If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

There are tons of things I don’t want to write about:  people who bug me, movies I couldn’t sit through, fashions that strike me as ridiculous, ill-advised parenting decisions, and meals I haven’t enjoyed.  All are on my short list of topics I do not want to come home and say something about.  

There are a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, in my day job, I spend a lot of time reading the briefs of people who have real complaints about things that actually do matter.  That is why they have come to our court.  After a day spent thinking about whether someone’s truly been wronged, it seems a little silly for me to spend the evening yammering on about how much I hate it when parents let their children beat them at games.  (I do hate that, by the way.  I think what children really, really need is a worthy opponent so that when they finally do win a game of checkers they actually feel like they’ve accomplished something.)   

Of course, when I get home, it’s often to hear more grievances (you know the kind I mean:  he hit me, he won’t let me have a turn, he’s wearing my favorite shoes, how come you never let me beat you at checkers?).  As you can see, my second shift job is that of mediator and sometimes judge and occasionally jailer.  Yikes.  By the time I get to my blog I just want to say, good heavens, how about that Jane Austen? 

I finished William Boyd’s Restless a few weeks ago and although I flew through it, in the end I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped I would.  So, I decided not to write about it.   And that got me to thinking about how you can write about the work of a skilled writer, someone whose work is much better than your own, without trading in the sort of whiny complaining ickiness I don’t want to involve myself in. This is my effort to do that. 

The reason Restless is such an appealing book is because it’s set at least partly in a time and place I find immensely interesting — Britain during the war.  And there are spies in it.  One of the main characters is a woman spy, which is even better than your usual guy spy. (Not that I have anything against guy spies, having written an entire book myself in which the main character is a guy who is, in fact, a spy.  Still.  I like women spies.) 

The trouble is that Boyd decided to share that really delicious narrative with another narrative involving a character I really didn’t care much about.  And then he put her smack down in a time (the late sixties/early seventies) he doesn’t bring to life with quite the same elegance as he does the war years.  That character is the spy’s daughter, who spends most of her half of the narrative being upset and irritated that her mother was a spy her whole life and never bothered to mention it, until now, when the mother is thinking someone from her past might be trying to kill her. I cannot imagine a better time to mention one’s secret past life than this, by the way. 

The daughter is not a woman who’s living a secret life.  She’s a single mom of a cute little boy.  The father’s one of those blow-hard 1970s academics (German in this case), who leads a bohemian life, but isn’t going to leave his wife to marry the spy’s daughter.  Which turns out to be fine, because by the time the narrative begins, she no longer really wants him to anyway, which is a good decision on her part, but doesn’t really give her much of interest to do (beyond being irritated by her mother for covering up her interesting past).  Anyway, the bits about the mother’s past — the story of how she is recruited and trained in the spy business — are great.  The daughter, alas, is not so interesting and the split in the narrative doesn’t, in the end, seem to serve any really useful purpose.  

I’d think that a trusted early reader should have said something like this:  Ditch the daughter’s narrative.  You can still place the story in the sixties, but it would read far, far better if the present was from the point of view of the spy character, looking back on her life.

There you have it then.  I read the entire thing, enjoyed it a lot, and only when I closed it did it occur to me that it could have been better than it was.  And that, dear reader, isn’t a bad reading experience.  It’s not easy to write a really good book.  I should know, having spent almost three years writing something I’d be delighted to have even recognized as resembling a novel.  Boyd’s written a really good book.  It’s just that it’s much harder to write a really great book.   (I’d still recommend it, and if you want me to mail you my copy, speak up and I’ll be happy to do so.  A sort of shortcut BookMooch, that will be.)   

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25 thoughts on “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

  1. I only scanned your review as I have this on my stack to read. I think that is a fair criticism you wrote, however. I tend to be an easy audience to please–I am probably not critical enough. I will like a book a lot and then someone will come along and say they hated it and all of a sudden I am second guessing myself. Am I dense? Can’t I spot decent writing or worse bad writing? How can I really like something that is so obviously bad–no one else liked it!! However, as you illustrate so well, a book can be good, but lacking in some aspect. And maybe it depends on what a reader brings to the story. You are a writer as well (which I am not), so you probably notice how the story is constructed more than others. It’s all pretty subjective I suppose, isn’t it? An interesting side note–I just read somewhere else that Boyd just won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize for this, but then I am not sure what the other books that were nominated.

  2. You’ve put your finger on something Danielle — which is that there are far more interesting and helpful ways to write and talk about books than “I liked it”/”I hated it.” That sort of discourse has a way of undermining our pleasure in reading. There’s more to say about this, of course, but I’ll just end by saying how completely I agree with you about the subjective nature of what we end up liking to read.

