A shared love of a book is a beautiful thing. But a mutual dislike for a highly-regarded one is even better.
That is what I’ve found recently reading the comments that my post about Sarah Winman’s bestselling and much-loved Still Life has attracted.
If you have read the review, you will see that I wasn’t the book’s greatest fan. I didn’t like the one-dimensional and too-good-to-be-true characters (although I have to admit that I find it hard to resist a book that shamelessly indulges in its love for Italy).
However, my criticisms were nothing compared with that of the readers of this blog. They were irresistibly negative, accusing Winman of everything from faux intellectualism to trading on the cultural heritage of Italy.
I drank it up and wanted to read more. There is something satisfying in finding that you are not the only person to feel a certain way, whether about a book, a song or a brand of clothing.
Airing this negativity is particularly satisfying when a book has been so widely praised. As readers, not only have we been disappointed, but our high expectations have been dashed, and it is a relief to vent.
The only downside of failing to appreciate Still Life as much as many others did is giving my negative opinion to those (including dear friends) who admired it.
While I love indulging in some mutual dislike of a novel, it’s not the same to complain about a book to someone who loved it. In this case, I usually sugar coat my assessment, pointing to the bits I loved.
Italy was lovely! And the art! The history!
Maybe my opinion on the book is wrong. No, it’s definitely wrong!
I’m just too cynical to enjoy a happy book full of well-adjusted people!
These accommodations reflect the disappointment I feel when I love a book that my friends didn’t like … or even worse, couldn’t finish. I’m still furious about one who found Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy boring.
But when we both hate the same book, it’s time to chat.
Interestingly, research suggests that mutual dislike might help us make friends.
A decade ago, NY Magazine reported on a study that found that people build greater bonds by hating the same person, and I suspect this trend might extend towards hating the same book.
In the same way as admitting to disliking a certain person is breaking a social rule, admitting to mutually hating a book – especially a well-loved book – can be a bonding experience.
In the Sydney Morning Herald, it was described as ‘hate bonding’, describing it as far more revealing that any mutual likes. After all, the writer claims, everyone loves prawns and Adele.
It claims that a true bonding session asks: “What do you hate, mate? That’s the interesting question. What brings you out in hives? If you want real connection you need to establish pet peeves in common.”
And, I would say, pet literary peeves. Is it a character that is too-good-to-be-true? Or a formulaic crime novel? Do you hate a writer talking down to you, or a fairytale ending where loose ends are pulled together too conveniently?
According to the NY Magazine article, the motto of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter was: “If you can’ say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
Similarly, please take a seat so that we can marvel at a book’s plot flaws, complain about the one-dimensional characters and laugh at the over-written paragraphs together.