On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.
One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog. 🙂
Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.
So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews. Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.
- 2016 Edgar Awards Nominees (USA) – across the 6 adult fiction categories 11 of the 33 books nominated were written by women.
- 2016 CWA Dagger Award Nominees (UK) – across 10 categories an embarrassing 9 of the 48 books nominated were written by women.
Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers. 9 were men.
Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.
This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer. Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).
The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention. She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment. So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it? Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.
And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.
Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun. I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.
In the end it’s a numbers game.
A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.
3 thoughts on “In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth”
Fair points, and nicely argued:)
It seems to me that the women writers of literary fiction, and the women writers of literary fiction in translation in particular, that need our support the most.
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There seem to be two threads to this discussion. One is whether mediocre books deserve to be reviewed. My thought is yes – thats how other readers get to know what people like them think and from that they can decide whether to buy/borrow etc. Plus what one reader thinks is mediocre then another will enjoy – at least if they see a balanced review they can make up their own minds.
Second thread is about the gender topic. Maybe this is controversial but I seldom consider the gender of a writer before I decide whether to read the book. I go for what appeals to me normally (I say normally because right now I’m participating in the women in translation challenge) and that could include what point of view the author might have or knowledge of a topic. That doesn’t mean I dismiss the views of others who see gender imbalance in their own reading as an issue. It’s just not a big issue for me.
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Women in Translation month will always generate enormous amounts of positivity – and rightly so – but I still think there is room for different types and levels of criticism where necessary. I wouldn’t want to read lots of disrespectful hatchet jobs but I don’t think it’s realistic for all books to meet everyone’s high expectations and for all to get four or five star reviews.
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