On Reviewing and Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

There’s an on-going discussion in the blogosphere as to whether or not you should write negative reviews of books. Usually, I stay out of any discussion as to how blogs should be run/what they should contain but a combination of having read a book that I found annoying and recently reading Pretentiousness: Why it Matters by Dan Fox made me think there was room for an exploration of reviewing itself.

Everyone has their own approach to reviewing but I recall seeing John Self say something on Twitter along the lines of he thought a good review should allow someone who hadn’t read the book to decide whether they wanted to read it or not and give the person who had read it something extra to mull over, a new dimension to their view of it. My interpretation of this is that a good review is something that interrogates the text – its meaning, its structure, its language – and takes into account its style/genre: nothing’s written in a vacuum. Positive and negative reviews should be written with the same rigour and where relevant, I think, with a nod to your own interests/bias.

viral

Before Christmas, a publicist from Faber & Faber pitched Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral to me. It’s the story of two teenage sisters – one biological, Leah, one adopted, Su – who go on holiday to Magaluf. Su is filmed performing a sex act on a number of men in a nightclub. The video goes viral. The book then follows the after-effects for the sisters and their family. To make it more interesting, their mother is a Scottish Sheriff.

As someone who spends their days reading and writing about women’s bodies – how they’re portrayed, what society dictates about how they’re allowed to be used, what the consequences are for transgressing society’s rules – this book was catnip.

I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me do this. They might include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth-year biology teacher and my boyfriend of six weeks, James.

The video shows Su, drunk, being asked if she wants more alcohol followed by close ups of her sucking a range of penises. In the background, the crowd shout, ‘Go go go!’, a chant begun by her sister, and a man’s comments:

‘Fucking slag’ is the cameraman’s whispered commentary. He sounds as if he’s hard with hate. ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore. Take it all the way, dirty bitch.’

‘Prudish, virginal Su’ is hiding in a hotel room. Her sister and friends are on their way back to Scotland without her.

Buckle in, I thought, this is going to have interesting things to say around sexual consent and slut shaming.

In Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Fox argues:

You have your established schema for what a work of art should be, and then something alien arrives and throws that schema into doubt. A gap opens up between your expectations and what you’re presented with, leading you to question the legitimacy of the new thing that has arrived, to ask who gave this upstart the authority to exist in the first place. You are either ‘convinced’ by, because it agrees with the criteria familiar to you, or you call it pretentious.

With regards to Viral, my schema was established before I’d opened the book and my initial impression of the novel led me to believe it would be fulfilled.

Once Leah arrives home, her hatred of Su is revealed and Ruth, the girls’ mother, discovers that the law isn’t going to help her achieve justice for Su. As punishment for Leah, she sends her back to Magaluf to find her sister.

At this point, I thought the book included some interesting extra dimensions: Su’s ethnicity is obviously an issue for Leah; there’s something about peer pressure (Su was planning to lose her virginity in Magaluf, encouraged by her sister), and Leah’s clearly unlikeable but the idea that a mother would send one of her children to another country to look for the sister who’s damaged state she’d contributed to seemed like one to instigate serious debate about motherhood, if not outright horror.

Once Leah found Su and Ruth began to decide what she could do without the law, Viral took a turn I wasn’t expecting. Ideas about sexual consent are threaded throughout the book but where I was primed for Apple Tree Yard, I got Gone Girl.

Had I written this review prior to reading Pretentiousness, I would’ve told you that this book isn’t very good. But that isn’t true: if this book isn’t very good why did I start reading it at 6pm one evening and finish it at 10am the following morning? Why did I finish it at all?

The book fits neatly into the category Marian Keyes christened ‘grip-lit’. For 75% of the novel, I was desperate to know what was going to happen next. There was a specific point in the plot where I began to think it was becoming implausible and then I almost didn’t read the end because I feared it was going to be ridiculous – and it was, by which, I mean that I thought one of the characters behaved contrary to her personality and that one of the novel’s threads ended with a coincidence that was difficult to buy – but I still wanted to know what happened.