  3. I agree with you. I hate to say unkind things about a writer’s work. Just the fact that someone completed a novel is amazing to me (I still have yet to write the first line of my great American novel), and I can’t in good conscious dismiss their effort casually. I like that you found a way to discuss a novel’s weaknesses without bashing the entire work–or effort.

  4. You do find the most interesting books to read, BL. Restless sounds very intriguing, even with the flaws you describe, which may not be so much flaws as your active creative process working on the story. If I find I can’t stand a book, I stop reading it, even if the world tells me it’s genius. So, I have never finished any book by Henry Miller. I loved your idea of how to approach Joyce. I am such a quitter! I have to confess to you– I let my kids win at board games. I try to teach them strategy along the way, but I ultimately let them win, because I want them to have fun and not feel so frustrated. But we don’t have to talk about that! :)

  5. I’m glad that you did decide to write about the book as I think you’ve said some really interesting things about it.

    I have no interest in panning books. First, if I think that a book is truly awful, I generally don’t finish it, so it wouldn’t be fair to offer a public assessment of its shortcomings. But even if I do finish it, I don’t feel as if there’s much point in expending time and energy taking apart a book that I don’t feel has much in it to begin with. Plus it just feels mean to put a lot of negativity out there without anything to leaven it.

    I do enjoy praising to the skies books that I love, but I’ve realized recently that straight up praise can be difficult to convey in an interesting way. I tend to trot out the same compliments again and again even for very different sorts of books. Not that I have any intention of refraining from raving about books that I love–I consider it a public service!–but I am going to work to find more compelling ways to write about them.

    Thus, the books that I find most interesting to write about are the ones like “Restless” that have lots to recommend them but, to my mind, fall short in some way. I find it extremely interesting as a reader, and extremely productive as a writer, to puzzle over such books and try to figure out what went wrong in them and how it might have been fixed. I think you’ve done that beautifully in this post. And I feel strongly that that’s a very respectful enterprise as it’s grounded in a conviction that the book is worth taking seriously.

    In the end though, I also agree with Danielle that it comes down to a subjective judgement, even when the focus is nuts-and-bolts matters of craft. More than once I have found books that I included in my “top ten reads of the year” list on the “least satisfying reads of the year” list of a fellow blogger (or vice versa) who I know to be an intelligent and discerning reader.

  6. Dear Mary, Ah ha! You are clearly a far, far nicer woman than I. My own mother routinely beat me at ping pong and card games of all kinds and she was just really terribly immaturely gleeful about it — obviously I’ve got some issues to work out in this area.

    SS, It’s the casual dismissive nature of some kinds of criticism that does in fact bug me a lot. Thanks for putting it so well.

    Welcome Katherine — I’m so glad you’ve come by!

    Hello Kate, That’s such a terrific statement of how one can go about writing about books. Like you, I come to praise rather than blame, and like you, one of my 2007 projects is to find a bunch of new words to describe how much I like something.

  7. I think you are so right that it is better to say more than I liked it/didn’t like it. That is something I need to work on–qualifying my response to a book. I have a hard time really articulating what I feel about a book sometimes. I suppose it is natural readers will have a quick response of like or dislike, but usually if you talk about a book you can elicit more of a reason why, or often times it is not all one way–rarely is a book wholely perfect or awful. In any case–a nice, thought provoking post, Bloglily!

  8. This post exemplifies why I so love reading what you have to say. It’s easy to be very funny and to draw attention by trashing what other people do (and I know I’m not immune from the tempation to do that). However, it’s a very sophomoric sort of humor, and those I admire most are the ones who can make me laugh, but not at the expense of others (just at the expense of the absurdity of the human race and life in general) and who can demonstrate the fact that they think about things, while also portraying a real warmth and genuine kindness towards their flawed fellow human beings. You accomplish all of this. And I do get so frustrated when someone merely says “it’s not worth even throwing on the fire” but can’t give me a clear reason why. I’ll also note that some of the best book discussions I’ve had have been with members of groups who didn’t like a book I did, and we were all able to articulate our thoughts — so interesting to hear the differing points of view.

  9. My lovely book club, which I attend for fun and for exchanging books, tends to fall into the binary “I liked it/I didnt like it” style of critiquing books. So that’s why I’m so thrilled to have found litbloggers like yourself where I can be party to a more shaded discussion of a book.

