The doubtful reader

by nike, December 2, 2012

As a reader, I’m fairly hard to please. I never used to be. As a small child I would happily read cereal boxes, ticket stubs, IKEA instructions. But, these days, my tastes have changed.

Lately, I’ve read some amazing books, including Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders (based on his Massey Lectures), and Cate Kennedy’s poetry collection The Taste of River Water.

But I’ve also read some dreadful books. Which is ok – dreadful books get published all the time. I don’t know how or why. I hope that they get published because a publisher sees that they can make some money out of the book, rather than because they’re confused about what constitutes good writing.

And I must say, here, that I have a fairly liberal view of ‘good writing’. For me, its useful to assess the quality of a work from within its own ambitions and place in the market. A good romance novel does not have the same qualities (or criteria for success) as a good crime novel, or a good children’s book. Just as the criteria for a good screwdriver are different to the criteria for a good shifter. They’re both tools, but they’re wildly different objects made for wildly different purposes.

That said, what I do find confusing is when I read glowing reviews of a work that is, quite frankly, dreadful. I doubt myself as a reader. I wonder how the reviewer could have had such a different experience of the work. I read these reviews over and again, trying to understand. I take their opinions back to the book, hold them up side by side (so to speak) and try to see what they saw in the work. Sometimes, this works. I come to understand that the work does have admirable qualities that I overlooked, or (more frequently) that the reviewer’s personal, implied criteria for a ‘good’ book differ from my own.

But sometimes … sometimes I wonder what on earth the reviewer was reading. Or drinking while they were reading.

Recently, for example, I read a review of a book that sounded amazing. Original, insightful, creative and well-written. And then I read the book. Well-written! The book has some redeeming features – almost all books do – but the writing! Oh, the writing is cringeworthy. I had to read it in a kind of squinting manner, trying to see past the sentences to the characters and story. I was not successful. Who (other than the unnamed reviewer) can see through similes as overblown, and mixed, and awkward as:

The second floor hallway and apartments filled with the stench of unresolved thoughts and feelings, resentments bubbling away like stew, tumbling inside heads, becoming smooth and rounded like a brick in a concrete mixer.

or, perhaps one as silly as the following:

They returned home to a town full of hope and optimism, chilling itself like a chocolate mousse, ready for winter.

I could go on. The confusion generated by the disjunct between my own response to the book and the reviewer’s sent me tunnelling into the work, desperately seeking what they saw. The grace, the insight, the elegance of the prose. But I failed.

As a reader, I accept that we cannot and do not all like the same books. Why should we? Taste, after all, does come into it. But, as a reader, I suppose I’m old-fashioned. I can’t accept that there aren’t some bedrock criterion for good writing. Buggered if I know what those criterion would be, of course, but there must be some. Surely. Or … no.

Perhaps there are only books, and readers, and the strange magic that occurs when a book and a reader find each other. And find they are meant for each other. And fall for each other, blindly, ignoring hammer toes and facial tics and the literary leaving up of the toilet seat. None of it matters, after all, no embarrassing release of a gaseous metaphor will dampen the enthusiasm of the reader. In fact, they may smile adoringly at the loved one’s every faltering. At the intimacy revealed by such shared awkwardness. They may even defend it as beautiful, charming. (I had a friend once who adored her lover’s farts. The simple joy with which her lover released them. Always in sets of threes, followed by a deep blush. She tried to convince her lover to allow her to record their musical emission and use it as a ringtone)

Still, here I am with this book I cannot love. And the review which glows. And the disparity between these two responses fills me with doubt. About the book, about the reviewer, about myself as a reader, about the publishing industry, about where we are all headed – you, me and the books – about whether the literary trade has lost its way. Whether publishers, reviewers, readers – all of us – have forgotten how to tell what is good, and what is not. Or at least no longer have a shared vocabulary for appreciation. A shared sense of what constitutes a good sentence, a good story.

Did we ever, I wonder, or is that just some embarrassingly nostalgic romanticism? Perhaps we will never be able to agree. Perhaps we never have agreed on what is good, or true, or right. On what books are for. Or how they are weighed in the secret scales of the literary heart.



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    • December 6, 2012

    It's nice to hear this from another person, and so wonderfully written and explained. I thought for years that I truly did not understand the true beauty of writing when I kept coming across similar situations to the one you have described.

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    • December 9, 2012

    Hi Neen, I'm glad to find someone who shares some of my views on this. It's something that creeps up and worries me each time I read the weekend papers! I'd love to find out more about you think the criteria for good writing really are :)

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    • December 14, 2012

    Hi Nike, Hmmmm I will have to think about that one. Perhaps I can email you in the next week or so (gives me enough chance to sit down and think about it with all the christmas/family jazz going on right now)?

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