Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Writing negative criticism about books is something I dislike. Instead, I tend to avoid writing about the books I don’t wholeheartedly admire. This isn’t because I think I’m not entitled to my opinion. People have vastly different reactions to fiction and writing styles and everyone has their own personal aesthetic preferences so sometimes this is all it boils down to. But I still tend to omit a lot of my negative criticism unless I can find very specific reasons why I didn’t like something. I love picking fiction apart, discovering why I reacted positively to something, why something else put me off, where the tension comes from, how the dialogue works and on and on and on. In that vein, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about why I didn’t love my most recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.


Animal Dreams (1990) was Kingsolver’s second novel and there is a lot to admire, in particular the sections in third person narration about Homer. The writing in these shorter sections is really powerful and the emotional structure intricate – Homer’s shifts in lucidity give the narrator the opportunity for both honesty and denial and those two moods generate a lot of tension in relation to the main story. He also muddles the past and the present in such a way that scenes spill into one another; that fluid movement provides the basis for a large chunk of the story’s revelation.


The main story is a first person narration by Codi, Homer’s daughter, who has recently returned to her childhood hometown, for several reasons – her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, her sister has recently gone south to work in war-torn Nicaragua and Codi is newly separated from her longtime lover. She is unmoored. She also harbors an immense distrust for the city she feels somewhat forced to return to.


There are moments in Codi’s story that get it just right, where her voice and the images she chooses to illuminate her thoughts or feelings strike all the right notes:


Hallie had never left me before. It was always the other way around, since I’m three years older and have had to do things first. She would just be catching up when I’d go again, swimming farther out into life because I still hadn’t found a rock to stand on.




Carlo was a rolling stone: an emergency room doctor, which gave him a kind of freedom almost unknown to the profession. You can always find work if you’re willing to take up with the human body as soon as possible after one of life’s traumas has left off with it.


But there are other moments when I wished she’d let the reader do more of their own thinking. There was very often a sentence too much or a line of dialogue that could have been left unsaid. I’m being super nitpicky but when you’re writing I think it’s important to pay attention to this sort of thing. Below is one of the passages I’m talking about:


We hadn’t been together since the Holiday Inn lounge, two years ago, but from Doc Homer you didn’t expect hugs and kisses. (He was legendary in this regard.) Hallie and I used to play a game we called “orphans” when we were with him in a crowd. “Who in this room is our true father or mother? Which is the one grownup here that loves us?” We’d watch for a sign – a solicitous glance, a compliment, someone who might even kneel down and straighten Hallie’s hair ribbon, which we’d tugged out of alignment as bait. That person would never be Doc Homer. (Proving to us, of course, that he wasn’t the one grownup there that loved us. )


I put parantheses around the sentences I think we could remove. They end up taking power away from what is ultimately a very compelling paragraph. This happens again and again in Animal Dreams. It’s something I see often in first person narration. Like the author wants to make their point over and over again, just in case the reader missed it. This certainly doesn’t destroy a book, but it can really slow it down.


Toward the end of the novel this excess writing happens a lot and this is where I think I started getting really frustrated. If you’ve decided to give your novel a happy ending I still think it’s important to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat little package. The reunion scene between Codi and Loyd (her love interest in the novel) is just screaming daytime drama. But it didn’t have to be that way.


Shortly the train began to move again, very slowly, the speed of a living creature. You could still run and catch it. Loyd and Roger kept walking toward me without seeing me. (Standing there watching him, knowing what he didn’t, I had so much power and none at all.) I was on the outside, in a different dimension. I’d lived there always.

Then he stopped dead, just for a second. I’ll remember that. (The train moved and Roger moved but Loyd stood still.

He caught up to me in an instant, with a twinkle in his eye and his bag slung over his shoulder like a ready traveler.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

He put one arm around my neck and gave me the kind of kiss no fool would walk away from twice. )




This is the end of a chapter and I think where I’ve suggested ending the scene infers everything about the rest, without giving us the cheesy line of dialogue and that awful twinkle in Loyd’s eye. Her lines about the train and the hint about running and catching it are just wonderful, they show us Codi’s ambivalence about her decision to stay without hitting us over the head with the idea. Those lines are subtle. Those other last lines are not.


