Sunday Salon: Why We Dislike What We Dislike

What a wonderful world it would be if every book we read were a pleasure. But, alas, that cannot always be the case. Anyone who reads extensively is bound to run across a stinker now and then. And, of course, one person’s stinker is another person’s treasure. I’ve mulled in this space before about the difference between books being bad books and bad fits for different readers. In general, I think reading is a subjective experience. What one reader loves another may loathe. And what one reader adores this year may seem ridiculous to that same reader in 10 years. That doesn’t necessarily make one opinion wrong and another right.

That said, I’m not sure that means we should throw the notion of objectivity out the window. My thinking in the last week or two has been furthered by the discussions this week at Things Mean a Lot and Farm Lane Books (particularly the comment threads). Today, I want to tease that out a bit more and look at the reasons certain books just don’t quite work for us and why opinions might differ.

So what are the reasons for our dislike? Here are a few broad, sometimes interlocking categories I’ve found in my own reading.

Not My Thing. These are the books that just don’t suit our tastes. We might not generally enjoy books of that genre. The subject matter might hit upon a hot-button issue we don’t want to read about. The book might be too complex, too simplistic, too dark, too frothy for our particular tastes. Some books don’t aim to do much more than entertain; others aim to challenge, bewilder even. These books may not be bad at being what they are, but what they are isn’t our thing.

A Victim of Timing. Sometimes we encounter books at the wrong time. Perhaps we read a perfectly good book immediately after reading a masterpiece, and the perfectly good book comes out looking mediocre. Maybe we read a book before we were ready for it (Heart of Darkness was utterly different for me as a senior college than it was for me as a senior in high school.) Or perhaps we were feeling distracted and were therefore unable to concentrate, making a book we’d normally see as rich and layered look convoluted and unnecessarily bewildering.

Great Expectations. I’ve written before about how my first reading of Wuthering Heights was colored by my belief before reading that it was a beautiful romance. I’ve read other books that were so widely praised that even though they were quite good they could not possibly live up to the acclaim (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, for instance). Other books are made to look like one thing on the cover and in all the marketing materials but turn out to be something else (The Pillars of the Earth, I’m talking to you). It’s like biting into a red jelly bean expecting it to be cherry but finding out it’s cinnamon.

In the Eye of the Beholder. Even if we agree on what makes a book good or bad, we might find it impossible to agree on whether a particular book has those qualities. We may agree that purple prose is bad, but what I call purple prose might look lush to you. Your plodding and dull might look meditative and lovely to me. What seems trite and overdone to me might look fresh and original to another reader who hasn’t read a lot on the topic or in the genre under consideration.

Of course, all of the above categories are almost entirely subjective as they’re based on the individual reader’s background, tastes, and mood. But I’m not comfortable with the idea that dislike of any book is totally subjective. Some books do have real and identifiable flaws. But even books with real, identifiable flaws have their fans. How could that be?

Flaws of Omission. Almost any book, even an incredibly good book, probably has some areas where it could improve. There’s nothing much really wrong with it, but there are ways it could be better. A little more back story for an interesting character. A little bit of cutting to make the pacing even stronger. But even though readers might agree on these possible areas of improvement, not everyone will agree on how much value such improvements would add.

Forgivable Flaws. Sometimes I can recognize the problems in a book, and I just don’t care because the good things (for me) outweigh the bad. But that might not be true of other readers. I have friends who loved The DaVinci Code as a mindless sort of summer read, but who also understood that Dan Brown didn’t know what the hell he was talking about when it came to theological texts. (Alas, I also know people who told me they learned something from Dan Brown, at which point I was quick to point them toward more authoritative sources that would help them unlearn what they had learned.)

Fatal Flaws. As much as I believe that reading is subjective, I do believe there actually are books that objectively aren’t much good at all. But I also think that, most of the time, if books have nothing at all to offer, they don’t stay around very long. I’m thinking of mass-produced fiction that slavishly follows a formula, or books of the moment meant merely to capitalize on some hot trend or current event. There might be lots of books like this published, but don’t they have longevity. (If they do, that often means they have quality that isn’t evident at first glance—even if that quality is just pure entertainment value, which in actuality is no small thing.)

So I’m taking my stand and saying that yes I do believe some books are objectively not much good. But, I suspect that savvy readers are pretty good at avoiding the books that are all-out bad. We figure out which books are getting buzz from actual readers, we read reviews, we ask reliable friends for recommendations. That doesn’t mean we never read books we dislike, but identifying the reasons for our dislike can help us better understand what we don’t want to read—and sharing those reasons can help our fellow readers discern which books are bad for them or just plan bad.

