Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Da Vinci Code

In conversation recently I was asked why I only recommend books that I like. It slightly stumped me at the time as I thought that was the whole point of recommendation, to impart to someone else one’s own love or enthusiasm for something in the hope that it will also bring them joy or pleasure. Rarely if ever do holiday guides say “oooh don’t come here, it’s horrible” or restaurant guides say “this restaurant serves the most appalling filth I’ve ever eaten.” There are of course exceptions. Shock columnists out to make a name for themselves or occasions when something is so truly appalling that it becomes comment worthy. But the general aim, as I understand it, is to empower, to inform and to enthuse.

Some time later I then wondered how such recommendations speak of what we consider to be good. How do we decide “good” from “bad?” All the books that I recommend to you I do so because I have read them and enjoyed them. I have thought about why they were “good” and tried to convey that in the reviews you see opposite. But it is personal taste. It is subjective. You, of course, may disagree with me vehemently and consider that I’ve made you waste your time reading a book you loathed. It happens. Someone once recommended The Da Vinci Code to me saying that it was the “most amazing book I’ve ever read.” I couldn’t even finish the first chapter without wanting to throw the appallingly written, clumsily plotted pile of ordure to the wall before taking it outside, setting fire to it, scattering the ashes to the four winds and then washing my hands in sulphuric acid to remove the soiling effect it had had on my skin. In short I loathed something that a friend loved. It was to my mind a “bad” book. Of course my argument was somewhat shaken when said book became a huge international bestseller read by countless millions and spawning rather a decent film. But it doesn’t change what I thought and indeed still think of that book. It simply means that the millions of people that read it and “loved” it are just plain wrong!

There are of course lots of books I haven’t enjoyed. Some just don’t grab me but I know are highly regarded by others. Some I didn’t understand. Some are just badly written or ill thought out and I don’t see why I should recommend that you invest your time and effort in something that the author couldn’t be bothered to fully invest their time and effort in.

I feel that there’s little point in telling someone that they won’t enjoy something, because they just might. Better surely to explain what you have enjoyed in the hope that they enjoy it too. But then I was brought up to believe that ‘if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.’ Except where The Da Vinci Code is concerned. Of course.

If you have been, thanks for reading.



1 comment:

LF Barfe said...

Re: "Shock columnists out to make a name for themselves" - Yes, quite often I read a review that tells me nothing about the book, and everything about the reviewer, which is all arse-about-face. Also to be denigrated are the reviews where the reviewer says "I would have done it this way, but this writer did it that way, therefore this book has no value". When I review books, I acknowledge there are a multitude of possible approaches to a subject and that the only question that really matters is "Does it work?".

A friend of mine who reviewed jazz records for years had a simple rule. If a record were flawed, but interesting, he'd persevere and say why he found it so. If, however, he didn't like a record one little bit, he handed it back in hope that the editor would be able to find someone able to appreciate it.

That said, sometimes, demolition is the reviewer's only reasonable option, and it should carry all the more weight for coming from an unexpected source. Also, when you're in the thick of Grub Street, the temptation to pull punches because you might see x or y at a party must be resisted. Whether a review's good or bad, authors and publishers need the coverage, and if you're in a position to give it, they will always come back to you.