Monday, January 23, 2012

Everyone's a Critic

I've been thinking about books and readers, and how and why they come together. Why does one person love a book that the next person hates? (Writing a novel will do that to an otherwise normal person.)

The truth is, there's no knowing. Even if my novel turns out as close to perfect as I can make it, some people—actually, lots of them—will not like it. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but grab a big glass of water. It's got to go down. And if one of those admittedly strange people happens to be the acquisitions editor to whom I have submitted my manuscript, well, that's all she wrote. Literally.

A fellow author provided a generous helping of perspective by mining readers' reviews on sites such as Goodreads. I checked, and these reviews are real from actual people (or, in the case of the first example, some life form cleverly disguised as a human).

I am the original Jane Austen freak. I am on record as saying that Pride and Prejudice is the most perfect novel in the English language. It is the fiction pearl-of-great-price. But here's what one reader had to say: "This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again."

I cannot fathom that. Insipid? Did she miss all the humor? The social commentary? The unblinking assessment of human nature? I guess so.

Here are few of the more astounding comments: “Just people acting stupidly for no apparent reason except to be disagreeable.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll. “It is incredibly flowery, particularly strange given the “thriller” genre that it tries being a part of.” Dracula, Bram Stoker. “First, C.S. Lewis… is not a good writer, plain and simple.” Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. “What is seriously lacking in Tolkien’s world is any original idea or just imagination in general.” The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

So I'll be in pretty good company if (when) someone says they hate my writing. Many writers consider a bad review a badge of honor. I'm beginning to see why.

It might surprise the Goodreads reviewer that Tolkien responded to his criticism long ago: "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, found it boring, absurd, and contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their work, or of the kind of writing they evidently prefer."

Ouch. Another of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, characteristically responded to critics with humor. In a novel foreword, he wrote, "“A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”


  1. Given the time that a reader invests to finish a novel, it's hard to argue with a simple "I didn't like it". But many readers can't leave it there; either they take revenge for the time that they invested or they decide it's necessary to justify their reactions. Either way, they cross into criticism -- where all kinds of psychological mayhem can infiltrate. Good critics are rare.

  2. Too true. I can accept, if not quite understand, differing taste. There are all kinds of classics that didn't impress me, and some I positively hated (The Grapes of Wrath springs to mind).

    Reading IS an investment in time, an increasingly precious commodity. That's a good thing to remember when we write, so we'll do our best to make it pay off.

  3. I agree with you both. Critiquing a book is an undertaking requiring time and thought. You are spot on about the ease of saying simply “I hated [or loved] this book.” For example: I loved Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra; but disliked the first chapters. Schiff had all this history of Cleopatra to put in her book. Cleopatra is hard to pin down as there is almost no actual written information existing from the time period in which she lived. I like solid data, factual history. She wasn’t adhering to my specifications. Then, I gained speed through the book’s mid-section, and was mesmerized all the way to the grand finale. My sense of accomplishment at finishing the book was euphoric. It goes to show, you don't know that the reader is thinking when s/he posts a review stating simply "I liked/disliked" a book. You have to wrestle an explanation from them.

    1. Liz, you give me hope. The conventional wisdom s that you have to grab the reader on the first page, if not the first sentence. That's a lot of pressure and, frankly, my novel has more of a leisurely pace. Good to know there are still readers who might hang in there to see what develops.

  4. I'm a little late - but I must be honest - outside of The Screwtape Letters - I find C.S. Lewis to be the most insipid storyteller I have ever given the benefit of the doubt and struggled though multiple books for. Otherwise, carry on! :)