So, I wasn’t convinced by Viral, although I wouldn’t have accused it of pretentiousness, instead I would’ve been snobby about it.

Why didn’t I like it? Because I wanted it to be one kind of book and it turned out to be another. It’s well-plotted, the writing’s clear, the first-person voice of Su and the third-person subjective view of Ruth are well-rendered and distinguishable. My problem was with the treatment of the main theme and there’s the key, it’s my problem, not the book’s.

Does the book fulfil its (or Fitzgerald’s) intentions? There’s no doubt it’s a gripping page-turner which raises the issue of sexual consent and the different social norms which apply to males and females. Does it matter whether it’s ‘realistic’ or ‘plausible’? No, is the simple answer. Some of the books I read are highly stylised – Martin John by Anakana Schofield is a recent example – and I often praise the writers for the skill with which they render these stories. A book can only be fairly critiqued within the terms it sets out for itself (including the genre/lineage to which it assigns itself). Outside of this lies personal opinion/taste and while that’s inescapable within reviewing it’s not a substitute for it.

Should reviewers write negative reviews? Yes, with the proviso that they’re critical discussions within which the reviewer registers their own schema/bias, if necessary. I suspect if someone’s finished reading a book something’s compelled them to the end, in which case it’s unlikely to be completely without merit. A balanced discussion allows a potential reader to make their own decision, after all, their tastes might not align with the reviewers.

There are reviews of Viral by Anne at Random Things Through My Letterbox and Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books if you’d like some alternative views.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “On Reviewing and Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

  1. A very interesting it’s aside from the review itself; the books I find hardest to review are those that don’t conform to my expectations which is entirely different to whether they are a good read or not. I do give negative reviews albeit rarely but probably at a more basic level around plot and character than your excellent reviews as I write mine so that other readers can make an informed decision without my having ruined it for them with spoilers. Thank you so much for linking to my review, I really do appreciate it.

  2. Very interesting review and fascinating to contrast it with Anne’s. I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl but I had to read it to the end…and you have precisely put into words that disconnect between expectation of a book and experience of a book…

  3. Interesting piece, Naomi. After years of reading books I’d really rather not for professional reasons my own stance is somewhat different but I’d call my posts recommendations rather than reviews. I do include critical comments – it’s rare that a book’s an unalloyed joy – but if I’m not prepared to pass a book on to a friend I won’t include it, and may well not finish it. I wonder how much your reading and reviewing has changed since you started your PhD.

    • Thanks, Susan. I think it’s entirely up to the individual how they run their blog, hence why I haven’t commented before. I wanted to look at when it is possible to write a negative review and what to be cautious of.

      The PhD’s made me more critical and more observant as to the mechanics of a book, I think. The things that have made the biggest difference to the reviewing though have been knowing it’s possible now that I’ll meet a writer after reviewing their book – that’s a weird one and is great if you loved it but you need a way to tackle it if you didn’t without recommending something, as you said, you wouldn’t pass on to a friend – and shadowing the Bailey’s Prize, particularly as part of a panel. Reading up to 20 books in a month means you’re pretty much doing one a day and when you put books up against each other in quick succession, it really highlights flaws. I’m definitely more critical now, although I also understand how difficult it is to write something that works well. As you said, it’s rare a book’s an unalloyed joy, and I think that’s the biggest realisation I’ve had as a reviewer, that the possibility of getting completely lost in a book now is so rare. I’m quite upset about that, actually!

      • There’s a world of difference between a lazy hatchet job – which I know you would, never do – and a constructive review that backs up criticism with examples. I hope you won’t lose the joy of reading entirely – that wold be a terrible shame!

  4. This is a great post Naomi. Reading is such a subjective experience and we being so much of ourselves to it. I’m drawn to books that provoke differing reactions in people. I recently read The Girl on a Train and felt that it wasn’t good in terms of plausability and characterisation yet I loved reading it and finished it in a day!

