How to Write a Bad Book Review

There was one other Mormon girl in my grade at my high school. We were actually really close friends, but the way we publicly approached our membership in the Church was very different. My friend was the type who asked others not to swear in front of her, gave copies of the Book of Mormon to some of our teachers, and complained when we had to read The Grapes of Wrath in our junior-year English class. I think she objected to the general coarseness of the novel, and particularly to the final scene that involves a woman breastfeeding a man. I, on the other hand, kept silent and mostly thought that I didn’t like The Grapes of Wrath as much as I liked East of Eden. Both of us were widely-read, fairly intelligent young women and were both active members of the Church, but our standards for literature differed significantly.

I was reminded of this incident recently both by the perceptive Enid cartoon and by Eric’s recent post about a review of Love Letters of the Angels of Death in the Deseret News. While I am bothered by the vast gulf between my feelings about the book and that of the reviewer, I also see this as an opportunity to examine why this book review has created such a strong negative reaction among many people I know. It is impossible to write a book review without bringing some personal baggage to the enterprise. Ideally the reviewer would keep critiques specific and focused on the book itself, avoid making sweeping generalizations about the author’s intentions, and consider what factors her audience would find most important in judging a book. I know that this doesn’t always happen, and I’m certainly not the best book reviewer that I know, but I can see that this book review has made two key blunders: judging the quality of the book based on the reviewer’s gut reaction to it and judging the character of the author based on the reviewer’s opinion of the book.

Based on her reasons for rejecting the book, the reviewer seems to have particular ideas about both style and content. This book is told from an unconventional point of view, with a non-linear narrative, and has some content that is more macabre than most novels published by Covenant and Deseret Book. The title of the review notes that the book is not a “comforting or comfortable read”. This seems to imply that the reviewer places comfort as one of her prime qualities for judging a book. I understand this impulse—life can be confusing, ugly, difficult, and painful at times. Many of us, myself included, seek out books (and art and movies) that provide visions of life that is orderly and pleasant, where conflict is manageable, people are good, and endings are always happy. There is nothing wrong with reading books like that. There is, however, nothing wrong with reading books that see the world in a different way. Sometimes we want to be reminded that others have experienced a life that seems to have meaningless pain like ours, and sometimes readers need to be reminded that life is not comfortable or easy. Books like The Grapes of Wrath were not mean to be “comfortable”, and while I’m not comparing Jennifer Quist to Steinbeck (though she is quite good) and I don’t know her intentions, I’m not sure that “comfortable” was her goal in writing her book either. A more helpful review would look at what the author could possibly have meant in creating a book from a particular point of view or from choosing particular vocabulary. Another way to create a strong review would be for the reviewer to look at her own initial reactions and question them. What is the book doing that makes her feel that way? From one point of view you could say the book is a ‘success’ since it created such a strong reaction in a reader, but specifics about how the particular book does that would be more helpful in a review than vague assertions that it is “not for those looking for a pleasant read.”

The second problem with the review, a questioning of the author’s orthodoxy as a Mormon (which has, thankfully, been removed), makes me wonder if another part of the problem is the reviewer’s expectations of Mormon literature. I would like to know which authors she prefers and usually reads. She obviously knew the author of the book is LDS, and seems to have been expecting the book to address Mormon ideas and culture in a more explicit and straightforward way than it does. Would the review have been different if the book were not being looked at in the context of the Whitney Awards? The issue of authorial intent is a perennial problem that crops up all over the place. I’ve seen friends accused of promoting immorality based on what they have written and authors who are assumed to be homosexual or atheist based on their depiction of characters that are. Unfortunately, LDS authors often seem to get judged more harshly by their fellow church members than non-member authors. I think we all get threatened when our particular version of Mormonism is not shared by others. In my family while I was growing us, seeking learning from the “best books” included reading works by John Steinbeck, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway. For my friend and her family, youth (and maybe adults), should generally avoid reading books like that because they contain sex, violence, and a generally pessimistic world view. I still think this point of view is a little wrong, but I don’t think they are bad Mormons. I think there is a place in the church for both of us and neither of us should assume anything about the other’s membership status.

While I still disagree, fairly strongly, with the review of Love Letters of the Angels of Death published in The Deseret News, I also see it as an opportunity to examine why I liked the book and responded to it so positively. It gives me a chance to examine how I write reviews and to wonder whether I am falling into some of the same pitfalls that this reviewer did. Hopefully in the future we can find book reviews that give better reasons for judging a book besides the fact that it makes us uncomfortable. When it comes to books, I’m going to keep hanging out with Enid.

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14 Responses to How to Write a Bad Book Review

  1. Th. says:

    .

    With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up our wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all our artistic communities.

    Thanks for bringing a more measured response, Jessie.

  2. Gru says:

    To be fair, those who write reviews for DN are asked to look at the books from an LDS perspective. I suspect this is to keep with policy at DN and help readers (predominantly LDS) know of any issues contained in the book. Most of the time it is moral things that are considered but some reviewers let their personal biases have sway in what they write. it can be nice to know but quirkiness often takes a hit (as it seems happened with the referenced book).

