Sunday Salon: Bad Books?

“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

Books Read

  • 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.

Currently Reading

  • 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.

On Deck

  • 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.
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57 Responses to Sunday Salon: Bad Books?

  1. Sasha says:

    I’ve been thinking about this too. But peripherally. :] So, this little comment is exploratory, at best.

    When I was reading Little Children by Tom Perrotta, I really wanted to like that book, but, my problem became, as my post about it tried to explain–Perrotta’s novel was not Revolutionary Road. Yates has taken over the sub-genre, that it’s become the yardstick to any novel attempting to portray dissatisfied suburbia–even if I recognized that Perrotta was attacking the subject in a different (more satirical) manner. And I know now, as I knew then, that it was a good book. But it didn’t satisfy me, not the way I wanted it to.

    So, is the blame to be put on Yates’ lap for writing a “too-good” novel? Since it has latched itself on to my expectations, as another voice in my head when I sit down with a book?

    As someone who has resolved to not even attempt “journalistic” or “academic” book reviews–the blog I keep is very personal, and I have no qualms with that, not anymore–my subjectivity is a big factor when talking about books. Some people try to be as professional about it as they can, and “taste” becomes secondary. I can’t do that. Also, when I find that I can’t read a book because school is hitting me pretty hard, or the book just put me to sleep, I say so, but I try to make sure that I explore why I felt like this book was a “bad” book.

    I appreciate “negative” reviews. It’s proof that this odd thing called personal taste is still floating out there. However, I believe in reasons, in explanations–there is a responsibility to yourself, to your readers, and that book you just held, after all. So if I say, “Man, that was terrible,” I try to follow it up with, “Because the language baffled me / Because I wanted to hit Character A / Because the song reminded me of a Beach Boys song, and that never sits well with me / Because it wasn’t *insert good book* here.”

    When I read romance novels, I’ll say, “It made me swoon,”–people tend to forget the affective quality of the book, one that (IMO) should go hand in hand with the technicalities, the form. If I read, say, Flowers for Algernon and write, “It didn’t make me cry”–does that give me a black, black heart? [But I cried, haha. I think that it means the story seeped into me, and took hold of me. It’s what books do.]

    That’s my two cents. It’s a long two cents. Gahk, I took over the comment box. :O

    PS – Thank you for that Updike link. Although I have accepted the fact that I can’t do [traditional] reviews, that quote you gave will help guide my hand when I type my impressions up.

    • Teresa says:

      Sasha: I liked the way you handled the Little Children post. It was clear that you didn’t think the book was as good as Revolutionary Road but that it was mostly by comparison that it suffered and that you might have liked it more than you did had you read it first or with a longer gap in between. I actually have a copy of it and will get to it eventually, but I know now to wait until the Yates has worn off more.

  2. Nymeth says:

    I think we always have the right to say, “there’s something wrong with thus book FOR ME”, but we should keep in mind that other readers will pick it up and find exactly what they were looking for. They’re not wrong either; it’s just that we’re all different. I’ve had friends mock what I consider gorgeous writing as “purple prose”…opinions make the world go round, I guess. I’m always okay with people expressing their dislike for books I love, as long as they don’t come across like what they’re saying is, “oh, you just like it because you’re not as smart, sophisticated or discerning as I am”. Which some do, lol. Anyway, all this to say that I agree with you. People look for different things in books, and sometimes they even find completely different reasons to be satisfied or dissatisfied with the same book. That’s part of the beauty of literature.

    • Teresa says:

      Nymeth: Absolutely. There are plenty of good books out there that aren’t right for me. When I’m panning a book, I try to keep in mind the readers who did enjoy it. I know I’ve pulled out the snark a few times and perhaps offended people who did like the book, but I don’t do it often. I have to be pretty irritated by the book to do that. (It wasted my time, offended me, was error-ridden.)

  3. Marieke says:

    I can’t believe that there’s any objective way of judging a book (or much of anything for that matter). That’s why all this is so interesting! I don’t think anyone’s response to a book could be flat-out ‘wrong’, though of course it’s possible to ‘miss something’ or ‘just not get it.’