    I loved Restless, I loved the woman spy and I even loved the Seventies bit. What I enjoyed was the daughter’s shock of discovering that her very English mother was really a Russian spy. I liked the disjunction there, and that her own apparently unconventional life suddenly looked very normal in comparison to her mother’s amazing achievements. I agree with you that her main emotion was irritability, as if she was miffed that her main babysitter suddenly had developed a life of her own and that it was very inconvenient. I agree also that the seventies period was not brought to life as interestingly as the forties period, but perhaps that’s because being a wartime spy is more gripping than being a single mum who teaches English to immigrants.

    Thanks for making me think more deeply about why I enjoyed Restless so much.

  10. I often listen to the sunday night movie critic debate over our national radio, and it always sounds to me that all these top-notch cinema critics do is put nice erudite decoration around a binary biased gut feeling ‘I liked it’/’I did not like it’. Superlatives of both sides are all threadbare by now, as nobody will ever say something like: ‘The movie had a relatively original plot, with a good photography quality and a fair performance of the main actress. I was personally not moved by the ending, but I gather some might be. I can but recommend it, although I would not want to see it again myself.’
    Where on Earth have gone the infinite shades of grey between black and white?

  11. I’m glad to see Kate commented, because reading your review reminded me so much of hers. I really enjoyed restless, and thought that Ruth developed towards her mother in two ways, firstly in finally seeing her as a woman, not just as a ‘Mother’, and secondly in recognising the possibilities she had to become more like her, not just develop in reaction to her, But I agree that Boyd didn’t depict the 70s as well as he did those war years. I suppose that I rarely think about whether I like something or not; like Danielle, I pretty much like all that I read, and literary criticism isn’t (to my mind) about value judgements. I tell the students that lit. critics are like diplomats, juggling all kinds of opposing views about a story but never being so impolite or impolitic as to descend into personal comment about it. I always run with the thought that flaws are intentional. Isn’t Ruth supposed to be a pale imitation of her mother when the book starts out (even though with the egocentrism of youth she’s ready to condemn her out of hand?). Isn’t she drifting and a bit feckless, in opposition to her mother’s silent dynamism? And doesn’t she turn her life around a bit more by the end, the revelations of her mother provoking a proper analysis of her own life and situation? Anyhow, end of lecture, getting down from the podium now! You write beautifully about the book, Lily, and I was extremely interested in what you had to say about it.

  12. I think Danielle has a very good point when she talks about the importance of what a reader brings to a book. Each one of us is going to bring so many different things. Not only will we have different literary tastes and therefore value different types of writing, but we will also bring such varied life experiences to bear on our appreciation of the way the writer has gone about his or her job. At book group last night we had quite a long discussion of Peter Carey’s latest novel ‘Theft’, which I had enjoyed because of the way he manipulates the reader’s perception of truth through the use of narrator (what I’m interested in) but which my friend Mary had really found irritating because she is a painter and felt he’d got the details of how a painter works wrong.
    On the subject of expanding on ‘it was good/it was bad’. There is an interesting book which I use with my trainee teachers on how to help children develop past this stage of lit. crit. It’s by Aidan Chambers and called ‘Tell Me’. Inevitably, the students have to learn to get past this stage themselves before they can help children to do so. When I get stuck with what I want to say about a novel, I just think back to his four basic questions: ‘Tell me about something you liked; tellme about something you didn’t like; tell me about something that puzzled you; tell me about any patterns you noticed.’ I’ve never known those questions to fail to get a discussion going.

  13. Such an interesting post that provoked such great comments! I feel conflicted about negative reviews — I do give them sometimes, although I try to go beyond “I didn’t like it” and point out the positives and the things others might like and the personal reasons I didn’t like something so as to leave open the possibility that others might like it. I do think there’s a value to pointing out flaws, as you do so well here, but not if it’s done in a snarky, gleeful way. I suppose if I criticize, I try hard to say why I feel that way, and I’d much prefer to praise.

  14. What a wonderful discussion! This is what a literary discourse should sound like, as it’s as important I think to discuss the flaws as much as the merits of a book, and then to emphasize those merits all the more.

    And note that Restless just picked up the Costa Novel Award (formerly the Whitbread Prize). You can read about it here.

  15. Sounds like the experience that I often have with films. Many are good, entertaining even, but I come away thinking what could have been if just this or that had been changed or added to. Thankfully not all films, or books, are that way. There are several times when I don’t do movie reviews simply because I don’t have enough nice to say about it and am disappointed.