In other news: Registration for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is now open. All bloggers who wish to participate can register at the BBAW website. One big change this year is that bloggers are being asked to register for a particular blogging niche and, if they wish to be considered for an award, to identify five posts they believe distinguish them in that niche and publish a post with links to those five posts. (Registering for an award is completely optional, but if you want to vote you need to register.)

Jenny and I do intend to throw our hat in the ring, but we’re still thinking over which niche to register for and which posts to include. The deadline to register is July 7, and I do hope all of you with book blogs take the time to register. I discovered several new blogs and got to know plenty of other bloggers a bit better last year during the week, so do think about participating in whatever way makes sense to you.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

Currently Reading

  • The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. For the Classics Circuit.
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (audio). I’m now on the eighth disc of ten. So good I find myself wanting to take the long way to get to my destinations so I have more time in the car to listen.
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I haven’t read this comic novel since college, and I’ve been wanting to revisit it.
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. Reading just one or two selections each week.

New Acquisitions

  • The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America by Ray Suarez. The author, a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, spoke at my church last week and said what I thought were some very smart things about the intersection of faith and politics (the key thing being that people are always asking whether it’s good for the state, but we should also be asking whether it’s good for the church).
  • In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I won this novel about four Dominican sisters in an Armchair BEA drawing. I’ve enjoyed most of the Latin American fiction I’ve read (which isn’t much, I’m sorry to say), so I’m happy to have something new to try.
  • The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley. Six sleuths, one mystery, six solutions. I won this from Fleur Fisher Reads, and the fact that it’s by the author of the delicious psychological crime novel Before the Fact makes me extra excited.

On My Radar

  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. A short story cycle about a newspaper in Rome staffed mostly by U.S. expats. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says “As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.” I love stories about newsrooms, and who couldn’t use an entertaining book now and then?
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34 Responses to Sunday Salon: Why We Dislike What We Dislike

  1. bookmagic says:

    I find some books I have read just are not right for me at that time. But I have read a few poorly written books this year, usually suffering from poor plot and amateurish dialogue.

    I just recently borrowed In the Time of Butterflies from my cousin and am looking forward to it

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, I’ve had the same experience of books that aren’t right at the time or books whose flaws were just too great for me to enjoy them. And being able to identify the difference is, I think, crucial.

  2. Nymeth says:

    Hm. It’s not that I’m out to discard the notion of objectivity all together – I DO value it, in the sense of trying to move beyond our own individual perspective and trying to understand why a book we loathed might be valuable for other readers, just like you’ve done here.

    But having said that, I do struggled with the notions of “not much good at all” or “just plain bad”. Can we ever safely say, “this book is so bad that it’ll never change anyone’s life?” I guess it depends on what we think literature *should* do. Perhaps we believe that a person needs to be much less intelligent and wise than we are to have their lives changed by what we think is an atrocious book, but don’t those people have the very same right to be touched by literature as more discerning and enlightened readers?

    I’m not sure if you saw my review of Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos last week, but in it I cited Nick Hornby, who once said he was concerned about the belief in literary circles that literature *should* only appeal to intellectual elites, instead of also reflecting the experiences of people who don’t necessarily belong to these.

    I’m going on a bit of a tangent and should probably write a post about this one day, but my point is that I believe (naïvely and undiscerningly, perhaps) that as books mean different things to different people, it’s very hard to point at something and say, “This is objectively awful and worthless”.

    • Teresa says:

      Ana, I totally agree with you that it’s extremely difficult to say that something is objectively no good to anyone. I generally don’t even try but instead just try to get at why it didn’t work for me. I’m with Hornby in agreeing that a book doesn’t have to be intellectual in order to be worthwhile to someone. And yes, people who are less discerning or experienced as reader certainly have a right to books that touch them. I’d argue that books that do touch an unsophisticated reader have some value, even if they aren’t for me.

      Maybe it just takes time to know whether certain books we find ineffective have value or not. DaVinci Code is a good example of that for me. I hated the book, not just for the historical inaccuracies and crappy research but for clumsy pacing and dialogue. What’s more, everyone I initially talked to about it praised it for teaching them so much about the real story of the Bible, etc. So I was ready to write it off as no good for any reason and an utter waste of trees until I talked to some readers who saw right through the crappy history but just saw it as good fun, something not to take seriously at all. For that, it had value and is therefore not totally objectively bad.

      I guess my point is that objectively dreadful books will be forgotten, but won’t know which books those are until they’ve been forgotten.