    I find it incredible just how different two people’s reactions to a book can be. I’m sure most authors must be aware of this, and they can’t realistically be hoping for the same reaction from everyone.

    • Teresa says:

      Marieke: The variety of reactions is one of the things that makes book blogging so interesting.

      But you raise a good point that a reader might “miss something” when reading. Every now and then, I’ve gotten annoyed by books that confused me, and when I’ve looked back over a section, I’ve realized that the author was perfectly clear–I was just unfocused. Can’t blame the author for that!

  4. Pingback: sunday salon || Are Some Books Too Personal? Are Some Books Truly Bad? « Sasha & The Silverfish

  5. bybee says:

    If a book makes me cry, it’s because other things are working on me, usually.

    • Teresa says:

      bybee: That’s true for me too. I’ve been made to cry by several books and movie that really weren’t all that impressive. I just needed a cry.

  6. Juxtabook says:

    I remember my A level English teacher telling me not to comment on the book the author didn’t write. Good Advice!

    Thanks for the link, by the way.

    • Teresa says:

      Juxtabook: That is good advice, although I know I don’t follow it consistently. I often feel compelled to comment on the book that was marketed and that I was led to expect (which is often not the author’s doing). And I actually think that’s helpful because it’s likely that others have been led to have similar expectations. It does not, however, mean that the *author* did a poor job.

  7. I think, in books that are simply a poor match for someone, there’s usually some good qualities- it’s just simply not for them, but they can appreciate that a fan of the genre would like its style or something. In actually bad books, there’s flaws and errors you can point to- the pace is agonizingly slow for a thriller, the main character is weak, so on and so forth.

    • Teresa says:

      Lit Omnivore: I think most books probably do have some qualities that someone will appreciate; after all, a publisher appreciated something enough to put money behind it. And even some supposed flaws might appeal to some readers–or be forgivable.

  8. christina says:

    I love this post! You raised so many good points and questions. There’s not nearly enough time to discuss (one sided as it happens) in this post. I wish we were meeting for coffee! *grin*

    In regards to your friend, I think that there is definitely the potential that we hear so much about a book that we become desensitized to the emotional aspect of it (which would “move us to tears” or anger us, or cause us all of the warm fuzzies necessary). At least I wager that’s what happened to me when I read The Lovely Bones. Everyone raved. My standards were raised. I knew it was going to be AWESOME. And then, my ship sank. I was drowning in desperation to finish the book and be done with it. It felt forced, and quite honestly, I didn’t like or grow attached to any of the characters. Is that Alice Sebold’s fault? Hardly. I mean, damn, there’s enough people who loved the book enough that it’s a movie!

    We should be able to think of the books analytically and emotionally but cannot fault the book and/or author if we don’t like the book. I mean, if I order a new dish at a restaurant because I heard how awesome it was from all of my friends and I dislike it, do I become enraged at the chef? Hardly. I shrug it off and figure that I have different tastes than my friends. Why are books much different?

    • Teresa says:

      Christina: Expectations are a huge part of our response. If a book is built up and built up, how can it live up to the acclaim. That’s how I felt about the Guernsey book. My review probably came across as negative even though I did enjoy aspects of it. It just wasn’t an unmitigated success for me.

  9. Lightheaded says:

    If a book isn’t well-written, or you feel that the editor somehow didn’t do his/her job then it’s a bad book on that aspect alone. I think I’ve had several reading experiences when a book with a good story somehow fails with the bad editing and/or bad writing.

    But as far as the point you raised concerning your friend’s reaction then it’s more of reaction to the content which basically includes expectations, values, beliefs, reading moods, present feelings or insert any other what-have-yous any reader has when it comes to reading books. We’re all different and I agree with you completely when it comes to some books being a bad match to some people.

    • Teresa says:

      Lightheaded: I guess I just haven’t encountered that many books where the writing or editing were so bad that they killed the book entirely. And what constitutes good writing is pretty subjective.

