Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Reading: Good Books

I mentioned in my last post that sometimes "good" is a subjective term when it comes to books, because everyone's tastes are so different.  Critics and reviewers can give readers guidelines and their opinions, certainly, but often public opinions vary greatly from those of the critics, and this "at-odds" works in both directions.  By that, I mean that if something garners critical praise and even wins awards, readers may not embrace it, and alternately, critics may be ambivalent about or even pan a book, and yet it wins great praise from readers or simply plenty of hype.

Take three of 2012's big titles: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and NW by Zadie Smith.  All were extremely well written, and received (by and large) lots of publicity (mostly good) and critical praise.  And yet?  Readers I have spoken with are a 50/50 split on all three titles, with little room for "gray area".  Gone Girl?  Was either a great twist on the modern thriller or off-putting with unlikeable characters.  The Casual Vacancy was either a brilliant dark comedy or just plain dark.  And NW was either unique, fresh and honest or confusing and weird. 

Why so much dissension surrounding these titles?  Well, I think a lot of it has to do with who we are as readers and what we expect when we open a book.  If Gillian Flynn's novel is being touted as an "impressive and ingenious thriller", a reader used to the average thriller may find themselves uncomfortable with Flynn's disregard for typical thriller plot-line and formula, or put off by her difficult, disturbed and disturbing characters.  Likewise, readers have years of Harry Potter titles which have created an expectation among readers as to what J.K. Rowling's work and style is like.  So those taking the "dark comedy" moniker of The Casual Vacancy with a grain of salt might well be in for quite a shock.  Dark comedy really is not for everyone, no matter who is writing it.  And Zadie Smith, who is particularly well known for books With Teeth and On Beauty, provided readers with a distinctly non-linear series of interconnecting characters and stories, which could be jarring to those with different expectations.

If a book succeeds or fails, is good or bad, based at least in part on what a reader expects of it, if anything, is there such a thing as a bad book?  In this, I am going to go ahead and say...yes.  Poorly written, poorly plotted, one-dimensional characters or, my pet peeve, characters who suddenly start behaving in a completely different manner for no apparent reason--all of these things can make for an unsatisfying read.  The one that comes to mind from this past year, I'm afraid, is Fifty Shades of Grey.  Sure, it got a ton of hype, mostly because of its subject matter.  But I have to raise an eyebrow if anyone tries to tell me that it's the best book ever, that they loved it and it's their favorite book of all time.  Because seriously, it was self-published and could have used a number of rounds with an editor before it hit the market.  There are some great self-published books out there, don't get me wrong, especially now with Amazon's e-book market booming.  Fifty Shades, however, just isn't one of them. 

What do you think?  What makes a book good, in your opinion?  Any examples you'd like to share?

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