  3. Jenny says:

    I know what you mean about the DaVinci Code, but I enjoyed it for what it was, a silly, mindless thriller with lots of clues to follow up. I think it’s not a very good book in terms of research or characterization or dialogue, but I still enjoyed reading it, even if I won’t need to reread. My mother and I had a big argument about DVC and “bad” books, her case being that if it kept you turning pages and wanting to know what would happen next, it wasn’t bad. I still can’t decide how I feel about it.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, It seems to me that a book can be bad on one level and good on another. DVC is a good example of that. Good for passing the time, bad for substantial reading nourishment.

  4. Steph says:

    Teresa, I love that you bring up the very real possibility that even if a book has fans, it can still be flawed. I mean, The Da Vinci Code has tons of fans, but it’s not what I would term quality literature, or even a very good book based on what I look for in most of my reading. I mean, Dan Brown is not a great writer. But obviously some people really enjoy what he does, but I tend to think that’s because they value different things when they pick up a book than I do. That’s not to say their perspective is invalid, but it also doesn’t mean that I can’t speak about what I find lacking in Brown’s works. I recently finished reading a book that I’ll be writing about in the next week or so that has a lot of fans in the book blogging world but which I found painfully underwhelming in practically everyway. I intend to say just that and point out all the ways in which I found the book to be less than stellar. I don’t mean for this to invalidate people’s opinions who have enjoyed the book, just to point out what I look for in a book and how I felt this one failed to deliver!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, I do get troubled when people act as if it’s wrong to point out the flaws in a well-liked book. I know there are plenty of books that I love that have real, identifiable flaws. Sometimes I was aware of them, sometimes I didn’t notice them.

  5. Study Window says:

    One of the ‘flaws’ that has most annoyed me over the past couple of years is the book that has been poorly edited. I wonder if it is just me being cynical, but it does seem that with some of the more well read authors there is a (publisher?)push to ensure that they get a new book out every year regardless of whether or not that book is ready to hit the shops. I can think of several instances recently where there have been plot flaws or grammatical confusions that should have been sorted out long before the book was published. This does no one any favours, least of all the authors.

    • Teresa says:

      SW, As an editor (at a magazine), I can be forgiving of the stray typo, as long as there aren’t tons, but some books probably do need a stronger hand than they’re getting. And I keep hearing that editors are being asked to do more in less time, like substantive editing and copyediting in one step, which rarely works out well. It doesn’t help either than anyone can hang out a shingle and call him/herself as editor and charge bottom-level rates and get work. And basic grammar isn’t being taught in schools anymore, so there are fewer people qualified for the work. Sigh.

  6. I’ve been talking about this recently with several people- my father and an artist friend of mine. My father, a former Air Force officer, was talking about writing as objective, and my friend and I talked about art as subjective, specifically in the area of constructive criticism. (For instance, I have a friend who writes contemporary fiction- while I’m going to listen to her about characterization and accessible worldbuilding for a fantasy novel, I might take her views on worldbuilding with a grain of salt.)

    I think it all boils down to the fact that art is subjective, as opposed to objective. I hate to sound deconstructionist, but in art, there are no wrong answers. I hate The Historian with a passion, while my brother loves it. He loves history, travel, and research, while I love structure and books that aren’t bloated.

    Still, you’re quite right in that we can point to certain books and go, “This is bad.” But these are books that usually very extreme in their badness, or fail at very basic things. (And I mean extreme; I’m still not sure why a book series that ends in werewolf pedophilia is wildly successful.)

    • Teresa says:

      Clare, Good points all. Books like The Historian, which I also disliked (well, I liked the first half and then lost all interest) certainly wouldn’t qualify in my mind as objectively bad. Flawed, maybe. Like you, I’d reserve such a strong judgment for extreme cases. But mostly I don’t read books that look likely to be such extreme cases, and I suspect most such books will disappear quickly.

  7. Iris says:

    Overall, I mostly believe in subjectivity. I know, that sounds weird probably and very post-modern, but I don’t believe there is an objective standard to judge books. And I think, like Ana said, it is hard, if not impossible, to simply state that a book is “outright bad” or anything like it.

    I have to agree with you that there might be things that can objectively be thought bad, such as style or grammar, but I wonder if that is what most books are judged on?

    Can I add that I loved your approach to the Da Vinci Code. It is very similar to mine. I respect people who enjoy it, but I can’t really handle people who think he owns the truth or the claim that he knows so much about his subject because he’s put a lot of research into it. His notion of gnosticism should be enough to proof that wrong.

