Monday, February 15, 2010

Anne Frank Gets Bad Reviews

One of my Goodreads friends (the people whose capsule reviews of the books they've read recently get emailed to me), a former undergraduate at Stanford, now finishing her MFA at Iowa, just gave The Diary of Anne Frank four out of five possible stars.  This woman is consistently harsher on her Goodreads reviews than I am, seldom dispensing the top five-star rating, I guess saving it for books that she deems truly special, not just close to perfect.  I get this.  I respect this, even if I follow a different model with my own Goodread ratings.  But The Diary of Anne Frank?

"Why'd you hold back from giving Anne Frank that fifth star?" I joked in my comment to her.  "Was the language not restrained enough?  Too nakedly adolescent?  Or was the story simply melodramatic?"

I admit that it has been a while since I've read Anne Frank's diary--"a while" being a euphemism for the decades since middle school--but what I remember feeling at the end of the book was an aching sense of double loss, that this real girl had died (her death standing in for so many) and also that the world had lost an incredible writer, already so talented in her adolescence, who would undoubtedly have given us many more beautiful books.  I know that I'm not the only one to feel or express this.  Francine Prose has a critical book out on Anne Frank that I'm curious to read.  But apparently--I learned after scanning Anne Frank's Goodreads ratings--that Iowa MFA student is not the only person who thinks that Ms. Frank's writing is a bit...overrated.  In fact, her four star review was one of Frank's highest ratings.  Many of the Goodreads reviewers begrudge Anne her full corona of stars, and don't hold back in their capsule reviews explaining why.

A sampling of Goodreads reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank:

"It was so tedious, barely about the war itself, which supposed to make this book special."

Really?  I wonder why the diary of someone who was pent up with her family in an attic for many years might be tedious?  

"I just read it, to assume it is fake or not. I`m not sure yet, but I assume it is real , nobody would be bothered to write such tedious babbling."
I didn't know that Anne Frank's diary was suspect, a la James Frey of A Million Little Pieces infamy.  Does this person believe that she might be part of the whole holocaust hoax?  A "document" from that "genocide"?  

"i was recently at her house and was SHOCKED that it's HUGE. i mean, the diary makes it sound like they're living in a matchbox when even the hideaway part is two stories and far bigger than anywhere i've ever lived."

Well, I certainly hope you have written books about your experiences in those claustrophobic studios.  I'm sure they would be riveting.  I too have visited Anne Frank's house and don't recall being SHOCKED by the palatial size.  I mean the fact that there were two entire families living there, and that they COULD NEVER LEAVE might contribute to Anne's rendering of the space as small and confining...  Or maybe that was just more of her tedious adolescent babbling... 

"The time period is great, everything should set up for a good story, but Anne flunks out. Her book seems to have chapters of dialog between people that we don't even know - People she hasn't introduced properly."
This came with a one-star rating to go with Anne's "F."  Could it be that she's not introducing characters properly because she is writing in her own personal diary and not crafting a novel for people to read five decades later?   

"By the end I was rooting for the Nazis."

I thought I had a dark sense of humor, but this crosses a line that find beyond cringe-worthy.
"recommended for: people who like depressing or boring books"  

That's me, I guess. 

Frankly, I was SHOCKED (to borrow one critic's technique of making sure no emphasis is missed via the subtle art of ALL CAPS) by the number of negative reviews posted on this book, and by how few people held back from their less than humble opinions, regardless of the author--indeed, they seemed to relish heaping criticism upon this book.  Should Anne Frank's diary be sacred because she was a real person who did not write her book to be subject to public scrutiny or judgment, a real person who died in a camp before reaching adulthood?  I will leave that up to the individual person and Goodreader.  I personally would not feel comfortable writing a negative review of Anne's prose (or assigning her fewer than the five possible stars which I do believe she deserves).  

I've been having semi-frequent conversations recently with different friends--many of them writers, some fellow book reviewers, all avid readers--about whether there should be negative reviews of fiction at all.  The subject has been coming up a lot, in part I'm sure, because my own novel is about to be released, so it's a bone I'm gnawing.  I've been publishing book reviews for the last decade, and am now forced to recognize (what an epiphany) how much easier it is to dole out the judgment than to be on its receiving end.  It is also a hell of a lot easier to judge a book (via Goodreads, in particular, where all you have to do is hit "submit") than to write one.  

This is one of the arguments behind the school of thought holding that with so little space to review books in print, and so few people buying books, especially fiction, why not reserve this coveted review space for recommendations?  The Believer upholds this model.  Heidi Julavitz wrote a manifesto against "snarkiness" in the opening issue, which set the standard for "giving books the benefit of the doubt."  As a new and somewhat nervous novelist, I'm all for it.  But it also seems to me that taking fiction off the critical table altogether suggests that it is too weak and anemic as a form to hold up to the slightest prodding, that it will collapse like a heap of ashes and scatter to the winds.  A friend who writes both poetry and fiction argues that this is what happened to poetry--she says that it's virtually impossible to find a negative review of a book of poems in print--and that poetry is in fact a form on the brink of extinction, in the sense that no one can make money off their poetry alone, and very few people buy it.  She sees the increase in positive reviews for fiction (perhaps influenced by The Believer) as a sign that novels might be headed down that same slope.  

The same Iowa MFA student who gave Anne Frank's diary a four star rating gave Faulkner's As I Lay Dying only three stars.  I admire her rigor, her refusal to grade inflate.  I was about to say that if she ever gives a book five stars, I'll order it immediately with the highest expectations.  But then I saw that she gave a fellow acquaintance five stars on his newly released novel.  Hmm...  I'm guilty of this too, and I admit it.  I give five stars for friends' books.  This is Goodreads we're talking about, not print journalism, where I wouldn't review a friend's book to begin with.  
After having spent the better part of the afternoon cruising around Goodreads--which was good fun, make no mistake; I still love the site--I am newly glad that print journalism and vetted "professional" book reviews still exist.  Whether a book critic is worrying about sounding too "snarky" or not, at least there is some worry motivating the critic, whose name will appear beneath a published opinion.  I don't think that only positive reviews should see the light of day.  I think fiction can and should hold up to honest scrutiny, and as a reader, seeing a spectrum of reviews (on one particular book, or on different books released at the same time) helps me to appreciate what reviews (and possibly what novels) are going to be truly exceptional and what I want to buy and read.  But even when criticism is earned, I also think it's important for the critic to remember how much work goes into creating and finishing a book.  IMHO.

I'm always fascinated by how very different two readers' opinions of the same book can be, or even by how different my own opinion of a book can be when I reread it years following a first reading.  Every book is imperfect.  They are the work of people.  They are built of sentences and scenes, images and thoughts, all creating an illusion of wholeness--the magical part. 

1 comment:

Nick said...

Oh. My. God. It has also been ages since I've read Anne Frank so don't remember it all that well, but certainly remember being totally moved by it. The venom and maliciousness of those reviews is just shocking. It was a DIARY written by a girl who had no intention of it ever being published. Get a grip, people!