    • Thanks, Cathy. Oh, The Girl on the Train was another one for me. I had quite a heated debate with Elena (@Ms_Adler) about it! I loathed the three women at the centre of it and the way they behaved towards each other and the fact that it revolved around motherhood but I knew that it must have something if I was getting so riled up about it and, like you, I didn’t want to put it down when I was reading it!

  5. This is a very interesting piece about a book which has clearly been challenging for a lot of reviewers – I had a similar reaction to it, my expectations weren’t met and I question who the book was pitched at as many of the women (ranging from 25-50+) who I know have tackled it were angered by the ending. But they all finished it.

    • Thanks Cath. That’s interesting – I’ve read a handful of reviews and seen the odd one mention the ending. I wasn’t angered by it, more amused at that point as I though it’d gone beyond the bounds of what was realistic, although what I consider realistic and what was realistic within the world of the book were two different things. I’d be interested to hear what the average reader makes of it, I think there’s probably a big audience out there who’ll love it. And the fact we’re all talking about it says something.

  6. This is an interesting post, Naomi. I read one of Helen Fitzgerald’s books, The Donor, a few years ago. From the synopsis (‘a man’s daughters both need a kidney transplant – which will he save?’), I expected one kind of novel; but instead got something more offbeat and darkly comic. It sounds as though you had quite a similar experience with Viral (though, in my case, I preferred the real book to my anticipated one).

  7. You’ve raised some really interesting questions here, and I also feel mixed about posting about books I don’t like. I’m not really one for sitting on the fence so tend to avoid giving negative reviews if the author is still alive (whereas I quite happily gave George Orwell a good pasting for 1984!). I totally agree that it is especially important to be transparent about your position if you write a negative review. As you say, what riles you might not be an issue for another reader. As most of my posts tend to be random thoughts and musings on books rather than comprehensive reviews, I’ll probably stick to my ‘are they still breathing?’ review policy for now, unless I come across something irritating enough for me to go to the effort of a proper decimation job! 😉

  8. Part of the reason I stopped accepting ARCs was because I felt so uncomfortable giving a critical or outright negative review if I knew it was technically part of the “book hype” publishers build up & therefore might be read by the author. It led to me accepting ARCs, reading them, and then not reviewing them because I didn’t want to be critical of a newly-published book. I feel completely different about backlist works where it’s very unlikely that the author will see anything I write. I agree it’s important to be honest with yourself & also your readers about your own biases or expectations if giving a negative review (or a positive review, come to that). Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    • That’s interesting. One of the reasons I love getting ARCs is that I often know very little about them before I begin so I have no expectations to be blown. I can see why that would make you feel uncomfortable though. It’s very difficult now everyone’s on a form of social media which everyone else can see quickly and easily.

  9. I’m really interested by what you say about your expectations not being fulfilled, and that being *your* problem, not the book’s. It’s totally legit, but what you say about this book ending with a character acting out of character and an implausible coincidence makes me think that sometimes books establish expectations for their readers which they don’t fulfill, and that *is* the book’s problem–it should hold up its end of the reading bargain! Those are the books I’ve been the most disappointed in, the ones that seem to promise something at the beginning and renege on that promise halfway through.

    • I think there’s a whole other post in what you say, but in terms of this book the character who acts out of character, it could be argued, acts out of character for the majority of the novel (or so we are told) which complicates things. Also there’s the whole argument about how we treat books differently to real life. On this occasion I asked myself how I’d feel about it if it was a newspaper or magazine article and it’d be one of those, fucking hell, you couldn’t make it up tales. And the thing, I find, with the realism argument is that it’s circular which is obviously a problem within itself.

      For me and this book, it’s two difficult to separate things out: I approached it with an expectation out of line with that of the book’s intentions which was neither of our faults. That then makes it difficult to assess whether my problem with the ending is my problem or the book’s. What was I saying about circular arguments?

      • Hah, yes, I see what you mean! This was basically my problem with Bad Feminist: expectations misaligned with the reality of the book. Sometimes I wonder if marketing has some hand in this–we tend to be sold the idea of a book without ever being given the chance to dip a toe in first (apart from, maybe, some carefully pruned paragraph-excerpts). Which I guess is the virtue of following an author’s career: you get to know them and trust their style and way of approaching things.

