An inevitability of reading many books (and subsequently reviewing books) is feeling disconnected when reading a book which has been well-received by a great number of people. In other words, you begin to wonder who is missing something: you as the reader for not “getting” what is so great about the book, or the other readers for helping to raise the book to its hallowed status. This idea was inspired, in large part, by the blog post The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Did I Miss Something? by Ria Bridges. That’s the long way of asking this week’s panelists the following question:
Here’s what they said…
I’ve accepted that opinions about books are one of those things that there will just never be consensus on. It’s hard to be entirely objective about things like one’s own tastes and thoughts. Someone could invent an objective measuring scale to judge a book’s worth, and someone else could write the perfect book according to that scale, and there’s still be a load of people who dislike the book and think it’s terrible because it simply doesn’t appeal to them. It’s an inherent risk of talking about opinions.
But even so, there are times when you read something that everyone’s going nuts over, saying is absolutely amazing, and then you read it and you’re left wondering if you even read the same book these other people are talking about.There are a couple of examples than spring instantly to mind when I think of books like this. The first is Dan Wells’s Partials, first book to a YA series that garnered a lot of attention when it came out and got a lot of fans on the edge of their seats waiting for sequels. For my part, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. A fundamental concept on which the story rested, the idea that a disease has wiped out most of humanity and women need to have as many babies as possible to hopefully breed a mutation that can survive the virus, broke down when I couldn’t put it together with how actual genetics and immune systems work. Coupled with finding the majority of the characters fairly generic and uninterested, I couldn’t understand why so many people were saying that this book was one of the most amazing and compelling things they’d ever read.
The second that comes to mind is Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave, a book that suffered from forced romance and an incomprehensible alien takeover plot (discorporate aliens want to wipe out all human life so they can take over the planet, though why they want to do this when they don’t have or need bodies and don’t exactly take up space or resources the way we do is never explained).
Both of these books had fascinating concepts, but had aspects that I just couldn’t look past and that stopped me from enjoying otherwise good aspects of the stories told. I finished these books, and others, wondering what other people saw that made them able to look past the inconsistencies and errors. Or wondering if I’m being too picky and maybe the problems I’m seeing aren’t actually problems at all. Maybe I literally missed someone, like some key line of dialogue that my eyes accidentally skimmed over that would make everything make so much more sense. Sometimes I’ve wished people would literally just sit me down and say, “This thing here, this thing you hate so much? This is why it happened.” And point to something in the text that I didn’t connect, and that everyone else did, and suddenly a book that I didn’t like will have new life in my eyes and be worth a second read.
It’s frustrating when everyone likes something and you don’t, or vice versa, because it creates a whole load of second-guessing. If you found plot holes, why didn’t everyone else? If everyone else found plot holes, why didn’t you? Are you not smart enough? Are you too picky? Did you accidentally get a misprinted book with a missing chapter?
It’s easy to tell yourself that it’s just a matter of opinion, that you can’t win every battle and by the same logic, every book will not appeal to every reader. It’s easy to tell yourself that. Not always so easy to believe it.
Ugh. This is a tough one, and not simply because of the potential minefield involved; it required me to take a hard look at my own opinions, which simply aren’t always susceptible to objective analysis. Be that as it may, I’ll be honest enough to admit that there are some works out there that have enjoyed resounding success…yet leave me more or less cold.
First, the New Hotness: Ancillary Justice by the amazingly gifted Ann Leckie. I’ll start by saying that I have no problem whatsoever with recognizing its importanceto the genre. As has been pointed out by many who are far more eloquent and thorough about it than I, our genre is a bit conflicted between its core and its expression: despite being a fiction of even more imagination than other genres, SF/F has a powerful tendency to cling to “More of the same, please.” Standard tropes are useful tools, to be sure, but in order to remain viable, the genre has always needed not only to retain the strengths cultivated in the past but also to create new ones to help keep genre’s appeal growing and evolving. Leckie nails that; she takes a large number of fundamentally basic assumptions of the genre and tosses them overboard or gives them extensive gene surgery. For that, this novel is vastly important, and I feel that this has motivated a great number of award voters/juries/committees/etc. Still, there’s something…well, “missing” is the word that comes to mind. To me, the story just doesn’t seem to do much beyond some forward-ish wandering; it feels like a number of still-life sketches (well-done sketches, mind) that have been strung together because they were somewhat related. What’s more, character in this novel doesn’t quite move me; while the concept of an avatar of a machine AI being the protagonist is downright amazing, said protagonist somehow manages to fail to gain my sympathies. Being privy to Breq’s thought processes should be absolutely riveting, but nothing reaches out and grabs me. My impression is that of some beautiful but cursory navel-gazing, a collection of pieces of art that are lovely but not spark-inspiring for me; if anything, it feels most like consummate extended worldbuilding—a masterfully painted picture but not one that moves. And therein lies the difficulty for me in answering the question: Is this a lack in the book or is it some innate incapacity in me, a blind spot that doesn’t permit self-observation and -analysis? I can’t honestly say that I know for certain. What I do know is that Leckie has already shown herself to be astonishingly capable when it comes to twisting or even erasing a number of tropes that genre had long taken for granted, and I have great hopes that that capacity will turn more strongly toward character and story…or, if I may be brutally self-honest, that I’ll suddenly emotionally realize what so many people saw in this book.
