Parts of this post were already written when I read Jennie’s post Sex and Death – A Rant and its comments on Dear Author. I won’t go into the specific discussion there, but there was one statement in Jennie’s post that fits what I already wrote, and some comments there go into more detail, so I’m including it here:
If I were to judge on the usual criteria – plot, characterization, prose – it’d be maybe a B or a B-. But the story made an impression on me that surpassed what any mere letter grade could convey. I spent most of the book on a rollercoaster between kind of pissed off and really pissed off.
That’s the way I read (or maybe better try to grade). The characters, actions and values in a novel and the experiences and values a reader brings to it are two different and distinct things, IMO. I firmly believe that a novel should be judged on its own merit, so I think it’s important to keep your personal baggage to yourself as much as possible when you read a novel. It’s not always easy to make a clean cut, I have trouble with it often enough – does my dislike for a certain character type influence what I think of the novel? – but I see a difference there.
When I first discovered the online community, I was baffled by statements that implied or openly drew a connection between liking the characters (the values expressed, …) and the evaluation of the book. It was a completely new concept, and it’s still one I struggle with when I encounter it (although, yes, I understand it better now). I don’t have to want to be friends with characters, I don’t have to like the characters, I don’t even have to think the characters a bit likable, to think that a novel is good. The same goes for all the other personal preferences and morals that sometimes get mixed with the evaluation of a novel. There is a difference between saying “I don’t like to read stories with children” and making the existence of children in a story the reason why the novel is not good (exaggerating here). The distinction is probably on a slippery slope, but I (try to) mind it.
In some way, I said this in part 2 already when I wrote about character-driven stories near the end. Liking the characters is not something that’s important for me to know, so it’s not something I consciously think about when I read the novel and later when I write about it. Reading “he/she is not a very likable character” in a review often gets me to at least consider the novel because it could be interesting to read. It’s not that I like to be challenged on principle and that I look only for that in the novels I read, it’s that when it happens, I’m willing, happy and thrilled to go along for the ride. I don’t try to validate myself all the time in whatever way when I read (for that, I probably have some of my preferences).
So again, what I want to know is: Are the actions of the characters believable? And more specific for a romance novel: Are the characters right for each other? If yes, I’m happy and much more likely to like a book and/or think it good. The question is not just if the characters (or values) are right for me, there’s more to it for me. So: reading is not about me.
Perfect example: at the moment, I’m reading Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight. The hero might very well drive me round the bend in RL from time to time (I also think him quite endearing) and the heroine certainly appears to be a hard and difficult person from the outside, but OMG, I’m thrilled to bits reading about them and the novel looks like a sure keeper.
And now I’m finally done.