Mishmeres HaSholom: Ask the Rav – October 18, 2013

Q: As a bookworm, I enjoy reviewing books with my friends. Since there are varied opinions on 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 does it constitute lashon hara on the writer? 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 too 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.

In casual discussion over writers and their works when no constructive purpose is intended, one should avoid even slight comments that could be interpreted as negativity.

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 preferences are individual. You can use comments like, “I think it is well written,” or “…a fascinating opening.” You may not, however, put down other books by insinuating that 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 by saying, “It’s difficult for me to recommend any one book; everybody has their own judgment of things.” When a questioner isn’t satisfied with that type of answer you can say, “I prefer a different type of book,” or something similar.

All of the above is with regard to criticism concerning literary or professional issues. With regard to hashkafah issues, in the case of morals that are contrary to our values, or material that should never have been published, (a common phenomenon, even with books from frum publishers,) you have an obligation to pass the information on, keeping toeles in mind.