Friday, April 29, 2011
Responsible Reading? A Few Humble Suggestions by Paul Elwork
The Girlfriends' Book Club welcomes Paul Elwork who offers illuminating opinions on reader reviews from an author's perspective. We are a blog about women's fiction but since Paul has the word "girl" in his title of his novel, how could we resist having him as a guest blogger?
Writers aren’t supposed to talk about critics, I know—especially reader critics mostly found at web sites like Goodreads. After all, these are communities of readers who care enough about books to share their thoughts in a potentially global forum. And further, writers put their books out there; they certainly can’t expect the world to stand up and cheer at every turn, or for readers to feel anything less than welcome to judge something thrown into the commons. And I accept these things, of course, even if not always joyfully. Some people aren’t going to be so wild about my books, sure; some people are really not going to like my books at all, fine; some people are going to hate my books, okay (gulp), if they must. All’s fair.
Maybe I’m just asking for trouble in approaching this subject at all. Maybe even raising the questionable notion of responsible reading is a mistake. Responsible by whose standards? At what point does someone’s individual opinion on a book become irresponsible? And what the hell business is it of yours how people read anything at all?
I raise these reasonable questions as disclaimers. I cannot answer them in any complete, satisfactory way and won’t pretend I can. Still, I keep coming back to what is, for better or worse, my personal notion of responsible reading. Because despite the fact that my novel got a bunch of lovely blurbs out of other writers and strong endorsements from outlets like Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, it still stings when readers on Goodreads, Amazon, or LibraryThing, dismiss the book.
In conversations I’ve had with other writers during the weeks since my novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books) got released, I’ve discovered a similar sense of dismay at the way books get torn apart in reader social media. Everyone seems to agree that if a reader thinks a book is boring, doesn’t care for or actively dislikes the writing style, feels that plot and/or resolution are executed poorly, etc., than it’s as I say above—all fair. Something works for people or it doesn’t. The dismay comes when readers say things about books that are simply untrue and/or uninformed. The dismay also comes when it seems readers bring a rigid set of expectations to the act of reading and, when these expectations aren’t flattered outright, throw the book on the trash heap.
And the kicker is when someone accuses a book rashly or ignorantly out in the open, in a way intended to influence other readers. Maybe this is the only safe place to even suggest an idea of responsible reading—for reviewers, of all kinds and in all places. I’m saying maybe it isn’t too much to consider a few things when readers choose to read publicly, when they sit down to read with every intention of making their judgments on a book a matter of social media record.
1. Go into a book with an open mind. We all bring our biases and particular filters to books as we bring them to anything, of course—this is why humans excel at subjectivity and struggle with objectivity. It’s not even a bad thing, necessarily. What makes us more human than our quirky individual personalities? Would it be better to have the Microsoft Word spellcheck, say, “read” our books and judge them from some supposed place of 0-and-1 objectivity? Of course not.
Still—attendant biases notwithstanding, I think aspiring to open-mindedness when you sit down to read is a worthy goal. Instead of going in with a list of expectations of what we’ll find, we should try to let the work wash over us and see what the author going after. Every book, every piece of art you can name, has some internal logic that holds it together, and I agree with the notion that any open-minded approach to criticism should try to appreciate the cohesion particular to the work, then judge the execution. I’ve seen reader reviews—of my work and other writers—that praise a book for being well-written, full of interesting characters, even absorbing, and then undercut it all with the assertion that the book wasn’t what the reader expected.
Along these lines, I’ve seen fans of particular genres trash books essentially for not being in a given genre. If anything but supernatural romance—as one example—leaves you cold, why read a novel that really makes no claim to be neatly placed in that genre, to begin with, and why further bother to flog a book in public for not being supernatural romance as you understand it? (More on this whole business of genres below.)
2. Consider the terms you use in criticism. Though the larger issue of open-mindedness is my first concern (which is why I’ve given it so much play here), I think the clearest cases of reader/reviewer irresponsibility come in assertions that simply aren’t fair or true. In my own case, I’ve seen a few reviews that accuse my novel of having no dramatic climax. Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll simply state here—and short of reading the book, I realize I’m asking you to take my word for it—that the book has a dramatic climax followed by a denouement so clear that my worry, if anything, is that it’s too textbook a case of such an arrangement. Now, if a reader dislikes my execution of said dramatic-climax-to-denouement, well, that falls in the fair category and a matter of opinion he or she has as much right to as anyone else.
Another quick example: One book blogger characterized my book as throwing the writing guideline of “show, don’t tell” out the window because, on a few occasions in the book, I have characters tell each other stories. This depiction disregards the fact that most of the book, including most of the family backstory in the novel, plays out dramatically—that is, in character action, on stage, before the reader’s eyes. It’s fun, I guess, to pick up an honored literary/writing term and wield it like a blunt instrument, but before we do, a second thought would be nice.
3. Ask yourself who the intended audience is for a book, and whether or not you think this audience is served. Let’s turn this around and look at me as the reader. I have no interest whatsoever in what gets called romance fiction—it’s just not my thing. My biases would set up expectations of formulaic stuff, simplistic characterizations, and so on. If such a book revealed itself to be other than that, to feature fully human characters with interesting psychology, I would be surprised and revise my thinking on it. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t go out on the web and attack it for being just what it appeared to be and exactly what I don’t want to spend time reading. And if for some reason I found myself compelled to write a review, I’d make myself do the extra work of considering who the intended audience of the book is and what kind of job—by my lights—I think the author does in writing for this audience. It’s still going to be my opinion and I’m not going to pretend to like something I don’t, but at least I would try to apply some of the open-minded thinking above in regard to the book’s internal logic and author goals. I would try to understand the book’s parts on its own terms before venturing to take it apart.
So, a few suggestions—take ‘em or leave ‘em. It’s exciting that so many people want to talk about books even to the point of writing about them. It’s a big-picture good thing, one not to lose sight of that. And happy reading.
Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com