An existential take on book criticism

Maybe it’s because I watched the world leaders walking arm in arm behind a massive Parisian crowd. Maybe it’s just New Year reflections, or the fact I was staying with a therapist friend and his bookshelf was more erudite than mine, resulting in an intense ten hours reading Yalom and Vickers, both therapists who write fiction. Combined with my own pending first mainstream fiction release, perhaps it is not surprising that I have woken up thinking about book reviews.

It is so easy to be critical. To forget the hours that went into the writing, to dismiss the person behind the words. We know all too well that Social Media can lead people astray, give them a false sense of anonymity and self-importance. Kitty Flanagan in a weekend column let loose her thoughts on parenting and lamented she wouldn’t be taken seriously because she didn’t have children—but suggested no one criticize her column unless they’d written one themselves. There is wisdom in this…walk a month in a man’s moccasins and all that.

We all (well most) read, some more than others, and that gives us the right to review and criticize. Or at least the hundreds of thousands of reviews on Goodreads would seem to have us believe this is the case. Very few of these reviewers have written a full length book. But whether they have or not, we are all entitled to our own opinion and books are meant to make us think and feel—so yes, I welcome these reviews if it means people are reading. But can I also challenge people to think. Not just about the author and their book, what they might be trying to achieve, whether they did or not. In reading the reviews of a shortlisted Booker book, We’re all completely beside ourselves I was bemused that there was a tendency to score 1 or 2…or 5. I, for the record, gave it a 5. It is beautifully written, and I Iove the characters and the premise. But my take is no more worthy than those who were polarized at the other end: some people just didn’t like the “twist” and the author lost readers here—and transformed others. This is the risk good authors take. The middle road is rarely one that soars to great heights for anyone.

As an author, taking a risk is scary. Everyone wants their book to be read, most want it to be liked. Maybe we hope to entertain, some to transform lives. There are certainly books that have done this for me; why else would I read? That can be a transformation into another world, briefly, or into a different way of thinking that lives beyond the final page.

So when you write a review, remember the writer is human by all means, but I put forward a greater challenge. Remember and think who you are, why you felt and reacted the way you did, why you soared, or why you were disappointed. There are indeed really badly written books. To my shame, as an early reviewer, annoyed that a particular author was well reviewed when I thought mine was better (in retrospect we were both were pretty bad), I was less kind than I should have been.

Yalom on his book on dying says we can’t take with us what we were given—only what we gave. In reviewing books as general readers we have a responsibility. Not just to the author, and the readers who might pay attention to our opinion (or not), but to ourselves. Don’t lie—be truthful about your take on the book you have read. Be also truthful about yourself and how and why you interacted with the book. And above all? My resolution for this year, not just in my book reviews, is to be kind. There isn’t enough of it in the world—we need more.


About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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