How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

41 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

41 responses to “How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

  1. Unless there is something instructive about the way that they failed to meet my expectations, life is too short to review things about which I’m ambivalent.

    Like

  2. I am similar to yourself, however I sometimes feel obliged to make my negative thoughts known & help potential readers with balanced views. I was recently thinking along your lines by having a post with a number of titles, a couple of paragraphs about each & then simply moving on. Nice to see you highlighting three books that didn’t meet your expectations

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree with Tony, constructive negative thoughts can be made known and I sometimes wish I had been a little more direct, especially when I read a book everyone seems to love and I wonder what the fuss is. I also worry when I absolutely love a book, rave about it, and find my fondness wanes (or the books slips from my memory in a week or so). I try to write through a book when I review it and sometimes I have found that a book I felt rather uncertain about, really starts to make sense and impress me more in writing about it. There are also those books I read, didn’t like at the time, but can’t stop thinking about—those books that take time to work into your subconscious. So maybe a good rule of thumb is to let a mediocre read sit and if it loses all shape and substance, let it go. And don’t agree to a shadow jury. There is nothing worse than feeling obligated to review a book you disliked, or worse, that bored you silly!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s great advice, Joe! I read all three of these books earlier in the summer and thought for a while on what I could write about each. And in the end I was just too ambivalent about them to come up with anything meaningful to post.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t write about books that I don’t like or that I find mediocre. I see the goal of my blog as alerting my readers to books that are noteworthy and worth their time, or sometimes I’ll explore a specific aspect or theme of a book, or relate it to my life or contemporary life in some way. I don’t write traditional book reviews, because I don’t post super frequently, so when I do post I want to write about what excites me that I want to share. There are lots of great blogs, columns and other outlets with excellent that provide excellent critical reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved Late Fame. I prefer not to write negative reviews as my time is limited and why spend it that way. But mediocre books are sort of in the middle…

    Like

  6. If a book is not to my taste, I will stop reading and very rarely pass judgement. If a classic that has passed the posterity test is not to my taste, I assume my failure to appreciate its merits is no judgment on the quality of the book, it’s just not my sort of thing. In that case, I might try to explain why the book doesn’t appeal to me. I admire any writer with the stamina to write a book and get it published; if a book by a contemporary (living) writer fails to appeal to me, who am I to pass judgment on a skill I don’t possess? There is a lack of humility in the book blogging ‘community’.

    Auden’s approach strikes me as wise:

    “As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

    Like

  7. I’ll be the odd man here.
    I write about books I abandoned and about books I didn’t like.
    (see these ones, for example

    https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/the-yiddish-policemens-union-by-michael-chabon/

    or https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/about-three-books-i-couldnt-finish/ )

    You know that I write billets, and not reviews. I write about my experience with a book and not a literary commentary about it. I’m not a teacher and my blog is my reading journal. Wuthering Heights may be a masterpiece of literature, I still hate it and especially Heathcliff and Cathy. I find them obnoxious and I would write it. Maybe it will easy the guilt of other readers who feel like me but won’t dare to say such a thing about a monument of literature.

    I want to understand why a book I picked up and expected to -at least- like (since I only read for my pleasure) didn’t work for me. I want to improve my pick-the-right-book skills.

    It seems also fair to the faithful readers of Book Around The Corner that I let them know that I’m not a goddess who manages to read only outstanding pieces of literature.

    Last but not least, over the years, I’ve discovered that sitting down in front of the computer, taking some time to think about why I didn’t like a book was rewarding. It helps selecting the next ones better and often, I found out qualities in a book that I was ready to discard.

    Does that make sense?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, absolutely, Emma. Thanks so much for your very insightful comment. When I first started my blog it was more for writing reviews but it has evolved into sharing how a book personally affected me.

      Like

  8. Jonathan

    If I only found a book mediocre then I probably wouldn’t post anything but then I only get round to posting on a few of the books I read anyway as time spent blogging is time not spent reading. I’m all for negative reviews if it’s felt justified. I loved Late Fame also; I’m surprised you didn’t like it more.

    Like

    • I seem to be in the minority about Late Fame. Perhaps I ought it give it another try. And you make a great point about blogging vs. writing. I felt that writing about books that I felt so-so about did take away from my reading! Definitely another thing to consider, how one wants to spend ones time!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I tend to abandon books that don’t grab me – I’d rather read something I really enjoy although I have written critical reviews where I’ve been in a similar situation to you here. We’re all different – I actually loved Late Fame! 😀

