Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What Constitutes a Good Book, I'm Curious

Yesterday I went looking for a book for my book club. I compiled a bunch of "notable" lists from various publications, and then went to the dreaded and now omnipotent amazon to read some reviews. Given that reviewing is now basically a lost art, and we are now at the mercy of the mob for commentary on our work, if you want to read a reaction to a book, you are basically forced to either go to amazon or Goodreads.

The number of one-star reviews for these books was staggering. So I  began reading these one-star reviews for several different books and a definite pattern emerged.
  1. Readers want to be entertained, and if the story is sad or the characters are conflicted, depressed, traumatized, or in some way not happy, then they hate the book and are bored. They don't like flawed characters. They want to actively identify with the main characters. The phrase I read over and over again was that these characters didn't have any redeeming qualities.
  2. They want happy endings and will only accept conflict if a happy ending massages the conflict away.
  3. They cannot stand not having a totally linear plot line; they are lazy readers and want a book's structure to be straightforward and easy to read;
  4. They hate multiple points of view because, hello, they are lazy, and they don't want to actively parse out a storyline; they want it fed to them;
  5. They seem to be experts on what makes a good writer, and yet what makes a good writer seems to be an elusive concept. Sometimes they will admit that a book has evocative writing, but it's boring. OR. The novel was interesting but the characterization was flat and, of course, boring. I wish I had a dollar every time I read the word "boring" to describe a book.
  6. I also wish I had a dollar for all the times that I read a book is "poorly edited." Now this has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and I've complained about that repeatedly on this very blog. Sadly, I don't think it's the lack of editing that bothers them. The sense I got is that they didn't like the voice and the pacing, which, hello, are very different animals.

They seem massively bored by everything. The underlying tone of these reviews is that they were looking to be entertained but in the context of demanding that a specific fantasy be met. There was an expectation that THEIR fantasy should be fulfilled.

I think the relationship between reader and writer has drastically changed. As that fourth wall between public and media has begun to disintegrate, there is the expectation that public owns the art and expects the artist to feed them. This is very different from an artist opening a private door into their world and inviting you in to have a seat. Now it's the public with the keys to that door and the artist is invited in to perform. To a script they haven't seen or a song they've never sung.


Abigail said...

Interesting comments on what passes for "reviews" these days! I've noticed the "boring" thing coming up, too, as well as the "you didn't meet my expectations so your book is bad" notion. My own novel is political, and I find that reactions vary a lot based on whether people agree with the political slant of the protagonist. Only one reviewer--significantly, an older person--said he didn't agree with the politics but he did like the book.

I'm not sure I entirely disapprove of the subjective approach to reading, however; what passed in the old days for literary criticism often rested on a lot of unexamined assumptions about standards of quality. Still, the level of analysis does need to go beyond the "B" word.

Claire M. Johnson said...

@ Abigail

You're very brave writing a politics in today's climate. I'm surprised you haven't received death threats!

I wish there was a middle ground here. I have a very big toe in fandom, and sadly I see that many of the behaviors that are common in fandom have now 'bled' into other forms of media. Certainly the sense of entitlement is very specific to fandom, and it seems that now instead of readers being invited into a writer's world it's the exact opposite. We are now perceived of as being entertainers. And if you come into a experience with an agenda, how do you expand your horizons? How are you enlightened or how to you learn or how does your world get upsided in the most wonderful way if you come into reading a book with specific expectations?

I've always wanted the author to take me on a journey I've never been. Whether that's through language or pacing or plot of characterization, it doesn't matter. I'm willing to let the writer "drive." My impression now is that the readers are in the driver's seat, and when their expectations aren't fulfilled, they are angry. It's not even disappointment, it's real prissiness.

I'm sure that the flack I get is nothing compared to what you get, but when you write a novel in the modern day and people slam you for swearing what in the hell are you supposed to make out of that? Or my personal "favorite": the publisher or amazon screws up on the kindle version and they give an author one star. That star has NO bearing on the novel itself. And yet the author has to shoulder these issues that they have no control over. It's maddening.

What I would like to see is the return of the reviewers AND the participation of the reader. I've read many books where it was obvious that the reader had an agenda, say, in the case of fantasy novels. Lots of readers of fantasy are looking specifically for world-building. Plot and characterization are secondary to them. Me? I don't have an agenda for world-building but I sure have an agenda for plot and characterization. To me you can create the most imaginative world but if it's populated by flat characters and rudimentary pacing, then you've lost me. Unfortunately, professional reviews are now a thing of the past. My hometown paper used to have a marvelous book section. Now it's shoved into the entertainment section. Last Sunday it was a total of three pages. This is so sad to me.

We all have an agenda. The more reviews the better. But now reviews are the limited to amazon and Goodreads, and that can't be good for the author.

Abigail said...

What you say is very true! Too many readers, especially genre fiction fans, are looking to have a specific fantasy bone tickled, and if you don’t stoke their particular craving, they feel cheated. Abetted by the fact that many of them seem to feel entitled to an endless flow of the “content” they want, without any obligation to pay for it. I’ve been encountering honest surprise when I express ambivalence about publicizing sale prices or online offers of free books—had to give one innocent a whole education about how Amazon and (to an extent) publishers get paid for Kindle Unlimited books, but not authors. Rocked her world!

I try never to let the annoyances of a carelessly prepared ebook affect my judgment of the work, but it’s sometimes hard to separate the two, because the visual experience is so much a part of my enjoyment of a book. As someone who has been a copy editor and proofreader for more than thirty years, I resent many of Amazon’s impacts on publishing—crappy visuals among the rest of its offenses. And the sloppy condition of ebooks is totally uncalled-for: I have a friend who does ebook design, and he is as aesthetically punctilious as any art press compositor! We need a present-day Norris to write an Octopus of the Internet age (only with more literary skill, perhaps).

As for reviewers and the sad remnants of book review sections in newspapers, it seems as if they all get issued the same list of five books a month and dutifully write what the publicists have told them to write. I see the same books reviewed in every paper and magazine that still offers reviews (in the case of the New York Times, the same book reviewed at least twice in different sections of the paper, weekdays and Sundays), with little attempt to search out unheralded books or regional works. The reviewers have walked around the same displays at ABA (or whatever it’s called these days) and picked up the titles that are most heavily marketed; they all seek the protective cover of reviewing what they’ve been told are the “big” books. The unanimity of the herd on the subject of Go Set a Watchman was just pathetic—the sole exception I saw being a contrarian piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, which actually had some unexpected ideas and made me think about the book in a different way.

Under the present circumstances, where everything including thought has to be instantaneous and corporate budget management controls every decision, it’s hard for an unanointed author to avoid these indignities. I try to draw sustenance from the few readers who “get it” and express intelligent appreciation, and then simply tune out the rest so I can write something I would like to read.