Book Genres, Preferences, And Reading (Part 3)

21 Sep

Reading

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.

Already posted:

And now I’m finally done. ;)

2 Responses to “Book Genres, Preferences, And Reading (Part 3)”

  1. Christine Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 5:16 am #

    What an interesting post, Taja. Hmm… I can’t make up my mind on where I stand.

    If a reader intends on publicly sharing their thoughts on a novel, I agree that it should be judged on its own merit (as much as they can, anyway), and not based at all on how much the reader liked the characters. No matter what, the reviewer should be to effectively identify a well written novel.

    But… I also think that a reader can’t help but identify more readily with some characters or some story arcs based on their own life preferences and experiences. In turn, that would play a roll on how well they liked the story.

    I would guess that most people find it difficult being completely objective when reading a story. I know I can’t. I mean, I try… and sometimes I know outright when I can’t (like with Blue Eyed Devil), but I can’t really imagine how a reader can NOT bring part of themselves into their judgement of a book by how well they connect to characters or plot.

    So did I make my indecisiveness clear or what? LOLOL

    Oh! And I totally agree with you that the two most important things in a novel are that the characters are believable and that the characters are a right fit for each other, considering both their positive traits and their flaws. In fact, I love a book even more when I read about a hero and heroine who each have distinct and complicated flaws and the author still manages to effectively convince me that they are a perfect fit. Those are the best reads!

  2. Taja Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 1:35 pm #

    Thanks for your answer, Christine. You know, I actually agree with you completely. *laugh*

    What was on my mind when I wrote the post, what I meant with “online community” and what I should have explicitly stated: I thought mostly of comments like “Jim and Jenny 4eva!” (5 stars) on amazon, not of reviews on blogs or review sites like for example DA or your post about Blue Eyed Devil. These 4eva-comments just seem(ed) strange to me because, as you said, they share their thoughts publicly.

    a reader can’t help but identify more readily with some characters or some story arcs based on their own life preferences and experiences. In turn, that would play a roll on how well they liked the story

    is so true (there’s even a whole literary theory for this). It also has a big influence on preferences, I think. So who’s to say comments that rely heavily or solely on the reader’s experience are less valid? I wouldn’t. But I also can’t help it that I expect more of a public comment than the one line comments on amazon. How’s that for appearing indecisive? :)

    As for the question of total objectivity – I don’t think it’s possible for the reasons you stated and also because what is considered good writing changes over time, IMO. But I think should try and make the difference clear. Not that I think I’m particular good with that, I have a lot to learn about writing publicly. Writing just for myself and writing “for others” (as in someone else could read it) is different, as I discovered the last few months. But it’s also fun! :)

    I love a book even more when I read about a hero and heroine who each have distinct and complicated flaws and the author still manages to effectively convince me that they are a perfect fit.

    Yes!

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