Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.



The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.



I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.



Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 11.48.39.png

[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

7 thoughts on “Three Things… March 2019

  1. A thousand yeses to critical reviews. What on earth is the point of reading (a body of) commentary that has nothing to say about the work it’s engaging with other than “it’s great”?! It’s related, I think, to the way in which mainstream book blogging appears to be moving towards becoming (if it hasn’t already become) a fifth column of publishers’ marketing departments, instead of a vibrant and frequently disagreeing community of people reading and thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I particularly dislike the threatening messages sent out to wannabe writers (I know that only a minority of people in the industry take part in this, and lots say exactly the opposite, but aspiring writers feel so powerless that I think even a few comments have a big impact)


  2. Too bad you didn’t like Watson’s book. I enjoyed her memoir very much, but I know that style and voice are very subjective things. It sounds like you had the same sort of reaction as you did to With the End in Mind?

    But on that note: absolutely, negative reviews have value and I get fed up with bloggers, reviewers and authors saying you can’t or shouldn’t review something you didn’t like. Rating inflation also means that I have had authors get tetchy about a 3-star rating — an author who recently sent me her book for review saw that I’d rated it 3 on Goodreads and asked me not to feature it on my blog; another author saw my 3 stars for one of her favourite writers and seemed offended when she asked why just 3. It seems like an overreaction to me, when 3 means ‘liked’. In these cases, there were aspects I appreciated about the books and aspects I didn’t, and in some ways I wasn’t the ideal audience. Those are all fair things to note. Most reviews are mixed to some extent, and as long as you back up your points, it’s fine.

    I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of 1-star reviews I have given, though. I try to keep these factual, but inevitably some personal loathing makes its way through. An author once replied to my 1-star review on Goodreads with a mansplainy response about what he was trying to do with the book. I didn’t reply but did at least let his comment stand. I’ve gotten gun-shy about publicizing any of my reviews that are 3 stars or below, so generally don’t tweet about them unless I’m part of a blog tour. Even when you don’t tag them, the authors can still find the review and get miffed (as Susan Hill did for my 3-star review of her latest book).

    I think authors have to detach once they release their work into the world. Maybe give a brief thanks for the kind reviews, but definitely don’t engage with the negative ones. It just seems undignified. But then, I’m terrible at taking negative feedback, so if I ever publish a book it’s something I’ll struggle with.

    (Sorry for such a long comment, but it’s something I also feel strongly about. I’m glad you brought it up!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kind of, but I liked The Language of Kindness better than With the End in Mind – I think I had more fundamental misgivings with the latter, whereas Watson’s voice just got on my nerves a bit! I was really hoping to like this more than I did.

      3-star reviews are an interesting one. I agree with you that a 3-star review isn’t necessarily a bad review – it seems to me that all books start at this level until they prove themselves otherwise! I’ve rated many perfectly fine books 3 stars. But the algorithms on Goodreads and Amazon seem to expect higher star ratings. I’ve started giving more 2-star reviews to emphasise this, but reserve 1-star reviews for books that were actually offensive in some way.

      I definitely think I’d struggle to read negative reviews of my own work – but I plan to avoid them, rather than resist them!


      • I quite agree: 3 stars is a very standard rating for me. It can mean a book didn’t at all stand out for me (‘okay, I read it; next!’) or it can mean that I had very mixed feelings. Whereas some people seem to start with an automatic 5 stars and only deduct if they find problems. So I’ve been asked sometimes re: a 3-star book what was ‘wrong’ with it, and the answer is often nothing per se.

        Liked by 1 person

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