books and reading · pop culture

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

These are the articles I’ve been reading and thinking about this week.

Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews? (NYT)

Sometimes I feel like I’m so tired of this question that I could scream.  But despite my weariness of it, we continue to talk around and around about whether or not we need negative book reviews.  The short answer is (and always will be) YES.  We do need negative book reviews, because the alternative–not writing a review of a book because it might be critical–means silence, and it also indicates a lack of critical thought.  There’s a place for negative reviews, and it’s right alongside positive, glowing ones.

At any rate, this piece–in which writers Francine Prose and Zoe Heller both tackle the question of negative reviews, is both interesting and thought-provoking.  Prose talks about the fact that she gave up writing negative reviews for three decades before diving back in:

I’ve begun to think, If something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so.

It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference. I’m annoyed by gossip masquerading as biography, by egomaniacal boasting and name-dropping passing as memoir. It irks me to see characters who are compendiums of clichés. I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does. It’s almost like being lied to. And it troubles me when a critic quotes “His eyes were as black as night” as an example of the author’s lyrical gifts! Needless to say, criticism is a matter of opinion. If, in someone else’s opinion, “His eyes were as black as night” is a lyrical sentence, that person is obviously entitled to enjoy a whole book of sentences like that.

Heller seems to largely agree:

It is a mistake, then, to characterize the debate about bad reviews as a contest between humane impulses and coldhearted snark. Banning “negativity” is not just bad for the culture; it is unfair to authors. A review, however aggressively unfavorable, is generally obliged to provide supporting evidence for its judgments. It is also published under a byline, signaling to all that it is the work of one fallible human being. This seems an altogether fairer and more accountable way of dealing with a book one deems “bad” than banishing it, without explanation, from public notice. As I understand it, one of the putative virtues of the Internet age is that it has removed power from the elitist gatekeepers of yore and allowed a freer, more democratic range of voices to be heard.

I wish I could say that this will put the issue to rest at last, but whatever.  Still a diverting read.

The Incoherent Backlashes to Black Actors Playing “White” Superheroes (The Atlantic)

Michael B. Jordan, an actor I love unabashedly, has been cast as Johnny Storm in the new Fantastic Four movie.  While there’s an argument to be made that we don’t need ANOTHER Fantastic Four movie, I love the casting choice.  Not everyone seems to feel the same way, though.  The internet brings out the worst in all of us, and that includes the racist fucking bigots who feel like they must weigh in on the casting decision, because, you know, superheroes must always be white.

People say they object to black casting because it’s untrue to the original source material, and a betrayal of the characters—a claim that seems particularly dicey in the case of The Hunger Games, where Rue is black in the original novel. But even in the case of the Fantastic Four, where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did in fact make the team white, the plea to be faithful to the founding seems to raise a lot of questions…

…The answer is obvious enough. American racism holds that only certain racial differences matter. Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Irish—all those people are white and can play one another with nary an eyebrow raised.

FFS, people.  When you claim that you’re upset about staying true to the story when a character has been cast with an actor of color in the role, you’re lying.  You’re upset because YOU ARE A RACIST.

Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Accomodating (Medium)

Probably the most thoughtful thing I’ve read all week, this one tackles the concept of books for girls and books for boys, and why that’s so problematic.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve started to delve into a massive amount of research on YA books for a project I may or may not undertake, but this is an accessible, short essay about the problems with thinking about books for teens/kids in such binary terms.

When we assume that boys won’t read books with girls on the cover, and then institutionalize that assumption by leaving the “girlie” books out of award nominations (as well as school wide reads, story times, etc.), we insult them. By suggesting that on the whole our boys have a limited capacity for empathy, an inability to imagine a world beyond their own most obvious understanding, and an unwillingness to stretch.

In the same stroke, we neglect our girls. Not because they can’t read “boy books” (they do and will). But because when they see those awards, they also learn something —to accept a world in which they are rarely the central players. They learn, at a formative age, that the “best” books are the ones about boys. (Or dogs, as previously mentioned. Dogs are good.)

I loved this one.

How to Get Yourself to Watch “Difficult Movies” (Slate)

This article came to me at the perfect time, because I finally sat down and watched 12 Years a Slave last weekend with J.  I’ve been meaning to see it since it came out, but I’ve kept putting it off.  For the same reasons as Julia Turner in this piece: because I knew it was going to be emotionally harrowing and hard to watch.  But it’s also incredibly important.  It was also the most spectacular movie I’ve seen in a good long while.

Turner focuses mostly on Schindler’s List in this article, but the idea is the same: it took her 21 years to watch that movie, and it took hosting a viewing party to get her to do it.  So this idea of having your friends/peers hold you accountable is what she’s getting at in this piece, and it’s very interesting.  Thoughts?

What articles got you thinking this week?


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