A while back, I wrote about how I review books and emphasized that I am not necessarily rating the book so much as the reading experience. The reason seemed obvious to me. (Excuse me while I quote myself…)
Wait a minute – are you saying that your book reviews don’t actually judge the book on its own merits?
I’m saying that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for someone to not be affected by external factors. I’ll use another example to illustrate this. The first time I read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (in my late 20’s) I hated it. It just seemed boring to me at the time. Also, the Victorian writing put me off some. About two years later, after having read and like some Sherlock Holmes stories, also Victorian, I decided to give The Time Machine another go. And I loved it! The story itself hadn’t changed, I had. Or at least something unrelated to the book itself changed. If I would have reviewed it the first time, I might have given it 1 star. The later read was a much better reading experience and might have been rated 5 stars. Thus it becomes clear to me that the impression left by reading book is based on more than just the words themselves.
Eloquently said. Further on…
What other factors go into your reviews?
Aside from the book itself, there are other, external factors that affect the reading experience. These are things over which the book itself has no control; things like the environment (noise, other distractions, poor lighting) and physical condition (whether or not I’m really tired when I read a book). External factors do contribute to the overall reading experience and I try to mention those factors when appropriate.
Some recent posts at Matthew Cheney’s Mumpsimus blog somewhat confirm my belief that it’s nearly impossible to separate oneself from external factors that influence every single reading experience. Now, I can already hear the purists out there claiming that, even when taking external factors into account, it is indeed possible to objectively critique a book. As if quality is inherit in the book itself and not a subjective thing. To them I say, “Can you not name one book that you disliked that was critically acclaimed?”
After I confessed my “readerly sins ” at Mumpsimus (Light and Spin State), more started coming to mind. For example, like others at Mumpsimus, I was not able to finish Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. (Egads!) I was also unable to finish John Crowley’s Little, Big. (The horrors!) More recently, I finished but had problems with Godplayers by Damien Broderick.
All of this led my mind a-wanderin’ to the things that actually impeded my reading experiences in the past, excluding the actual novel, of course. (Because including the novel is a whole other post!) I’m thinking about the things for which you can “blame the reader” (as Matthew Cheney puts it) when the reading experience goes south.
And so, after a laboriously long introduction, I present (in anal-retentive list format for your chewing pleasure — There’s gotta be a better way of saying that.):
The Top 7 External Impediments to an Enjoyable Reading Experience
- Lack of attention – Perhaps the biggest impediment to enjoyment of a novel for me deals with my attention – or really the lack of it. There are lots of reasons a novel might fail to get my attention, but only one external one. I’m tired. Yep, tired. Much of this family-man’s reading is relegated to late night. (Forced sleep deprivation to serve you better™, SF Signal reader!) Sometimes that means I’m reading when I should rightly be sleeping. And it’s not always because the book is that good, it’s because I enjoy reading and want to do it. Unfortunately, being tired when I read does not maximize my enjoyment of the material.
- Environmental effects – I’m not exactly the type of person that can read any time, anywhere. The surrounding environment is a big deal to me. Is the lighting right? Too dim strains my eyes. Reading in bright sunlight (hello, Houston!) makes them throb. Is there surrounding noise? I prefer quite surroundings or white noise. Put me near a conversation (a few people talking, the TV) and my ability to read without distraction vanishes. Lots of people (like in airports) is strangely OK. That’s white noise to me. But discernable conversation competes with my inner reading voice and distracts me the most. Temperature matters, too. I am incapable of sweating and reading at the same time. However, when it’s cold, I like bundling up with a good book.
- Aversion to writing style – This one is admittedly borderline with respect to it being an external influence. The writing style of the author plays a part in my reading enjoyment. Assuming that all writing styles are competent (debatable, sure, but most stories I dislike for writing style are usually in “Best of” anthologies which means someone liked the writing style), it must be that my personal taste for said writing style is misaligned. Case in point: the aforementioned The Left Hand of Darkness.
- Overexposure – Sometimes a bad reading experience comes not from the source material, but where it falls in my reading stack. Haven’t you ever overdosed on a particular (sub)genre or writer? This was my main reason for disliking Spin State. It came at the end of a long line of uploaded consciousness stories. I’m sure this critically acclaimed novel is good, it was just a victim of poor timing.
- Underexposure – Lack of experience with a (sub)genre or writer can be another cause of a bad reading experience. I think I had problems with Tim Powers’ Last Call because it was, if memory serves, my first urban fantasy. I just didn’t get it.
- False Expectations – What a reader brings to the chair also influences enjoyment. If you expect one thing but get another, you feel let down. The book has to work double-time to regain your approval. Sometimes it can be done (The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents) and sometimes not (The Wrong Reflection and Eldest)
- Personal worldview and experience – Every reader brings their own personal experience and world view to a story. You see it through your own eyes no matter what you do. If a book does not align with that worldview, it can not only be jarring, it can totally ruin the book. I can’t say this has happened to me personally (hence its placement on this list), but I do seem to recall reading about some reviewer whose political beliefs diverged so much from that portrayed in the book they were reading that they were unable to finish it. Worse, it actually made them angry! Clearly, that’s not an objective reader.
While I admit that it is conceivable that all these pitfalls can be avoided, I find that it is hard to realistically achieve; which is why I say that I review reading experiences and not necessarily the book.