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, Even though I took a rather objective stance in this post, I do believe in subjectivity, but only to a point. And I really think it takes time and the collective voices of the reading world to say something is outright bad. And as I said, those books will usually disappear in time.

      And thanks for your support of my DVC position. When it first came out, I knew lots of people who were really excited about the ideas in it, and it really frustrated me. But people who liked it for what it was and laughed off the “research”–no big deal, enjoy.

  8. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those books that aren’t deemed quality literature and, in some quarters, are thought “bad books” or simply badly written -The Da Vinci Code and Twilight of the world and even the less offensive that rankle some people, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries etc- are exactly those books that do keep us turning every page, that have us reading them like they are oxygen and we are starved of it, and that quality literature doesn’t have that same addictive quality but instead are books we savour for every perfect word and crafted prose.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler in recent months but both have been criticised for not being “literary” (I recognise it myself; their prose is compelling but it isn’t high literature). I don’t care; I love a good story, one that has me gripping the book and waiting to see how it ends but not wanting it to either…

    I wonder whether those who slam books for being “bad” are doing so -I hasten to add partly- because they feel guilty that they aren’t instead reading and enjoying (in the same hungry way) high literature. There is such a snobbery attached to young adult, cross-over fiction and genre fiction, when I like to say that I enjoy both those “lighter” reads and high literature for very different reasons, moods and times.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, Totally agree that not every book needs to be a masterpiece on every level to be worth reading. I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of books where the prose styling is, at best, serviceable. (Fledgling is an example.) That said, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the flaws in such books. I just try to be careful not to assume people who liked it are unsophisticated readers. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. The more interesting question to me is why did they like it.

  9. Gavin says:

    Teresa, thanks for extending this discussion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the more I read, the more recall this phrase. There are many, many books I want to read and not enough time to read them. My liking or disliking a book is completely subjective and I allow myself to put a book down unfinished if I am not enjoying it. If it is a book that has come highly recommended by a friend or trusted blogger I will give it 50 pages, then I am done. I read for the joy of it, for the story, for the weaving of words.

    I have struggled to read and write about books I didn’t like and find it difficult, stressful. There is enough stress in life, I do not need more. I am in awe of bloggers that write difficult reviews in a kind and compassionate way.

    I agree that there are books that are fatally flawed, poorly edited and poorly written. There is a driving force behind the publishing of these books, money. There are those who love these books. I cannot fault their choices.

    • Teresa says:

      Gavin, I completely understand why some choose not to write about books they don’t like. I enjoy doing it, not because I like being negative, but because it helps me sort out my thoughts.

      I’m getting better about giving up on books I don’t like, but I always worry that such books are going to turn around.

  10. amymckie says:

    Interesting post. I definitely agree with all that you’ve said. But at the same time, books with fatal flaws might bring someone else to reading so they’re not all bad. Or at least that is my thinking. I compare some of those mass markets to bad reality TV – possibly better than nothing, at least for some people!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point, Amy. If the latest disposable TV show tie-in book were to get my niece reading, for example, I’d be thrilled! Doesn’t make it a good book, but I guess it would have some value.

  11. Jeanne says:

    I do think there are some objective standards for good and bad, but that doesn’t mean that a bad book can’t be good for someone. If we go too far down the road of what makes a book “bad” we’ll arrive at the city of censorship, where we have to say that if a book is bad in any way, there are certain people (for The DaVinci Code, credulous and non-theologically educated people) who shouldn’t read it. And that’s bad…

    • Teresa says:

      Jeanne, That makes sense. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that a “bad” book shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t be read. However, I do think it’s important to express a desire for higher quality and to point out where maybe books fall short (like politely pointing to friends who believed in DVC that there were some errors of fact there).

  12. Kristen M. says:

    I wrote a negative review for a book (posting tomorrow) that I’m sure there is an audience for but it’s certainly not me. I am now considering going back into it and changing a few of the words I wrote to reflect this a bit better. It hit a nerve with me that others may not have.

    I certainly thought there were more books that were universally loved/hated before I joined the book blogging community! I was surprised to find the very wide variety in tastes.

    And I think that one place “bad” books surface is in the self-publishing world — simply because many of them couldn’t find a publisher that found value in them.

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen, So true about self-publishing. Plus, there’s the added problem that so many aren’t professionally edited and really need it. I’m sure there are plenty of good self-published books, but honestly, I can’t be bothered to weed through the rest to find them.