    • Jessie says:

      I agree that is certainly within the purview of DN for its reviewers to look at books from an LDS perspective and to consider that the majority of their readers are LDS. However, as this review demonstrates, there is actually a pretty wide range of appropriate reading for Mormons and there weren’t any concrete reasons given as to why this book was considered inappropriate. Church teachings warn against inappropriate depictions of sexual activity (there aren’t any), excessive violence (again, not in this book), profanity (nope, not there), mocking of sacred things or scripture (nope). I’m still not sure what this reviewer objected to. Sometimes death and life can be pretty weird, but I’m sure there are plenty of Mormons who’ve dealt with issues like cleaning up after the death of a loved one, having a family member slowly die in the hospital, etc

  3. JQ says:

    Thanks, Jessie. DN took out the comment denouncing my work as “clearly…not the perspective of the Church…” only after I personally contacted them to explain how inappropriate I found it — twice. I had always told myself I would be a good little pro-writer and never respond to a bad review but this was a comment on me, not my work. The first time I emailed DN the only response I got was from the reviewer herself affirming that she does indeed consider herself a gatekeeper protecting innocent readers from people like me whose work doesn’t “match up with or support LDS doctrine.” When I finally emailed the president and the chief editor of DN it wasn’t 20 minutes before I received an apology (not from the reviewer), an admission that the comment didn’t belong in a book review, and the revision I asked for. It was all very illuminating. First, I was shocked at the bald-faced brutality of the reviewer’s hegemony. Second, I was touched by her supervisors’ kindness and quickness in making things as right as they could for me. Maybe it was a perfect little microcosmic view of that dual nature of the American heartland Mormon culture I have never been a part of — sensible charity scurrying to sweep up after the myopic self-righteousness over and over and over again. Opposition in all things, especially in Utah, I guess.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Great insight. Thanks for sharing this experience.

      • Jessie says:

        Thanks for adding more information about the experience. Did she give you any reasons why she thought your book doesn’t “match up with or support LDS doctrine”? That was one of the things that frustrated me about the review–there wasn’t any evidence given for this assertion

        • JQ says:

          No, she didn’t, the same way she didn’t mention what exactly she found “cliche.” I think your hunch about her trying to give voice to her gut reaction is probably the best explanation. Of course, I think the book fits an LDS perspective just fine — my LDS perspective anyway, which is certainly no less valid than any other member’s, right?

          • Ryan Rapier says:

            JQ, I have to admit that were it not for The Whitney Awards, I would probably not be aware of your book. However, I am now, and I am intrigued and plan to read it. What I find disturbing with this book review is that the issues you describe regarding a certain orthodoxy when it comes to literature is the same thing I see far too often on such forums as facebook and other social media. I fear that too often with our culture, in the minds of some, outside endeavors, whether it be politics, literature, art or whatever, blend too easily as to affect a perception of doctrine. Too often, if a person doesn’t agree with a specific “conservative” ideal, they run the risk of being branded as somewhat heretical. I’m sorry if this is what happened to you. Your book sounds wonderful and I wish you the best of luck at the end of the month.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    A few points:
    - First, I agree that it’s unpleasant and downright inappropriate for reviewers to start making judgments about authors (been there, done that, own the T-shirt) — although (and this can easily become hairsplitting) I do think it’s appropriate to situate a work within the context of (a) the author’s other work, and (b) the author’s public positioning vis-a-vis the Church. Those are part of the environment into which a work is received.

    - When you do make personal judgments, it’s incumbent to make them charitably — not just when shared publicly, but if possible in our own hearts as well. Not something I always achieve.

    - More broadly, I think it’s incumbent on any reviewer to provide enough evidence for his/her judgments that the reader can get a sense of whether or not he/she is likely to agree. Put another way: unless I have a prior relationship with the reviewer, I honestly don’t care about the reviewer’s opinion as such, only about what he/she can tell me about the book.

  5. JQ says:

    Just one more quick clarification. I think (and always intended) that my in no way treads on a proper “perspective of the Church…” No Mormo-angst here.

  6. Scott Hales says:

    I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been written. I think that bad book reviews will persist as long as we keep holding artistic works up to standards that focus on the “negative.” (I think it leads us to apply the same approach dangerously to other things–like people and church history.)

    As I’ve said before, I wish we as a culture could do a better job of teaching youth (or any audience) how to process and contextualize and look beyond the gate.

  7. I am glad you took the initiative to contact Deseret News. My guess (based on your description of responses) is that they have had other trouble with this particular reviewer. Why else would they respond so immediately and so positively, and why would she make such a quick reversal? My mother always says “consider the source.” Some people read for a comfort zone, and they don’t really want to be challenged. They want to read books that they can consumer like desserts and then forget. That’s the problem with writing books that stir the emotions and make people crack their mind open a little wider. I’m definitely expecting to enjoy your book when I get a chance to read it.

  8. consume… not consumer… yeah, it really is time for bed.

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