  10. Eva says:

    I think the difference between a bad book and a bad match is definitely crucial! That’s why, even why I give a negative review, I try to explain which aspects, from my personal reading pov, bothered me. For example, my make-or-break aspect of a book is the writing…there’s a certain minimum threshold, and without that, I don’t care how awesome the plot or characters or setting is, I just can’t enjoy the book. Also, as soon as there’s a definite whiff of misogynism, I’m done. So if I didn’t like a book for that reason, I try to quote the relevent passages. It seems difficult to set ‘objective’ standards for something as subjective as reading, but then that works both ways. If we say there aren’t any bad books, then we have to say there aren’t any good books. Just books that matched us. And perhaps that’s why I always get nervous when another blogger picks up a book because of my gushing review?

    • Sasha says:

      And perhaps that’s why I always get nervous when another blogger picks up a book because of my gushing review?

      I’m so relieved that I’m not the only one who feels this way. Although there’s joy in knowing someone else will read a loved book, well, there’s also panic, haha.

    • Teresa says:

      Eva: There are definitely certain things that will put me off a book entirely–and those same things might not bother other people. Historical characters who feel too modern absolutely grate on my nerves, but I’ve seen others gush about how they loved finding historical characters to relate too.

      I’m not sure I agree that if there are no bad books, there can’t be good books. I mean, even my favorite books wouldn’t suit some readers, as well-crafted as they may be. But even the fact that I mention “craft” implies some sort of objective that some books just won’t meet. But maybe they aren’t aiming to meet those standards.

      Roger Ebert is one of my favorite movie reviewers because he is so good at evaluating movies on their own terms. He doesn’t evaluate a romantic comedy, an action thriller, or an artsy foreign film in the same way. I’ve seen him movies in all of these genres high marks. But when something’s bad, when it doesn’t meet its own standards (or perhaps when its standards are so low as to be useless), he calls it as he sees it.

      And I too get nervous when another blogger picks up a book on my recommendation!

      • Eva says:

        I guess I see good and bad as two sides of the same coin. So if there’s the ‘craft’ objectives, then shouldn’t books that fall short of that be called bad? Even if those objectives are different for different types of books? Why do you think books can be good and not bad? (That last question is honest curiousity…I like to clarify my tone when I’m ‘talking’ via the internet, hehe.)

  11. While I completely believe that there are bad books out there in the world and that sometimes authors fail to do what they set out to do, I also believe that the FIT between book and reader is an integral part of the reading experience. You’ve done a very nice job explaining the difference here, and I hope other readers and bloggers will take note.

    I’ve read and reviewed some books I believe deserved the negative review I gave them. I’ve also given books lukewarm reviews with the caveat that the book wasn’t a good fit for me but that it had many features I believe other readers with different tastes/frames of reference/interests/whatever would enjoy more.

    Part of our job as reviewers is to learn to make the distinction between when a book fails and when it just fails for us.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Rebecca. I think we have to be clear on the distinction between bad fit and bad book. I imagine as a bookseller you developed a pretty good sense of what tends to work for other readers that doesn’t work for you. The real challenge, for me anyway, is sorting out when my negative response is a sign of poor craft or when it’s just not my thing. Adding to that is the fact that some people aren’t bothered by what I would consider poor craft.

  12. Jeane says:

    Books can fail for me due to so many reasons: it’s not what I expected, the characters do things that frustrate me, the plot is dull, the writing is awkward, there’s errors in editing (not the author’s fault, but still annoying!), the focus shifts and I don’t like it, or it’s just plain boring. I guess that’s why I like to write posts about books I don’t finish, to give other readers some idea if it’s just an awful book no one should waste their time on, or a good book that I just didn’t like personally but another reader might well love. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, though. Writing about it helps me sort it out a little.

    • Teresa says:

      Jeane: I like to read those kinds of posts because if I understand why a book didn’t work for you, I might have a better sense of whether it’ll work for me. There are a few bloggers out there who read the same books I do but often respond differently to them, but I can almost always tell from their reviews whether a book will suit me.

