Mishmeres Hasholom – Ask the Rav

Q: I enjoy reviewing books with my friends. Since there are varied opinions about every book, such analysis will inevitably result in criticism. I therefore want to know if it is permissible to describe a book as boring, farfetched, etc., or if the laws of lashon hara regarding the writer apply. If indeed it is prohibited to criticize a book in general, is it permissible to point out specific faults, like a mediocre ending, a boring prologue or an overly complex plot regarding a book that I otherwise enjoyed?

A: Under normal circumstances, there is no heter to disqualify a book on the basis of professional or literary opinions. It is important to keep in mind that people’s tastes vary, and what one considers a fault may be a positive aspect for another.

In practice, there are three categories of criticism:

  1. In casual discussion of writers and their works, when no constructive purpose is intended, you should avoid even slight comments that could be interpreted as negativity.
  2. Regarding a friend who is inquiring with the constructive purpose of determining which book to buy, you may praise one book over others. Preface your recommendation with a statement that these are your individual preferences. You can use comments like, “I think it is well-written,” or, “It has a fascinating opening.” You may not discredit books by saying they were boring or unrealistic. If a friend inquires about a specific book which in your opinion isn’t good, you should preferably avoid a direct response. You can say, “It’s difficult for me to recommend any one book since everyone has her own opinion of things.” When a questioner isn’t satisfied with that type of answer you can say, “I prefer reading a different type of book,” or something similar.
  3. All of the above concerns your criticism with regard to literary or professional standards. With regard to hashkafic issues, if the book conveys morals are contrary to our values, or the book should never have been published to begin with (a common phenomenon, even with books from frum publishers), you have an obligation to pass on the information, keeping the constructive purpose in mind.

The questions and answers above were taken from the Mishmeres Hasholom pamphlet in Israel. For details and inquiries please e-mail us at office@hasholom.org or call 972-2 5379160.

The views expressed are of the individual author. Readers are encouraged to consult their own posek for guidance.

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