Second, the recently established Popular Thing: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t worry; I won’t ramble along muttering “But why?” as I did in the preceding paragraph. In terms of worldbuilding, character development (Martin has built characters that are on the fast track to becoming icons of the genre), and painting a picture of words, the books are masterworks. But, o gods of fiction, why the steady rain of DOOM DESPAIR DEATH DESTRUCTION MISERY PAIN TORTURE MUTILATION GLOOM LIFE SUCKS AND THEN EVERYONE YOU LOVE OR EVER COULD LOVE DIES IN A HORRIBLY GRUESOME AND EXCRUCIATING FASHION all the way through it? Please, George, give us some hope that you don’t eventually assassinate, carve up, cook and serve to us (and make us like). I can’t not read these books (see above regarding masterworks), but I’d love the thought that I just might reach the end of the series without needing more therapy.
Third, the Old, Established Firm: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Caveat: Heinlein was the one who first pushed me wholeheartedly into genre. I have more books by him or including some of his writing than I have by anyone else, and I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve read or reread something by him. That being said, the guy had some hilariously awful clunkers, even while spinning a helluva yarn, and Stranger stands at the top of that particular hill. Look, I get the essential epiphany by the characters that turns it into (at least) two separate books, but that shift in consciousness is so complete that it grates on my mind all through the second “book.” I can’t help but think that Heinlein could have found some way to integrate the change without handwaving it with the equivalent to the stage direction of Olde Fantasy Kingdom burns down. Cut to exterior of moonbase. And c’mon, Bob; we know you always felt that sexual freedom was both key to and representative of mental and emotional self-determination/independence/etc. We’re not arguing it; we’re just a bit tired of hearing a pseudo-new spin on it for the 89th time. Relax, dude.
All of this could really be summed up with “There’s no accounting for taste,” but in case you can’t tell yet, I like words. I keep throwing them at people, walls, animals, and abstract concepts to see what sticks. In all seriousness, one person’s meat is another person’s poison. Could be that I’m just allergic to yet another thing that doesn’t bother more than 0.00001% of the population. Or my mind’s eye might need glasses. Whatever the case, there it is; nothing pleases everyone.
It’s easier to think of titles that are generally loved or respected, which I didn’t like than it is to think of titles I loved that are not as well received generally. But I’ve managed to come up with two examples of the latter category and a few more of the former.
One book I absolutely loved, but which got a less glowing reception from the rest of the community was Kaaron Warren’s Mistification, published in 2011. I found it a weirdly bizarre and utterly fascinating read, which worked on many layers with a very interesting structure. Yet if you look at its Goodreads and Amazon reviews or even this review by Niall Alexander over at Strange Horizons, people were less than enthusiastic and I didn’t see that many reviews for it in general.
A book that was far more well-received within the online community, was Sarah Lotz’ The Three, which is still one of my favourite books of this year. Yet if you look wider afield, there are many more less enthusiastic reviews than mine, complaining about lack of plot, no sympathetic characters, too much focus on style over story, and general reader frustrations. And I just don’t get it. I loved the style, which to me only enhanced the story, I certainly found there to be a plot or at least a mystery to be solved, and there were several characters I rooted for. Reading those reviews just leaves me baffled.
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a book I really didn’t like, but which seems a bit of a marmite read: you either love it or you hate it. Handed to me by a co-worker, who said she really enjoyed and thought I’d like it as well, I wasn’t sure what to think of it, especially once I started it and there were several fellow bloggers who told me it was an awful book. In fact, I didn’t get the hate for the book as I was quite enjoying it. And then I got to the epilogue and I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I suddenly understood the comments and I gave the book a pretty harsh write up. Yet if you check its ratings and reviews, it’s generally well thought of and has a higher than average rating.
