Yes we do, in fact, need negative book reviews
This weekend my Twitter feed was overflowing with discussion about an article that Kathleen Hale wrote in the Guardian this weekend (Do Not Link provided). And while I won’t talk here about the particulars of the article, because many have already discussed it eloquently and thoroughly, I want to discuss one trend I saw repeated over and over again in my timeline in response to this article: PEOPLE SHOULDN’T WRITE NEGATIVE REVIEWS.
That, apparently for some, was the take away. Don’t write negative reviews. This is a dangerous speech suppressing idea and it concerns me greatly. The truth is, we need to be having thoughtful, critical and yes, sometimes negative, discussions about books.
Sometimes books contains negative and harmful gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and sexual stereotypes. Sometimes books are misogynistic, participate in slut shaming, or suggest that rape is something other than rape. There are a number of ways that a book may have some type of issue that we should in fact be discussing.
Take, for example, Kathleen Hale’s book itself and one of her issues issue with the review in question. The reviewer said she didn’t like that the book had a problematic rape element yet Kathleen Hale maintains that there is no rape in the book, thus this reviewer must not have even read the book correctly Hale criticizes. Yet there is a teenage character who is revealed to have a sexual relationship with an adult man. This is rape. It is, more specifically a type of rape known as statutory rape. Almost all states have a law which states the legal age of sexual consent is often 16, though sometimes as high as 18. And a great many of these laws further stipulate that the adult that the teen is in a relationship with can not be more than 3 or 4 years older than the teen. The laws vary by state, but by almost all state laws the relationship presented in Hale’s book would legally be considered rape.
And here’s why having that conversation is important. As I read comments about the John Grisham statements of last week, far too many people suggested in those comments that Grisham’s friend shouldn’t have been in trouble for looking at pornographic images of a 16-year-old girl because 16 is the legal age of consent and his 60-year-old friend could legally be having sex with her. The truth is, these commenters were wrong because in a majority of the 50 states there is no scenario in which it is legal for a 60-year-old man to have sex with a 16-year-old girl. And they are further wrong because child pornography laws are a federal law and individual state laws regarding the age of consent are a moot point. You may disagree with the law, but the actions of Grisham’s friend are still illegal and the relationship presented in Hale’s book does technically qualify as rape (several discussions yesterday suggest that yes, I am in fact remembering this book detail correctly). Leaving Hale’s rape in the book unchecked, as I did when I reviewed it because this was before the #SVYALit Project and I had not yet begun thinking so thoroughly about this issue, contributes to the cultural misconception that adult sex with a minor is okay. (See previous posts about the age of consent at The #SVYALit Project)
Or, take for example, Free to Fall by Lauren Miller. This is a book that I overall really liked. However, there was one scene that was very problematic for me and I discussed it at length in my review: “Here’s the deal, it stinks of misogynistic overtones, it is disrespectful and it is downright dangerous,” I stated. In one scene, a boy who works at a coffee shop puts additional spices and such in a girl’s drink because he just really wants to. I discussed in my review how this was problematic because it is a dangerous practice (1 in 12 kids now has some type of food allergy) and because it reinforced what is known as rape culture by suggesting that it is okay to put something in someone’s drink. I think it’s important for us as a culture to be having these types of conversations if we ever want to change the status quo.
Or take for example the book Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin. This is another book that I overall enjoyed but it has a moment of casual racism aimed at what a character calls “Dirty Mexicans”. My service population is 80% nonwhite, with a great number of them being Hispanic, and they face this type of casual racism on a daily basis. These are issues, valid criticisms, I think it is important to discuss.
And here’s another example Cindy mentioned on Twitter:
Social change happens because people stood up and said no, this isn’t right. So this idea that we can’t or that we shouldn’t write negative reviews is alarming. It inhibits not only free speech, but it suggests that we would rather remain in a place of stagnant intellectual growth because we don’t want to think critically or have complex, sometimes difficult conversations.
And the truth is, sometimes you just don’t like a book or a movie or a restaurant and that’s okay to say as well. We all have differences of opinion and I think it is important that we get to talk freely about those. As author Lisa Burstein reminds us in this post about EMBRACING the ugly, not every book is for every reader, but every book is for the right reader.
Some people would even suggest that you should review a book but not attack the author, which in most cases is true. But I also think it’s fair to make stands and say things like, I’m never going to read another John Grisham book because what he said about child pornography is so disturbing to me. The truth is, I think John Grisham will be fine despite my stating publicly that as a consumer I am choosing to exercise my right and not purchase his books for myself (although as a public employee I will of course have to purchase his books for my library because I don’t get to impose my personal beliefs on the patrons that I serve). Mel Gibson still makes movies, Charlie Sheen still is on TV, Chris Brown is still releasing records, and Michael Vick is back on a football team. So while I think we should be careful about how we talk about those who create the art we consume, I don’t necessarily agree that we should never say anything negative about them or the art that they create (though do keep in mind that there are in fact slander and libel laws in place that you’ll want to be aware of). (More about why authors matter here.)
And trust me, I get it: Creating something for the public is a scary endeavor. I have gotten a wide variety of negative feedback on posts I have written, Tweets I have tweeted, etc. I lost a good professional friend who disagreed with an opinion post I wrote who attacked me with screams of “I’m so f’ing pissed at you.” I have been called a “liberal c*nt” and a wide variety of slurs for feminist. Sometimes the negative criticism is soul crushing, sometimes it is terrifying – but sometimes I have engaged in meaningful conversations with someone who had a different point of view and have even changed my mind about some things. If we are approached in the right way and are willing to engage in discussion with those who disagree with us, sometimes we learn new things. Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree.
So I share all of this with you today because I was troubled when so many people on my timeline were suggesting that negative book reviews were a harmful thing. The truth is, suggesting that we can never express a negative or critical opinion about the art in our world is a much more harmful thing. Critical thinking and discussion can lead to tremendous social change. And sometimes, you just really hate a book and want to talk about it in the book community that you have built around yourself, and that’s okay too. And to be honest, sometimes a negative review will get someone to read a book much more quickly than a positive one because some of us are contrarians who don’t like to be told what not to do or we want to read it for ourselves to decide what we think. So let’s talk about books; Let’s talk about them truthfully and passionately as a group of people who just like to dive into the world of story and believe that sometimes – those stories can change our world.
Edited to add the line regarding Lisa Burstein’s post because I think it is a good point.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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