I try oh so very hard not to read book reviews--certainly not of my own stuff, but not any others, either. Every once in a while, though, I do it, usually if it's a review of a writer I like, or know personally. And usually the reviewer slights the writer in some incomprehensible, off-the-wall manner, relying on some kind of obscure personal obsession as a basis for criticizing the work, and leaving the actual substance of it unaddressed. And I grind my teeth and throw my hands in the air and ask the heavens why.
The heavens decline to respond, so here's my theory--or A theory, anyway. I think we--meaning, you know, literate culture--have a problem talking about why we dislike things. We're pretty good at praise--it's not unusual for somebody to tell me they like a book, and then tell me precisely why, and for me to read the book and like the same thing. "The characters are hilarious." "It has an exciting plot." "The prose is clear and engaging." But ask somebody why they don't like a book, often you'll get something like "It just sucks," or "It's boring." There are, of course, specific things that make the book bad, but we often just can't put our fingers on them. I believe that book reviewers, and all readers, for that matter, could use a refresher course on criticism--and I don't mean, like, literary theory, I mean simple, ordinary expressions of dissatisfaction.
FWIW, here are some of the things I don't like, if I don't like a book.
1) The characters' actions are agenda-driven, not personality-driven. Like the book reviewers cited above, some fiction writers seem to have some hidden bee in their bonnet, which is never quite obvious but causes the characters to behave in implausible ways. The otherwise-entertaining novels of Tom Wolfe are like this--the characters, while lively, never act like human beings--they act like missionaries from the church of Tom Wolfe. This would be fine, if his novels presented themselves as such (I still wouldn't like them, but they would make more sense), but they present themselves as social realism. Which leads me to:
2) The writer doesn't follow the rules she has set for herself. This is very common in crime fiction, when a book is set up like a third-limited police procedural, and a hundred pages in, you get a bunch of italicized crap from the mind of the killer, who just happens, at that particular moment, not to be thinking about his own identity. This is done in order to raise tension, or to show how awesome the writer is at understanding the criminal mind. Big whoop! More generally, this problem comes into play when a writer limits himself in some way, then discovers the limitations are too stringent. And so the goalposts get moved. Lame.
3) Prose-writing ambition outstrips prose-writing ability. In fact, this is my number one complaint about books I don't like--the prose is too fancy. I don't insist upon absolute simplicity in prose, only the degree of complexity that is necessary to achieve the goals of the book, which may be very great, or may be very small. Simple prose, of course, does not equal a lack of sophistication--but I think this is exactly what most writers believe. Florid metaphor, clever overdesription of meaningless detail, gratuitously convoluted sentence structure, and all manner of back-slapping hamminess: that's what I don't like. Unfortunately, book reviewers rarely talk about prose--they don't know how to. To read the NYTBR every week (not that I do), you'd think that novels weren't made of prose at all, but rotting dog corpses, so athletically is the topic avoided.
4) Unnecessarily elaborate chronological manipulation. Since when are all novels required to jump around wildly in time? Since when do we need flashbacks every other page, explaining the origin of every present action? If you want to be radical, do this: 200 pages of rigid linearity, then the phrase "Twenty years later," then 200 more pages of rigid linearity. I dare ya.
5) A narrow frame of reference. I don't mind reading a novel about rich socialites--no, really, I don't. But if the novel pretends that rich socialites are the only people in the entire world, forget it. Similarly, it's a disease of much contemporary bad fiction that poor rural people are off living poor rural people lives, without any particular notion of the outside world, and without the benefit of sophisticated thinking. You don't have to have Bill Gates land a helicopter in the middle of the dog run, but if you're going to write about "the poor," you should write about the things that make them human, not the things that make them different from the MFA grad with an internship at ICM who's doing the writing. Bill Kittredge, my old teacher, used to say, "You don't need to spend any time proving a cowboy's a cowboy." You do need to prove that the cowboy is real, though. Within the local must lurk the universal.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I'd love to hear your complaints--not just your pet peeves, mind you, but the things you wish you read in book reviews but never do. Perhaps, for instance, you object to phrases like "the tip of the iceberg." Perhaps you dislike poorly supported diatribes. Knives out!