  13. cbjames says:

    Eva raises a very good point. “If we say there aren’t any bad books then we have to say there aren’t any good books.” I used to argue that one could not judge art, I count books as an art form, because all the criteria available are subjective and whichever set of criteria one chooses, that choice is essentially random. And the collective choice a society makes changes over time. There’s nothing inherant in art that makes it good or bad.

    But I’ve been around quite a bit since then. I may not be able to define “bad” but I know it when I see it.

    I have to select reading material for my students; this is part of every teacher’s job. I aim for material that will be the right match for them, something they will like, but I also aim for something that is “good.” They like many things that are “bad” and they find them without my help.

    Very interesting post. Thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      cbjames: I’m still pondering Eva’s thought, and you’re adding more food for thought. Thanks! I’d say that a book is bad if it doesn’t do what it sets out to do, but then there are books that aim to do something that I don’t find worth doing (convince people of a point of view I find repugnant, pander to people’s lowest instincts, or offer nothing but a parade of stereotypes). Some books could get away with doing those things if they succeed on other levels or have something else to offer, but they can’t be unqualified successes, and if they don’t offer anything else, then perhaps they would qualify as “bad.”

      As a reader, I would rather read–and recommend–books where the good outweighs the bad. And I think it’s crucial for teachers to help students find the good. (I actually just edited an article about free choice reading and honoring student choice while offering up lots of the good stuff, so that’s been on my mind lately.)

  14. Steph says:

    Well, I have long struggled with the notion of the objective merits of books… because ultimately, isn’t reading a personal experience, so if one personally and subjectively fails to connect with a book or feels let down by it, isn’t that really what’s most important? Because even if Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written, if I can’t get past page 5, does it really matter what Joyce’s intentions were in writing it if I can’t read it? OR, if one does read a book and feels completely unmoved by it, well, again, how hard should one have to work to understand an author’s intentions? And even if we do understand what the author was going for, if the book doesn’t affect us (emotionally, intellectually, etc.,) how much weight should we give those intentions?

    I do agree that it’s important for us to try to tease apart what a book is versus what we wanted it to be – these are situations in which I think timing of reads are crucial – but at the end of the day, I’d rather read 10 books that I subjectively thought were impressive rather than 10 that are arguably objectively impressive. I read for me, not for canon, not to impress others… we can sit down and discuss language and characterization and all the things that ostensibly should be impersonal and can be held to an objective standard, but who really reads that way? Reading is more than the sum of these parts – anyone whose read a book they truly love knows this – so to try to boil it down to objectivity is beside the point as far as I’m concerned!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: I agree with you that it’s nearly impossible to be totally objective. We all have preferences, moods, etc. For me, though, language and plotting and characterization and “craft” all feed into what makes a book a good experience for me. If a book totally fails in those areas, I’m less likely to enjoy it. But what constitutes failure is even subjective. As Nymeth pointed out upthread, what one person considers lush prose is purple to another person.

  15. Aarti says:

    Great post! I think there is such a thing as a bad book, but I also know that’s just my opinion of it. I hope that nowadays I have gotten kinder in my reviews of books. Or, if not kinder, more fair. I think you’re right. As book reviewers, we need to separate our own feelings on books from whether it is a successful book (by the author’s reaction) or not. I know I’m a subjective reviewer, so I use the phrase “I think” or “I liked” or “I disliked” fairly often.

  16. Jenny says:

    I think there are probably very few books, if any, that are totally without merit, but the merits of a book are largely in the eye of the beholder. In other words, there are trashy (“bad”) books that I enjoy a lot, but I know that a lot of people would think (and probably rightly) are terrible.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: Exactly! What constitutes merit is open to debate. If someone is just looking for a trashy read, or for brain candy, it would be wrong to hand them Marilynne Robinson instead, even if the Robinson is much, much better.