        • Interesting that you pick that one as I had a problem with it too but it was completely because I thought I was its audience and half way through I realised it was Feminism 101 and that’s no use to someone using it as a theoretical structure for their PhD thesis. Yes, I suspect you’re right re. marketing.

  10. I really have nothing to add to the conversation after reading all these other comments, except that your thoughtful review and the discussion resulting from it has been extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you for my daily think!

  11. I think this is really interesting. Having been on the receiving end back in the day of reviews where the reviewers expectations of my book were not met I found it a bit maddening. As the writer you want to shout ‘That’s not the book I wrote.’ As a writer the reviews you like whether critical or not are the ones which review the book you’ve written. One of my favourite film reviewers was the late great Philip French of The Observer. He was incredibly fair in his reviewing and (I think this is right) refused to star films. Even films which he obviously thought were fairly dire he would put in context so you could read a review of a film you weren’t going to go and see but in the process learn something about the type of film it was. His humanity came through strongly in his reviews. After the first couple of books of mine were reviewed in a similar way by a reviewer who will remain nameless I decided never to read those reviews of my books. After all if you publish a book people have the right to say absolutely whatever they like about it but as the writer you don’t have to read it.

    • Hi Vicky, thanks for contributing, that’s really interesting. I appreciate how difficult it must be to send your work into the world and then have someone criticise it from their perspective. As you say, perhaps the only answer is to avoid reading them.

      I also loved Philip French’s reviews. Good example.

  12. I actually enjoyed this book, but took it at face value: an entertainment (I’ve read other Fitzgerald books before and know she loves to be provocative and is often full of very dark humour), a page-turner, and a dig at social media and 15 minute fame and cyber-bullying. The family and adoption issue, the background there, seemed much less realistic to me (although the sibling rivalry was plausible), but it wasn’t the focus of my interest, so perhaps that’s why I wasn’t disappointed.
    I think you raise a very important point, though, about how much of our own views and expectations we need to take into account. I have often had contrary views to the majority (for example about ‘A Little Life’ or ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, but that probably says more about me than about the book itself).

    • I think Elle probably hit the nail here, from my perspective, in terms of the marketing of the book. I got a very early copy and I don’t recall any comparisons to The Girl on the Train at that point. (*plays tiny violin*) I would have left alone if that had been the case. I don’t have a problem with books that are pure entertainment although I don’t think I can get beyond using issues around sexual consent in this way but, as I said, that’s to do with what I work on during the day.

      Thanks. I still haven’t read any of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as I suspect I’d hate it. It’s one of the few I think everyone in my family’s read except me.

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  14. This post had me nodding the whole way through, and yet I think it’s fundamentally changed my opinion at the same time. I want to say thank you. If I were a review reviewer, I’d give it eleventy stars. I think it might change the way I read books. I sometimes told myself if a book promised what it didn’t deliver, it was the fault of the marketing machine rather than the author – but you’re right. It was more often the fault of what I brought to it.
    As a reader, I prefer negative reviews, because they’re so much more informative. I’ve bought more books on the basis of negative reviews than positive, in cases where I didn’t feel I agreed with the tone of the moan, particularly if the review was unbalanced and the blurb had hooked me in some way. So I wish authors weren’t so sensitive (or militant) about negative reviews. They don’t know how many sales they actually bring them.

    • What a lovely/brilliant comment. Thanks, Tara.

      I understand what you’re saying about negative reviews. If I’m not sure about a book I often go on Amazon and read the one star reviews. More often the complaints make me think it’s exactly my sort of book!

  15. Fascinating post and discussion. I was particularly intrigued by how the two very different books interacted in your thinking. I love that experience of reading two books very close to each other and having one or both of them change or affect the way I read the other.

    • Thank you. Yes, they’re a bit of an odd pairing. I think that’s one of the consequences of doing a PhD; I’m putting texts up against each other that might not otherwise be common bedfellows. It is interesting to see how it alters your thinking though.

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