  16. What an interesting discussion you’ve begun here! I particularly appreciate hearing charlotteotter and litlove’s takes on Ruth’s narrative in Restless. Before now I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that, as charlotteotter says, Ruth’s “own apparently unconventional life suddenly looked very normal in comparison to her mother’s amazing achievements” or litlove’s related point that Ruth is “supposed to be a pale imitation of her mother when the book starts out .” This is the best of the world of book blogging, this sort of measured, thoughtful discussion, complete with respectful disagreement, and the possibility of reevaluating one’s own opinion in the face of it.

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  19. This is why I love reading your blog, bloglily. There is usually such a wonderful discussion going on here. Rational, thinking, articulate people discussing my favorite subject: reading.

    I love books. I used reading as an escape from reality during a less than ideal childhood, and my criteria were not critical in the least. What I wanted most was something interesting enough that it would take me away from the place I did not wish to be, something I could immerse myself in deeply enough I could not hear my parents fighting. To this day I am so good at escaping into books that my husband has learned not to assume I will hear him if he begins a conversation with me when my nose is in a book.

    Needless to say, adventure romances, science fiction, and mysteries were very good at getting me away. It as taken me a very long time to grow away from that psychological imperative and become able to enjoy slower, more deep writing. I suppose this might explain why I have resisted non-fiction for so long.

    Anyway, actually reviewing a book seems too much like work for me. I can generally say why I liked it in an intelligent way if I am pressed. This is not to say I do not like to read reviews, especially thoughtful ones like I have been finding here and on other commenters sites.

    Thank you for your blog.

  20. Danielle, I think it’s good to begin the year thinking a little about how and why we do what we do. Thanks for helping me in that endeavor!

    You’re very right, Emily, that it is in discussing different points of view that you find yourself actually figuring out what you do really think about someting.

    Hello Charlotte — I also really like my book group and have found that we have the best discussions when a book really forces us out of the places we like to be.

    Mandarine — The infinite shades of gray between black and white take longer to express? Aren’t what people are looking for? I don’t know, actually, but I think you’ve asked a very good question.

    Dear Litlove — That’s such an interesting point you make, about literary criticism not being about making judgments. That certainly makes sense if you’ve chosen the work you’re writing about. Goodness knows you’d better pick somebody you like if you’re going to be living with them for a long time!

    Ann — I am going to remember that “Tell Me” template. It’s something I wish I’d known when I began writing essays, and I’ll bet my own children will be putting it to good use soon enough!

    Dorothy — A spectacularly flawed book can be a very interesting thing to write about, I’ve just realized. Books like that can show you a trend that’s been pushed in the wrong direction, or too far, for example. I love what you posted about this subject, by the way — what really matters is that you write interestingly and energetically about your chosen subject.

    Well there you go, W — I’m glad Boyd had that to take his mind off my blog post.

    Carl — I’m with you — I’d rather go on about something I think is wonderful than slog along describing some insipid book or film.

    Kate — One of the hardest characters to write is the character who’s a pale imitation of someone! The trouble of course is that the writer has to make that not very energetic character someone you want to hear more about. And that’s the challenge that Boyd didn’t quite meet, I think.

    Hello HMH — I know exactlywhat you’re describing — most of us do, I think. I love disappearing into the world someone’s created on the page. I just wish I had time to do it more. But that’s what makes reading so wonderful.

  21. I am such a crappy book reviewer that I rarely do it (and confess that I fall into the loved it/hated it category). Since reading this post I have been thinking more about what is working for me, and what isn’t, when reading a novel. As I’m currently reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, I have over 700 pages of writing to mull over. It is enriching my reading experience tremendously, not like in the old days of English Lit in high school, where thinking about ‘themes’ (urgh) turned me off any kind of book crit altogether.

  22. It’s not easy to write a really good book. I should know, having spent almost three years writing something I’d be delighted to have even recognized as resembling a novel.

    And, as a screenwriter (okay director like Lynch or Burton who write the films they direct typically), I can totally relate. Though in all the writing courses I have taken, novels are simple in comparison, in that it is a more open and unrestricted written medium. All I can say is the advice I was given. Writing is about re-writing. I’ve done better by shutting off the judgemental side when I write, and then do the analytical phase just reading, and then adjusting again and again until I’m sick to my stomach. Then usually somebody likes it.

    Usually. Mind you, in a visual medium, if I can start to draw the action in storyboards, and I like the dialogue, I will run with it. But enough rambling. Must try to write.

  23. Interesting, I can’t wait to read all the posts here.

    I have trouble writing about books, as I’ve discovered, and I am not really sure why. I can pan a real piece of tripe, but most efforts don’t fall under the category of trash or classic — most writing is in between, and more difficult to write about.

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