  13. farmlanebooks says:

    “Almost any book, even an incredibly good book, probably has some areas where it could improve”

    I really struggle with this concept. Sometimes I LOVE a book. It is so amazing that I can’t get it out of my head, but I can still see the flaws in it. I then question whether it really is a fantastic book. I can’t think of any book that doesn’t have a flaw in it somewhere, but a really good book should be able to overcome these flaws and create something so special that you become a bit blind to them. It is a bit like a relationship – you may know their feet smell or they are terrible at keeping things clean, but you can see past this and know that you really love the person anyway.

    • DKS says:

      Re. I can’t think of any book that doesn’t have a flaw in it somewhere …

      Randall Jarrell says something along those lines in his foreword to The Man Who Loved Children.

      “Ruskin says that anyone who expects perfection from a work of art knows nothing of works of art. This is an appealing sentence that, so far as I can see, is not true about a few pictures and statues and pieces of music, short stories and short poems. Whether or not you expect perfection from them, you get it; at least, there is nothing in them that you would want changed. But what Ruskin says is true about novels: anyone who expects perfection from even the greatest novels knows nothing of novels.”

      • Teresa says:

        Oh I like that quote, DKS. It reminds me of this from Ruskin:

        “while in all things that we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honorable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may surely enjoy the complacency of success.”

        So while perfection may be our goal, falling short of perfection need not be a failure.

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie, I like your relationship analogy. Even some of my favorite books have “smelly feet” moments, but the good stuff is so good it hardly matters. Just this week, for instance, I posted about the magnificence of Thomas Hardy, but even I will admit that naming a character “Little Father Time” was stupid. Didn’t mention it in my review though because I tend to forget about that when thinking of the book–so I am pretty much blind to unless someone mentions it.

      • DKS says:

        Re. So while perfection may be our goal …

        You reminded me of something, and for a while I couldn’t remember what it was, or who’d written it. It was this:

        “Some deficiency must be forgiven all, because all are men; and more must be allowed to pass uncensured in the greater part of the world, because none can confer upon himself abilities, and few have the choice of situations proper for the improvement of those which nature has bestowed: it is, however, reasonable to have perfection in our eye; that we may always advance towards it, though we know it can never be reached.”

        Samuel Johnson: The Adventurer, No. 85

  14. Aarti says:

    I must say I am with you. There are some books that I just deem to be BAD. And perhaps other people disagree, and I can understand that, but from MY perspective, they are bad. Just because they positively influence or drastically change someone else’s life doesn’t change my own opinion of them ;-)

    The easiest example that comes to my mind is Twilight. I am sure that Twilight works very well for some people and possibly changed their lives, but for me… I just couldn’t take it. I feel that Harry Potter (which I loved), The Da Vinci Code (which I did not) and even Jane Austen’s works provoke similar responses. I mean… the phrase “you either love it or you hate it” works here very well, as it works in many situations.

    I guess for me, I don’t think my thinking a book (or even a type of food) is “bad” inherently means that I don’t think ANYONE will like it. I don’t like cheese, either, but I know most people love it. That doesn’t make the experience of eating it any more pleasurable for me, or make me feel any better for suffering through a meal with it, knowing deep down that someone ELSE will enjoy the cheese. And the same goes for books, in my opinion. I don’t really care if someone else likes it, if *I* think it’s bad. Quite self-absorbed, I know, but there it is!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, I love that you own your dislike! But still you recognize that others may like where you don’t. I do like to pick apart why I don’t like something so I can see what others might value, but sometimes it just does come down to personal taste.

  15. Jeane says:

    I so like what you summed up. I feel the same way about books that end up getting negative reviews, and try hard to distinguish that when I write about them: was it a book that just didn’t appeal to me? one I read at the wrong time, (most often distracted), or just totally not what I expected? Minor flaws and a few typos I can overlook but sometimes the errors are just too much and get on my nerves. It makes me wonder where the editors are…

    Is it really true they don’t teach grammar anymore? I remember actually enjoying taking sentences apart, in school. It seems pretty important to me!

  16. Teresa says:

    Jeane, When I was studying to be an English teacher (in the early 90s) we were told not to explicitly teach grammar but to teach it in context of student work–so if we noticed subject/verb agreement problems, we would use that as a teachable moment and do a minilesson. Grammar textbooks and tests were discouraged. The trouble was that students often didn’t even know how to identify the subject and verb, so a 10-minute minilesson wouldn’t be adequate. It was a real struggle for me in my (mercifully short) teaching career. That was 15 years ago, so it may have changed some now, but I doubt it. (I work in education publishing now and still get to see some of the trends, and grammar is hardly ever mentioned.)

  17. Pingback: To read or not to read… « Culture and Cake Blog

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