Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why I Never Write Negative Book Reviews

Guest Post by Stacia M. Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal photo

A few years ago, I decided to up my good writer karma by writing more book reviews.

I’ve been editor of Blood Lotus for eight years now, and for the past two years, a blogger on regional poetry through the newspaper where I work, and I can say beyond any doubt that one of the greatest perks of (often unpaid) literary work is the community you become part of – a community you otherwise  would know nothing about.

At the end of the TV show “Sex and the City”—this is related, trust me—Carrie looks at her three best friends and, instead of saying goodbye, asks, “What if I had never met you?” And the camera pans all of their faces as they convincingly fall apart, are devastated, by the weight of that question.

I look at my bookshelves and wonder the same thing sometimes. How many of these books would never have moved me if I only gave my time and energy to something when I was being paid? God, who would I even BE right now?

Maybe, though, my motivation for writing book reviews is different than others’.

Certainly, I’m not an academic. I’m not dissecting literature through this or that trendy critical lens.

When I decide to tell someone about a book, it’s because I loved it, or things about it, sentences or cadences or certain narratives that I believe deserve a larger audience.

It’s because, and laugh or roll your eyes if you want, the book has become a friend.

I’m not trying to change the literary landscape with a review. I’m not trying to impose my tastes onto the reading world.

And I’m not trying to talk shit on other writers.

Good reviews versus bad reviews – I don’t want to live in a world where there’s only one or the other, believe me. No one likes a sycophant. So much has been written on this topic, too. For my part, I’m sticking to the personal. The way I see it, a book review should do one or more of the following: 1) inform, 2) recommend, 3) highlight key literary device(s), and/or 4) frame the work in the larger context of literature.

If you like a book that you’re reviewing, you are informing a reader about the book (where to buy, a little about the author, etc.), recommending the book to others, demonstrating that you can intelligently discuss what you like about the book so the reader trusts your opinion, and perhaps making a statement about where that book fits into the canon of books out there to consume.

By these standards, if your review has nothing nice to say, what are you accomplishing? You’re 1) informing the reader not to buy a book, 2) recommending against buying a book (which at this point is just redundant), 3) highlighting what’s not working, or what you don’t like, and/or 4) framing larger problems in literature.

Except…when was the last time you read a horrible, scathing review of someone’s work and thought,

wow, I really learned something about literature today? If you know the author, do you think, wow, I change my mind about previous work by that person that I’ve read and thought I enjoyed? If you don’t know the author, do you really decide to never read anything by her/him again?

The exception, in my opinion, is when a reviewer takes on a classic or a New York Times bestseller. If someone writes an articulate, thoughtful, seemingly agenda-free hate piece on The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter, that in and of itself might add to the conversation of American letters. If everyone loves something and you can make a smart argument against it, can make people think, then go for it.

But what does slamming a hand-stitched first chapbook of an unknown indie poet do for that conversation? Or for anyone? I mean, it makes you look like a jerkface, but that’s about it. I firmly believe we can learn from work we don’t enjoy reading, but do we have to do that learning in the public space of a published book review?

Look. I have, like, zero free time. I don’t want to spend hours mired in negativity to churn out a review. To me, it’s akin to spending hours letting someone bore me to death at a bar, rather than having a drink with a few close friends. I want to devote my time to promoting someone deserving of the little bit  of attention I can give her/him. Wouldn’t it be a better, more karmic use of my time to write lengthy reviews of books I like? And if I must wax sarcastic or unimpressed, merely list, like a comprehensive PSA, those books I wish I’d never “met”?

I view book reviewing as arts advocacy. So I guess the real question becomes: Is it an act of advocacy to criticize—to essentially tell a reader, “don’t read [this]”?

If you aren’t advocating for the written word in a book review, why are you writing book reviews?

About the Author:

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of Versus (BlazeVOX, 2011), Anatomy of a Shape-Shifter (WordTech, 2010), and three chapbooks, most recently antidote (Winged City Press, 2013). Her poems have recently appeared in Best of the Net 2011Fourth River, North American Review, and Mud Luscious, have been nominated for Best of the Net 2012, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and are forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, Knockout, and Crab Creek Review (2013 poetry contest honorable mention)She co-founded (in 2006) and co-edits the online literary journal Blood Lotus and runs a poetry blog called Versify for the York Daily Record/Sunday News, where she is a journalist.

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

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One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

Martin Ott

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