Last week, when I wrote about gender and genre, I had every intention of writing about the question of quality. I was at the time frustrated at how people were dismissively declaring Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s books as “crap” without convincing me that they had read them—and without seeming to take into account what these authors’ books intended to do. As it turns out, the question of the gender divide interested me more than I thought, so my post went in a different direction than I expected, but the initial question I had in my mind hasn’t left me.
One of my favorite film critics is Roger Ebert. One of the things I love about Ebert is that he genuinely loves movies, all kinds of movies. He’s just as likely to give a rave to a massive commercial blockbuster as to an esoteric foreign film. But he doesn’t just hand out praise thoughtlessly. When a film fails, he says it. But the important thing is that he seems to take into account what the film intends to do. And he reviews all kinds of films, which is extremely helpful when I’m trying to decide whether the blockbuster of the moment is worth seeing or when I’m looking to see something a bit off the beaten track.
(On a side note, the fact that I always read reviews of blockbuster films before deciding to see them leads me to think that more printed reviews of blockbuster books would not be a bad thing, but then I don’t see reviews as being about promoting certain books as much as about helping readers separate the wheat from the chaff. I am realizing that this is not necessarily the majority view, either among print reviewers or among bloggers.)
There are lots of things I look for in a book. I want well-drawn characters, well-crafted prose, readability, a compelling story, interesting themes, emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, humor, excitement, new ideas, the comfort of the familiar, and so on. The thing is, not every book is going to have all of these things. Not every book attempts to. Before writing a book off as crap, perhaps it’s a good idea to ask what the book is attempting to do. Let’s not fault a romantic comedy for not being War and Peace.
Certainly, some of these qualities are more important than others, but the importance of each of these qualities will often vary from book to book and from reader to reader. Some people simply can’t get into a book with prose that never rises above the workmanlike level. If the story, characters, or themes interest me enough, I don’t mind uninspired language, as long as it isn’t outright poor. This is a difference in personal taste. And that’s okay. We all have our preferences, but a book that doesn’t meet all our personal preferences is not necessarily crap. It may be a very good book in its way. And one way of being good is not automatically superior to other ways of being good. Yes, the best thing is to be good in many ways—that, in fact, is what makes a good book into a great book.
To conclude, let me direct you to this great post at The Egalitarian Bookworm, which says a lot of what I’m thinking, but better than I could say it.
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Mirage by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
- Half Magic by Edward Eager (audio).
- The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (reread).
- What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. (Book to be published October 19, so I’m holding my review until closer to that date.)
- The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass.
- My Invented Country by Isabel Allende (audio)
On My Radar