in a way--I'm really thinking about what I like and what I don't like, and that ports over to how I write--but it's also sort of bad. Or at least, it sort of makes me feel bad. The thing is, I don't think I can write a review without criticism; not that I would be physically incapable, but rather that it revolts my aesthetics. I actually did try to do a "Thursday Thieves' Guild" thing for a while, where I honed in, specifically and exclusively, on the elements of books that I thought were so awesome they were worth ripping off; but that venture quickly failed because it failed to really excite the whole object of this exercise, the aforementioned "ol' brains." As it is, there are more than enough people ready to bow and scrape for their favourite authors without any critical interaction with their works, so I figure I can add to the discussion around books by actively poking apart their weaknesses, even at the same time that I may laud their successes.

And this is problematic because I only read books that are good, so every time I review a book--and concomitantly criticize it--I'm flensing a book I really liked. I'm not just preening here about what good taste I have or something; I'm serious: if a book is bad, I stop reading it. I get nearly all of my books from the library, except when I know a book will not fail to please--or that, if it fails to please, I would be all like, "that was an anomaly!" And since I don't actually pay for (most of) the books I read, I'm so totally willing to chuck those books if they're no good. This happens less frequently these days, because I know what I'm looking for, and I actively hunt good books and put them on a list for the future; but in times of dry reads, a lot of books might go on the fire-pile, unread and unreviewed. And so, what this means is, every book I'm criticizing--every book I'm kind-of-sort-of pooping on--is actually a really, really good book. Because I finished it! I read the whole thing! In this age of distraction, filled with videogames and TV and ultraviolence on every front, I read a book. Because it was a good one.

And then here are all my negative comments about it. So you see the problem.

I think this comes out of the fact that my reviewing is oriented primarily toward my own development as a writer, as opposed not only to the butt-sniffing of good writers that occurs in some reviews, but also as opposed to just the plain and simple promotion of good works (which sort of necessitates that you ignore the badness of same). One thing I've noticed from frequenting review sites is that even really good reviewers--reviewers who read really good books and are highly interesting and critical, and who are my go-to people for finding those works for myself--will tend towards a little butt-sniffing and butt-slapping, a sort of "good job there boys, goob job eh," kind of thing, a sort of literary locker room good-heartedness that fails to be truly critical. And that's great! Because arts promotion is great. And without these butt-slappers--who I won't name because, on the WILD LIMB UPON WHICH I SPECULATE, I'm guessing "butt-slapping reviewer" is, for these rather serious people, not the label they would self-select--I would probably never find the books I like in the first place.

So, I dunno; it's weird. I think I'm kind of a jerk, really. I'm reading Michael Cisco's The Great Lover right now, and it sort of physically hurts me to think about how I will inevitably write a review that will inevitably rip into this book's weaknesses, despite the fact that it is enormously superior to 99.99% of books out there today.

So that's the problem with criticism. It's important, because butt-sniffing/butt-slapping/good-job-there-boysin' is annoying and stupid; but it's also really annoying, because sometimes that's all I want to do. Y'know: slap butts.

Just friggin' slap 'em all over.

-bn