    Like

  10. My policy is to only review books I’d be happy to recommend to a friend. They don’t all have to be excellent – that would be asking too much – but they do have to be books that at least one person I know would be happy to pick up.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Interesting post! I’m aware that different readers have different preferences so if I do write a review of a book I didn’t like that much I tend to focus on what might appeal to others. I recently read The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet which was a bit too offbeat for my personal taste but I can see why others who know more about the context might enjoy it more than me.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting post, and interesting comments! Mediocre books are hard to write about. My natural inclination is to be a cheerleader/champion, so I prefer to write in that mode. But my motivation is mostly to figure out how the book is what it is, rather than to evaluate.
    I don’t think mediocrity is synonymous with ambivalence. I often find it instructive (for myself, at any rate) to write about a book I have mixed feelings about, or that I can’t decide what my feelings are. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s mediocre.
    Like Joe I think writing about a book is a great way to figure out what I think about a book. (Almost as good as teaching something–that *really* clarifies my feelings!) And I really like the point about books you change your mind about–that improve or worsen in your memory as times passes. I always feel as though I should be reading the next thing, but maybe I should spend more time revisiting things I’ve read before and writing about my changing responses….
    On another note, as you know, Melissa, I am a great partisan of Henry Green, so I’m disappointed Party Going didn’t work out for you. Maybe you’ll like it more the next time you read it!

    Like

    • You make a good point. Maybe I should have said that I was ambivalent about these books and they just didn’t inspire me to write anything worth posting. I seem to be in the minority about Party Going so I should think about giving it another try.

      Like

  13. I have a rule that I won’t review a book that I didn’t finish reading, but if I do finish reading a book for whatever reason, I don’t mind writing a negative review, especially If I thought it was over-praised elsewhere. Otherwise if everything gets praised, how does a potential reader distinguish between the good and the bad? I do try to make a point of writing not like God making a judgment but rather one fallible human’s opinion.
    I am a big fan of Henry Green and almost all his books including Party Going.

    Like

    • I did love Back and Blindness. And Party Going was great for me, at first, but then it made me uncomfortable. But I will definitely read his other books as I do enjoy his writing. And I just don’t like writing negative reviews. There are so many blogs, review sites, etc. out there that a reader can look up multiple reviews and still get a balanced idea of the good and bad of any book. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Susie | Novel Visits

    Great topic to discuss. I really struggle with reviewing books I didn’t like. If I DNF a book then I don’t review it on my blog. If it was an ARC, I send a little note to the publisher, thanking them and telling them why the book didn’t work for me, but also try to give a little positive feedback, too. If I finish a book, I try to do some sort of review even if i didn’t care for it. I sometimes do what you did here and include them in a group of mini-reviews. In fact, I did that last week with three books. It’s easier to keep it brief in a book that wasn’t working for me.

    Like

  15. Vishy

    Beautiful post, Melissa! Sorry to know that the Henry Green book didn’t work for you. The Italian occupation of East Africa during the time of the Second World War is a theme which has not been sufficiently explored in fiction, I think. I hope someone does that. I have a novel by an Ethiopian writer, but even that is about the ’70s and later when the country went through political upheavals. There is a beautiful East African novel with an Italian link waiting to be written. Why didn’t you like the Schnitzler book? From your short review it looks quite good. I have always loved Schnitzler. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I decided when I first started my blog that I’d write about every book I read, and I’m pretty sure I’ve done that so far. If a book has been mediocre, disappointed me, or actually been bad, I will say so and do my best to be clear what I didn’t like. My students always seemed relieved when I told them ‘you don’t have to like a book, but you do need to try and explain why’, and over time learned to do this quite effectively. I think there’s an uncalled-for reverence for some books just because they made it into print… Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, ‘95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap’; I think his percentage is rather high but the sentiment is worth bearing in mind nonetheless! Worst book I’ve written about? https://litgaz.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/the-worst-novel-ive-ever-read/

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I think a mini-reviews roundup, like you’ve done here, is a perfect way to deal with books you’re not crazy about. I do a similar thing for books I’ve abandoned. It’s always interesting to see the range of opinions on what people consider appropriate to review or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. A great post which has led to some really interesting comments. I will not review book if I find it bland – but then I don’t usually have time to review everything I read. (I also sometimes don’t review a book if I feel it has already been widely reviewed). I’ll happily write a negative review of a book if it has been generally praised / is by a well-known writer/ or is listed for a prize. I wouldn’t do it to a new or obscure writer. I agree with Joe, though, when he says that your respect for a book can increase as you review it, and also share something of Dorian’s approach of trying to work out what the writer is doing – though he’s a bit better at it than me!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. If I’m short on time, I’ll sometimes let mediocre books go, but I do write about them sometimes knowing that just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. Likewise, I know that just because I loved something, doesn’t mean everyone else will!
    This was an interesting post to read, especially with everyone’s input!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I find books that I loved or hated much easier to review than meh ones. What troubles me is when it was a review book and you feel you have to review it and draw out the good points while remaining truthful. They’re the hardest ones to write!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s