“There has to be something wrong with a book like that if it didn’t make me cry.” So said a friend to me recently about a highly acclaimed book about love, war, and betrayal. I didn’t give much thought to her comment at the time because I wasn’t particularly moved by the book either, although I liked it better than she did. It wasn’t until later that I realized that her comment raised a very good question about how we respond to the books we don’t like: If I don’t like a book, whose fault is it?
What got me thinking is the notion that the book was at fault for not provoking the reader to tears. Was the fault in the book itself? This book was praised by many readers and critics. It was a well-regarded, but not univerally loved, work. (I’m not naming it because I don’t want the particular book to become the topic.) But, for my friend, the book was fatally flawed because it didn’t make her cry.
My friend is a smart, well-read woman; she understood the language and followed the story in the book just fine. It just didn’t move her. But perhaps the author’s goal wasn’t a weeping reader, but a thinking one. Did the author intend for his readers to cry over his characters? If not, then the book can hardly be blamed for not doing something the author never intended it to do in the first place!
John Updike enjoined book reviewers to “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” That seems fair enough, right? I shouldn’t blame Stephen King for not writing a heart-warming tale of puppy dogs and lollipops. Or J.R.R. Tolkien for populating his stories with wizards, elves, and dragons. That would be ludicrous. And I’m inclined to think it’s just as ludicrous to say there’s something wrong with a book that didn’t stimulate an emotional reaction if an emotional reaction isn’t what the author is going for. Of course, figuring out what an author was going for is a tricky business. Perhaps in this case, the author was hoping to move readers to tears.
So was my friend wrong for disliking a book because it didn’t move her? If she’d been led to think this book was a tear jerker, she certainly had reason to be annoyed and disappointed. Book marketing campaigns that misrepresent a book’s contents can easily backfire by raising the wrong kinds of hopes in a reader. This, incidentally, is why I value negative reviews. They often help readers to adjust their expectations so that they’re better able to choose the right books, avoid the wrong books, or choose the right book for the right time. Had my friend known this book was a different sort of book from what she wanted, she might not have wasted her time on it—or she might have chosen a different time to read it, when she was more in the mood for the kind of story it had to tell.
I think it’s important that readers, particularly those who, like book bloggers, express their views publicly, understand the difference between a book being a bad book and a book being a bad match. Many smart people with discerning tastes have loved the book that my friend and I were talking about. I’d say that in this case we have a mismatch. My friend was quite right to complain that the book didn’t give her what she expected or hoped for. But to say this book is no good, that there’s something objectively wrong with it—that I’m less certain about.
Are there times when a book is just no good? When it is objectively bad? I know there are certain kinds of books that I just do not enjoy but that are still wildly popular. There are books I’d consider poorly written, and others I’d consider highly offensive, but many of those books still find readers, and those readers appreciate them. Are those readers wrong? Am I? Or is taste just that subjective? When are we entitled to say “there’s something wrong with that book”?
Notes from a Reading Life: Jan. 1–10
- The Campaigners by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. The 14th Morland book and the best yet!
- To Siberia by Per Petterson. Wonderful descriptive writing. The plot is almost incidental.
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (audio). Devastating exploration of what happens when dreams meet reality.
- Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. A multicharacter epic set in India (and on the Indian Ocean) during the Opium Wars. This has been slow going because there are so many characters. I’m now halfway in, the threads are coming together, and the story is picking up.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. For the Lord of the Rings readalong. I’m reading this at lunchtime and am now 1/3 of the way in. So, so funny.
- Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (audio). How the U.S. military has attempted to use paranormal techniques. Alternately funny and shocking.
- The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Poetry lessons. Last week, I wrote a villanelle and a sestina—both of them very bad.
- Testament by Alis Hawkins. Historical fiction/adventures in research. For the Cornflower Book Group.
- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (audio). My first Persephone, and I’m listening to the audio instead of reading one of the beautiful print editions. Oh well. I have some print editions on my shelf and will get to them someday.
On My Radar
- Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was a pretty big disappointment for me, but the combined forces of Cara and Steph have convinced me that this might be a better fit.
- The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin. A historical mystery set on a funeral railway. Reviewed at Juxtabook.