My Book Arrived in Good Condition, But the Writing Was Terrible

Beavis and Butthead gave us modern criticism. They’d watch a music video and determine whether or not it “sucked” or “ruled.” They distilled the Siskel and Ebert “thumbs up/down” thing to its very core, stripping the act of criticism down to a binary that continues to this day (what’s up, Rotten Tomatoes). Don’t get me wrong, Beavis and Butthead was awesome. It ruled. It’s just that now we’re all Beavis and Butthead. Everything rules or sucks. We make these snap decisions based on loose criteria and then we defend those opinions to the death.

I’m not even sure that someone can give a good review of a work until they’ve experienced it more than one time. Of course, this happens more often with music than anything else, because songs are usually only a few minutes long, but you’ll occasionally see folks who have devoted their lives to watching Tarkovsky flicks, or reading Nabokov, or listening to…some musician who also happens to be Russian.

Films/books/songs become richer the more we engage with them. Unfortunately, in our modern times, when there are approximately a fuckload of books released every single day, we become conveyor belts of culture, picking a thing up and making a snap decision and putting it back down and moving on to the next thing. Is this bad? Who knows? Probably.

What follows is a list of some of my favorite types of bad reviews that you can find perusing Amazon. I hope that by examining some of these I can point out that we all, myself included, don’t really have a firm grasp on how we engage with books.

1) PRODUCT ARRIVED TO SPEC

You ever wonder how this person’s brain works? You ever wonder how consumer culture, next-day-or-its-free, customer-is-always-right culture could get its hooks so deep in a person’s brain that the Amazonian mechanism put in place to indicate whether or not said consumer found value in the imaginary imagery and emotion generated by the contents inside a book instead focused on the fucking packaging and speed of delivery?

I think about it a lot.

PS: This one gets a double whammy for referring to the movie version of the book it's supposed to be reviewing, but I promise you this style of review exists for books as well. For example:

2) THE WIFE

You know, I’m not even mad at this guy. He’s one step up from the “nice packaging” dude, but at least he cares about his wife. Good for you, reviewer guy. I’m glad somebody else liked the book. You lovable dude, you.

3) OFFENDED

(In this pic, I removed the title to protect the book itself...but the reviewer gave it one star and fucked up the author's name. It's great.)

Moving out from those lowest circles of review hell, we have the scolders. They’re my personal favorite type of reviewer. These are people who will purchase a novel with a title like The Shit Man and then take to Amazon to complain about all the bad language contained therein. The prudes complain about sex, the low-level sadists want their violence clean, the extremely online take offense at whatever doesn’t gel with their particularly internet-poisoned political orientation.

Thinking about it more, I’m not sure which of these types of reviewers is worse. The ultra-consumer is at least usually happy with the fact that their book arrived quickly and in good condition. The “my wife” guy at least seems to love his wife. But the content scolders seem to hate art that doesn’t act like a mirror to their own lives. They ignore the idea that writing/film/music/art act as sometimes-uncomfortable cages in which to dump all of our terrible, human feelings. Instead, they think everything should be sanitized. It should be reflective of our values. It should never be challenging. It should never shake or truly disturb. And for the love of god, it should NEVER use f-bombs.

Some of these people are writing these kinds of reviews for horror novels.

Goodness gracious.

4) BAD WRITING, WHATEVER THAT MEANS

“Terrible writing” is a criticism I’ve seen leveled at countless books during my time as a hate-reader of Amazon reviews. The criticism itself normally doesn’t amount to much more than simply stating that a book's writing is terrible, full stop. We don’t get any example of what the writer thinks “good writing” is, much less examples of what makes the writing in question terrible. Do you like clear, straightforward sentences? Do you like poetic stuff? Do you consider good writing to be that which evokes an emotional response? What are we talking about here?

Unfortunately we may never know, as most reviewers are content to assure you that they somehow understand what good writing is, and that you should just kind of trust them.

5) WHAT IS HAPPENING

Oh, dear. Oh, my. You got confused! That sucks. A few quick questions: did you have a TV on in the background? Did you put the book down and come back to it two weeks later? Were you sick while you read it? Were you reading more than one book at a time? No judgments if so…simply pointing out that someone saying “I was confused,” doesn’t actually mean anything with regard to the book. How were you confused? What parts got confusing?

And how about this…why is being "confusing" bad?

6) MISPELED

I’ve saved this one for last because it’s probably the one I’m most on the fence about. On the one hand, I can totally see how a book that is completely riddled with typos could drive an OCD brain to madness. It interrupts the flow, it feels unprofessional, and it honestly should be taken care of before the book goes to print.

But…how did you like the book? You know, the story? The characters, the plot, the dialogue? How did you feel about what the book was trying to do? Was it successful?

There’s this book called The Wake that’s written in Old English. It takes a while to understand how you’re supposed to read it, because everything is spelled weird. Once you get going though…it’s just a novel. Now, it might not be fair to compare that stylistic choice with some lazy grammar boners, but my point is that you can focus on the work itself without getting hung up on the surface level.

Think of a painting. We know that “that doesn’t look exactly like a tree” is a valid art critique. Some art is messy and it’s good! Do typos fit in with that? Maybe not.

And God help me. Please forgive me for where I’m about to go. I’m about to do an –ist. But…complaining about typos and improper grammar strikes me as just ever-so-slightly classist. Most grammar police feel that way to me, to be honest. It’s like, I’m sorry if this person, who could have an innate knack for storytelling, couldn’t afford to go to school. Or even if they could, maybe grammar just didn’t click for them. They still wrote a story and self-published it (or published it with someone who’s similarly lacking in the grammar department) and what does the book do? What is going on with the art inside? It’s like preferring pristine top-40 pop to DIY punk. Books are written by humans. They have mistakes in them.

COUNTERPOINT

Sometimes books arrive fucked up, and that’s annoying. Sometimes books can be a little gross and over the top, and it’s off-putting. Shit can be confusing, which is frustrating, and writing can be flat-out bad. And sometimes typos are just fucking annoying (like…come on, man!). Some of us read for the fuck of it, and can’t be bothered to turn into overnight scholars of pulp fiction. Your mileage may vary. What I’m hoping I’ve been able to do, however, is maybe make a case that books are rad as hell, and they take a long time to write, and the people who make them tend to care about the quality of the final product.

Good reviewers get that. And despite what you might have gleaned from this thing I wrote, there are tons of them out there who kick ass. In fact, I’d reckon most of them do, because they engage with the work in a good-faith way that attempts to understand and deconstruct what the thing is trying to do in the first place. Then, sure, they also analyze whether or not they think that thing is successful, on its own terms.

That’s what I’m suggesting, gently. That we take ourselves down a peg as some kind of quality-control monsters. I think it can enrich a reading life, to really engage with a piece of fiction.

Or not. Who knows?

I hope this essay ruled, and I apologize if it sucked.

Image of The Wake: A Novel
Manufacturer: Graywolf Press
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Price:
J. David Osborne

Column by J. David Osborne

JDO is the author of Black Gum, Low Down Death Right Easy, and The Snake Handler, which he co-wrote with Cody Goodfellow. He hosts the weekly podcast The JDO Show, and runs Broken River Books, the publisher of books like Peckerwood, Gravesend, and Zero Saints. He lives in El Paso, TX with his wife and their dog.

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