I’m sure some people might disagree with me, since, as I’ve said, we are talking about aesthetic preferences. I think Kingsolver is an accomplished writer and I’m eager to read her most recent novels like Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible (which I read maybe eight years ago but without such an intense look at the writing) to see if this is characteristic of her style in general or was it something she did in the beginning. I can’t help thinking of it as a beginning writer thing – something we all do when we’re still learning how to trust our instincts and the story itself. Any thoughts?


9 Responses to “Reading Writer – Animal Dreams”

  1. Amateur Reader

    Wow. Good job. A real improvement. Your editing touch is not even especially heavy. That twinkle in the eye is a disaster.

  2. Deborah

    I’m not a big fan of negative criticism. Like you, I’d rather go into detail about what works for me and why, what I’ve learned and how, etc. And, I’ll admit, when I first came to this page and saw the strike-throughs I was a little worried. But I think this is a courageous post; and you make your case in a just and even handed way. As someone who (mostly) prefers poetry and short story and even essay to novel, I’m pretty receptive to the ‘less is more’ line of thinking. Not that more is automatically bad, especially novelistically. But regardless of genre, more must always make a case for itself. And here you’ve done a fine job of showing that it hasn’t. I too longed for more inference, some subtleties, something left to think about. Great job! and thanks!

  3. verbivore

    AmateurReader – the twinkle is awful but so is the last line of that paragraph, and not right for the overall tone of the book at all…

    Deborah – putting the strike-throughs in was a little nerve-wracking (and you’ll see I swapped them for parentheses now, less harsh), especially on such a well-known novel for such a successful author. I don’t like doing that sort of thing at all but I wanted to at least try to explain my reaction to the book and why. I’m definitely in the less is more camp 🙂

  4. Dorothy W.

    Interesting — I’ve heard a number of people complaining that Kingsolver can get a bit preachy — that it’s clear sometimes she wants to get a message across. This seems related to the overwriting you’re describing here. You have to trust your reader a little bit to get the idea!

  5. bkclubcare

    I had to come back and spend some time with your review; you are GOOD. I so get what you are explaining! (me feeling proud of myself and maybe, somewhat ‘smart’)

    I appreciate the respect you give not only the author in delivering fair criticisms but also, to me, that you make sure I am not unduly influenced by your ‘opinion.’

    I feel that I am too dismissive of books I don’t like. I cringe when comments come back that agree with me and tell me that they have decided not to read something. (Ooops?! Was I too harsh?)

    Great review, thank you.

  6. bookfraud

    i like negative criticism, especially when it consists of personal attacks on writers who have achieved so much more in, say, five years than i have in 20.

    as for kingsolver, knowing what i know about her, she might actually agree with your criticism and even some of your suggested edits. constructive criticism offered in the spirit of improving a piece of writing is the best criticism of all.

    the difference between what you’ve presented, and, say, “the poisonwood bible” is striking. she can get preachy, but she’s talented enough to filter her preachy tendencies through the characters who actually sound natural when they’re being preachy.

    do you want to edit my novel? i’ll pay you in autographed copies, if it ever gets published.

  7. verbivore

    Dorothy – She definitely believes that literature should be (or can be) used to promote social change. In Animal Dreams I didn’t have the feeling that she was being preachy, but at the same time I could see that she might sacrifice story to make sure her message gets across – which is a similar risk.

    Care – thank you very much, what kind comments. I can also be dismissive of books too even if I try to be careful that it wasn’t just my frame of mind at the time I was reading it or something like that. Life is short and when you love to read its hard not to toss aside anything that doesn’t immediately grab you.

    Bookfraud – that kind of negative criticism can feel very good once in a while 🙂 I haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible for so long now but I don’t remember thinking it was preachy. I remember enjoying the story and the writing, which is why I want to reread it soon. And all kidding aside, I’d love to read your novel – do you have a draft?

  8. Trish

    You’ve made me very interested in reading this book. I read The Poisonwood Bible several years ago and really liked her writing style but even though I own a few of her other books (including Animal Dreams) I haven’t picked them up to read.

  9. verbivore

    Trish – I need to reread The Poisonwood Bible and try another of hers soon, I’d love to know what you end up thinking about Animal Dreams

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