  17. Priscilla says:

    One thing that bothers me is that we act as though writers produce books in a vacuum. For one thing, I’ve often thought that if editors had to put their names on the books alongside the authors’, there would be fewer “bad” books out there. Of course, we cannot tell just from reading who bears the most responsibility for failing the book, but I am bothered by reviews that seem to personally attack authors. I do not like Twilight; I think it’s poorly written and have problems with some of the ideas it might give young women about love and relationships, but I am not going to personally attack Stephanie Meyer. Writers are as singular as reviewers. She wrote what she thought would be a compelling tale (after all, the most common advice writers hear is “Write the book you would want to read”), and the marketplace responded. She did not create the market–she only wrote the book.

    That said, I try not to “review” books. I just say what I think and back it up as best I can, but it’s only my itty bitty opinion. Even though some bloggers I respect and read regularly use them, I admit I do not care for rating systems, and I tend to ignore them, especially if I am already interested in a title. I also do not let negative reviews deter me, although I will also admit that I have stopped reading some blogs (and professional reviewers) if they are too negative or tend to go off on snarky tangents that seem to have nothing to do with the book. It’s one thing to dislike a book and give valid reasons for why that is so, and it’s another thing to trash it.

    Great post! I love everyone’s responses.

    • Teresa says:

      Priscilla: I’ve read enough excerpts of Twilight to know that it’s not for me, but it does appear that Meyers succeeded in writing an absorbing book that many people have enjoyed.

      I’d also add marketers to the mix of people who might get a book wrong. If a book is marketed as a thriller, because thrillers sell, but is actually more of a slow-paced character-driven drama with some mystery elements, can we blame the author that the right readers aren’t finding it?

      I’m with you on rating systems. I use them on LibraryThing but struggle with them. (I mostly use them there because they do help me with sorting my lists.) The books I most enjoy aren’t necessarily the most well-crafted or ambitious, although they often are. And it feels wrong to give Henry James the same number of stars as, say, Stephen King, But if my enjoyment level is the same, why shouldn’t I?

      • Eva says:

        Popping in on the rating system debate! I use a five-star system on my ‘Books Read’ page, although I don’t usually reference that in my actual post on a book (unless I’m saying it’s a ‘five-star read’ which is really just a synonym for ‘awesome’). But I make it very clear that a) I’m not rating the book, I’m rating my experience of the book and b) the system is not comparative. And that’s why I can give War & Peace 5 stars and Wicked Lovely the same. lol

  18. Rebecca says:

    I am with Nymeth in that when we write negative reviews or tell someone we did not like a book, it is very important to explain WHY you did not care for it. Because the reason very well may not matter to another person. If a story doesn’t make me cry, I am ALL FOR THAT. I like to be moved, but I don’t have to be brought to tears for a story to move me.

    Everyone reacts to books in different ways. I wish more authors understood that, as well. Maybe certain authors would be less likely to blow up like a balloon when reading a negative review if they realized not everyone can like their baby. Especially if it is not even a snarky review.

    I also do not understand when people say they are not going to read a book just based off of one review of the book. It is just one opinion. If you don’t think you want to try it for yourself after reading a neg. review, at least read a few more reviews before banning the book from your tbr list. That’s all I’m saying.

    Great discussion, Teresa!

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: If a book interests me, I’m unlikely to write it off because of one review–it is, as you say, just one opinion. If, however, I’m on the fence about a book, a well-written negative review can slide me into the “won’t read” column.

      • Kristen M. says:

        This is my issue exactly. I am all for writing negative reviews but they are MY opinion and it scares me when someone says “thanks for the honest review — I’m not going to read this now”. I worry that mine is maybe the only review that they have read or that they wouldn’t necessarily have the same issues as I would. I would love it if commenters could be more clear about whether they think they would have the same issues I did or if this was the just review that pushed them off the fence or whatever. Because although there is a novel that the author intended, I’m not sure that it will ever be read exactly that way.

        Should I write up a policy for commenting on a negative review? Totally kidding!