One of the books which everyone seemed to love and which in theory should have fit my reading tastes to a tee, was Lynn Flewelling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin. When it came out everyone was talking about it and was enthusiastic about it. However, I never made it past page 20 and in my case that’s a pretty good achievement for a book, as I usually always finish books I start. I just couldn’t get into the writing style and the story.
But I think the one that is really and truly going to cost me my geek card is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I read the first book in the big omnibus and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t think it was that funny and I just thought ‘Meh’. That was over 15 years ago and anyone else who ever mentions the book always says how fantastic and seminal the books are and I just didn’t see it.
There were three books / series that came to mind. First is Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series that faltered with a hair-tugging ‘…is he mailing this in?’ middle. The issues around these novels have been covered many times over. I am still unsure when I will make time to push through to the Brandon Sanderson finish.
The second was Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The novel’s pacing and footnote processes annoyingly pulled me out of the story experience. Luckily, the I found the book was brilliantly revived years later in high-quality audiobook format.
“The Gormenghast Trilogy” by Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone) ended up as my head-shaking novel. The book came highly recommended by friends who enjoy complex speculative fiction. Described as ambitious and vividly bizarre with general disbelief that I made it this late in life without reading the books.
Reviews compared the series’ influence on speculative fiction to The Lord of The Rings, but more grim. And also very witty, in a similar style to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Complex with layers of potential interpretations. Dickens-esque prose. All of these hit the mark for a great read.
I pulled Gormenghast from the book-stacked top of Mt. Readmore – only to return it after four chapters. To me, it felt like a heavy-booted slog through a grim, verbose swamp. Layers and layers of descriptions that muddied the plot versus a complexity in story that I had expected.
My expectations were to be challenged by writing in a manner similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose – the first time I had to keep a dictionary within reach of a novel. Eco’s writing is complex, but his storytelling holds true throughout. To me, Peake’s writing was Maximum Verbosity that overwhelmed the plot. ‘Enjoy Charles Dickens? Well, this is three times the Dickens!’
In some ways, I can see how Gormenghast can appeal to some readers. Ambiance and unique prose. Eccentrics and rituals. For me, the struggle to connect with Peake’s novel was a head-shaking experience.
Yes, I’ve read books that everyone but me seemed to “get.” For that matter, I’ve run into that situation in every art form. Like every other high school student of my era, I had to read The Catcher in the Rye (is that still the case?), and all I really remember from that distant era is despising Holden Caulfield with every fibre of my being.
When I find myself apparently in a minority in being alienated by a text, I try to ask myself whether I am indeed the implied reader/viewer/player/whatever for this work. (This isn’t to say I’m always successful in delaying my “WHAT THE HELL?” response. But I try.) Is this text addressed to me at all? If it is not, I can hardly, in fairness, complain about feeling alienated.
Then there is the question of the expectations raised by the form. Here the waters become muddier. Perhaps I am part of the implied audience of the work, but if it violates my expectations of the form it appears to be, I might be unhappy. Which isn’t to say expectations shouldn’t be challenged. They should be. But a case can also be made that past a certain point, a contract between the reader the work has been broken, a contract whose existence is all the more strongly implied in genre fiction.
Consider the ending of the first season of True Detective (spoiler warning, obviously). For the most part, I found the resolution very satisfying. My wife and stepson beg to differ, and in the strongest possible terms. One of the reasons for our very different reactions is the split between our sets of expectations. I was reading the series as a horror story, whereas they felt the crime conventions dominated. The sheer number of unanswered questions fit with the form I was seeing, but not with the one they were. But all three of us were enjoying the series until that last episode: we were the right audience, but we were effectively watching different programs with the same title.
All this being said, I’m as guilty as the next person in raging about works that I feel are receiving undue praise or popularity and asking WHY DOESN’T EVERYBODY LISTEN TO ME? But why should they? In the end, I can make a case for or against a work to the best of my ability, but it is not my place to police other people’s joy in art.
So. I guess I should start with a confession so you have time to sharpen your pitchforks. Here is a short list of books that I did not enjoy: Ancillary Justice. The Goblin Emperor. A Stranger in Olondria. Kushiel’s Dart. Iron Druid Chronicles. Any Stephen King novel.
I also want to share a distinction that’s taken me a long time to figure out and embrace: Not liking something doesn’t mean that it’s not good.
Keep sharpening, and re-read that sentence again while I pad my word count. Not liking something doesn’t mean that it’s not good.
Books are not math. There is no right or wrong—just your personal (and unique) experience with a book.
That being said…it is hard to get over the feeling like you’re an impostor or a bit of an idiot (or likely a combination of both) when you seem to not agree with what seems like the entire genre community on a book.
Why am I not getting this? What’s wrong with me? Why can I not appreciate art? Will they take away my geek card? Will they arrest me at the Hugos? Will my parents kick me out of their basement?
Instead of getting frustrated, come at it with an open mind. I like to read the reviews from bloggers/sites I respect and try and see why they thought so highly of the book. Sometimes it changes my mind. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s important to at least prod, explore, and question your own reaction. See how—and why—it’s different, and be at peace with having an opposing view.
Through all of this though, I’d still prefer to stay positive.
Instead of railing at people with “WHY DO YOU LIKE THIS BOOK YOU SHOULD HATE IT AND HERE ARE FORTY-SEVEN REASONS WHY,” I’d rather take the route of being a voice for books that have been overlooked. Life’s too short to convince people on the Internet that something they like is bad.
(Don’t get me wrong. Criticism is important, but there’s a line between having a healthy discussion about a novel’s merits or lack thereof and being that asshole who puts people down for what they like.)
For me, it also helps that I can tell when I genuinely didn’t like a book and when it just wasn’t for me. I tend not to review the latter heavily and leave it at “this book didn’t work for me.” There are a few that I have serious problems with and that I will tear it apart in a long review, but my reviews of all the books I listed at the top are extremely short.
Why? I’ve realized that for the most part, there aren’t bad books so much as there are books that just don’t resonate with you.
If everyone else loved something, and you didn’t, don’t worry—I promise you’re not an idiot. Chances are, there is something that you love that the same reviewer didn’t enjoy, so on average it all balances out and the inevitable heat death of the universe is prolonged yet another day.
Reading and reviewing should be fun and shouldn’t feel like a chore. Don’t take it too seriously, and remember to move on, because another great read awaits.
I’m a silver lining kind of guy. Even if a book is downright awful, I can usually find a redemptive something-or-other about it: Boy, that thing stunk, but I loved that amphibious assassin guy! Man, that prose was awful, but that school powered by sentient jellyfish was pretty damned neat! Ugh, talk about a lame ending, but at least the cake-eating magic system was cool.
And yet, there is one book that I constantly come back to and can find no space in my heart for it. I’ve tried to read it several times over, buoyed on by friends and fans alike, but for the life of me, I can’t stand Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. There, I said it! To all the academics and scholars and Pynchonianites, I say put down your stones and swords and hear me out.
I tried, I really did. I read five hundred pages of that behemoth, ran through its twisty alleyways and down its hatches, further and further into the beast, hoping to find some sense at the end of it. And still . . . nothing. I couldn’t make heads nor tails nor anything in between about this book. Pynchon is a brilliant writer, absolutely, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out this novel, and to this day, am baffled when I hear people singing its praises.
I say to you, the only cogent sentence in the entire novel is the first line: “A screaming comes across the sky.” An absolutely killer first line, possibly one of the best lines in literature, but after that? It’s either an uphill battle against a hailstorm of bullets or a plummeting fall down sharp, stone-strewn mountains with no hope of purchase. The language is dense and leaden, the plot is nigh impossible to follow, and for pages at a time, both those issues ram head first into each other, and make a book that I find incomprehensible.
Maybe it was the wrong Pynchon to start on. Maybe I’ll understand it now that I’m older and (hypothetically) wiser. Maybe it’s just not my thing. Either way, at this point in space/time, my apologies to Mr. Pynchon and all his Gravity’s Rainbow advocates, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
Oh, this wretched feeling. It most often strikes when I want to talk books with non-writers, and the only books they read are the Really Big Deals. First it was Fifty Shades of Grey, because you can’t be a Romance or Erotica writer and avoid discussing it. And because when the moms of my daughter’s school friends learned I was a writer, they wanted to know if my books were like it. Uh, nope. My books have plots! And consent! Most recently, it happened with The Goldfinch. I’m a huge fan of Tartt’s The Secret History, so when I heard some of my husband’s work colleagues discussing The Goldfinch, I wanted to join in. But it’s so thick. Like poundcake. I can’t wade in. By page two, I’m thinking of my grocery list. And I don’t get why everyone loves it so very much, because The Secret History, in my opinion, is far superior.
I’m always mortified when I hear that there are people in the world who only buy one book a year, if any, and that it’s generally whatever #1 bestseller the ads tell them to buy or what they pick up at the grocery store on vacation. And if it’s a book like The Goldfinch, then I can see why they don’t buy any more books that year. The painful thing about being a writer is seeing books you don’t grok receiving an insane amount of press, distribution, and popularity, while the books that obsess and compel you toil on in quiet and never get discovered by the masses.