  19. Marie says:

    You make a lot of great points here. I think if your friend likes books that make her cry and this one didn’t, then it makes sense she didn’t like it. It doesn’t make it a bad book- just bad for her. And I do think there are some books that are badly written- and popular nonetheless. But not every book that someone doesn’t like! :-)

    • Teresa says:

      Marie: Thanks! I’d add that some of those badly written books are still doing what they set out to do, which is excite readers with a ripping story. (Twilight, as Priscilla suggests, could be an example of this, although my opinion of the writing is based on mere excerpts.)

  20. Julie says:

    I think reading is a very personal thing and we are not all going to like every book, but still can’t necessarily call it a “bad book”. I do often say things like “I hated that book” but that is just my humble opinion. Sometimes when books get too talked up I am let down when I actually read them because I expect them to be so brilliant. In that way, others can influence our reading opinions as well. This happened to me with the book Water For Elephants. It was so talked up, that it turned out to not at all meet my expectations. I also think that personal experiences obviously play a role in our reading and our opinions of books. Something might strike a chord with me in a book because I can relate in a way others can’t or vise versa. Great post!

    • Teresa says:

      Julie: Oh, I hear you on hype. The Guernsey book was like that for me. I’m not sure any book could have stood up to the hype surrounding that book!

      And on statements like “I hated that book”–that certainly strikes me as a statement of opinion, not a universal judgment of the book. I’ve hated many a book that was probably “technically” a good book.

  21. litlove says:

    Wow- so many comments! This is one hot topic. I particularly like a quote by an academic called David Cecil. He wrote:

    ‘[the literary critic’s] aim should be to interpret the work that they are writing about and to help readers to appreciate it, by defining and analysing those qualities that make it precious and by indicating the angle of vision from which its beauties are visible.’

    Given that I have been a professional critic for most of my working life, that IS what I try to do. I can still have a subjective response to the book, which is all about whether the book is a good match for me (as you put it so well). But from my particular perspective, it would be egotistic of me to assume that my judgment on a book was going to be the same as anyone else’s. I’m not the standard bearer of all reading responses.

    • Teresa says:

      Litlove: Thanks for that great quote. I love that idea of “indicating the angle of vision from which its beauties are visible.” Even some of my least favorite books might have beauties for another reader in another situation. If I can figure out what those might be and mention them when talking to others, that seems like a good thing.

  22. Deb says:

    There’s an old saying, “A book is like a mirror: If an ass peers in, do not expect an apostle to peer out.”

    Of course, none of us here fits that first category (ha-ha), but we all bring our life experience to every book we read–including what we’ve read previously, what we already know, and our expectations of the book/author. Sometimes, expectations can ruin a book for us. I was enthralled by Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger until the last few chapters, when I felt the book ran out of steam. How much of that was due to the numerous glowing reviews I read, I don’t know–but I certainly felt the book’s ending did not live up to the what had come before it. By the same token, I’m often pleasantly surprised by a book–this tends to happen with older books that I either know little about prior to reading or have forgotten any reviews that I had read.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb: Right. We don’t read in a vacuum. We bring our expectations of the book, our personal biases, our reading preferences, our mood, and so on, to the table. All of those things affect our responses.

  23. Teresa says:

    Eva: Regarding the question of whether there need to be bad books in order for there to be good books, I’m still working it out a bit in my head, but I’ll try to explain my thinking as it stands right at this moment.

    For the moment, let’s just assume we’re talking about objectively good vs. objectively bad books.

    For me, a good book would be one that does what it sets out to do and does it well. If it’s a comedy, it makes readers laugh. If it’s a thriller, it thrills, etc. The best books do several things well. A mystery with strong, interesting characters, or a fantasy with great world-building and a complex, interesting theme.

    A bad book, on the other hand, fails to do what it sets out to do. It’s a thriller without tension. A character study with one-dimensional characters. Or a trashy romance that fails to titillate. It fails on all fronts.

    Then there are a lot of books that are neither good nor bad, but a mix of both. It might be a comedy with several good laughs, but a lot of lame jokes as well. Or it might be merely adequate–a mystery with a good plot but one-dimensional characters might be a good mystery but it wouldn’t be classed as great.

    I believe that it’s theoretically possible for there to be books that are good or a mix of good and bad without there being books that are outright bad.

    Do I believe that bad books exist? Sure. I think they’re pretty rare, though. Most books probably have some value to some readers. The best books have value for lots of readers in lots of ways.

    It’s like Priscilla said about Twilight. The writing might not be very good, but she’s written a story that has meant something to lots of people. I’d have a hard time saying it’s a bad book, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a good book either.

    On ratings: For what it’s worth, I don’t have a problem with other people rating books–I just have hard time doing it myself and don’t generally pay much attention to them on other people’s blogs.

  24. Dorothy W. says:

    Good questions! I guess I believe that while there are no objectively bad books, there are books that lots and lots of people love and others that lots and lots of people hate, and those are decent indications as to the book’s quality. But these are just trends and approximations, not anything solid. There are so many ways of defining what’s good! On the other hand, I do think it makes sense for readers to give their opinions about whether a book is good or not, and it helps if the reader is clear about what criteria he or she is using. But it’s a mistake to think that one’s opinion is the truth — it’s just an opinion.

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy: The trouble I’ve found with judging a book’s quality based on how many people like or dislike it is that I often *dislike* really popular books and even find some to be lacking in qualities I want in my reading. Which just goes to show that I define what’s good differently from how other people.

  25. Frances says:

    Wow, Teresa! You have really struck a chord with people here. So many thoughtful responses too. I feel particularly drawn to cbjames’s comment concerning education. I have spent years matching kids to books just right for them. Books that I would call “good” or “great” books without reservation. For there must be that distinction as Eva suggests.

    So can we have arbiter’s of taste? Who would those people be? Can a book be great just because many people love it? That would mean that the cringe-worthy prose of the Twilight series is great. How do we weight one opinion above other for as Dorothy points out, “it’s just an opinion.” But of course it is done. What is a classic, what is part of the canon, etc. And often times the content of those lists does a poor job of representing a wide swathe of folks outside white males. We could go on and on here and pull out the Hume and Kant and talk standards of tastes, but really as bloggers I think that we describe our personal reading experiences, our own likes, dislikes and preferences as you conclude. In our reading journals, our blogs. Few of us critics in the strict sense of the word.

    Great post!

    • Teresa says:

      Frances: Yes, it’s so complicated. So many well-loved books seem lacking to me, but I love books that others find dull and pretentious. But it does seem that there must be some sort of standard. I guess to me it really does come down to whether the book succeeds in doing what it appears to be attempting to do and whether what it’s attempting to do is worth doing.

  26. rebeccareid says:

    This is a great issue. I haven’t read all the comments but some of them and I just like the discussion.

    Maybe it’s not a matter of good and bad but good better and best? And of course it’s all subjective. While I personally think there are objective standards to writing and pacing and plotting and characterizations, others read books for different reasons than those.

    • Teresa says:

      rebeccareid: True–not everyone reads a book looking for strong characterization, and even those who generally do might not want that all the time.

  27. farmlanebooks says:

    Fantastic post! I’m not sure I’ve ever read a bad book, but I have found lots that I don’t like. As several people have said already I think it is important to write negative reviews to explain why you didn’t enjoy a book. People are then free to make up their own minds as to whether they’d enjoy reading it themselves. We all have such different taste in books that I’m sure that there is someone out there that will enjoy every book ever published (even if it is only the author’s mother!)

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie: Oh yes, there are plenty of books I don’t like–and often other people love them. And the negative reviews (like yours) that clearly explain why the reader didn’t like the book are so helpful. Often, what bothers one reader won’t bother another at all. I know we’ve had different opinions on several books, but I can tell from your reviews that we read the same book and even noticed a lot of the same things, but we feel differently about those characteristics.

  28. Pingback: Gone Reading Blog Survey - It's OK to Bail on a Bad Book | Gone Reading

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