Book Reviews and Readers’ Appetites

In real life, I am a librarian, a cataloguer. I work in the technical services department of a public library, so I see a lot of books. I also work with a lot of book-related cataloguing data. Occasionally something I see in the sloshing sea of books and data (“metadata” we call it these days, but that’s another story altogether), catches the attention of my reader self. Somehow I never seem to be attracted to the latest bestsellers — more likely the bestsellers of some years past, or even ‘worst-sellers’ that have been around for a while. I don’t really go looking for books to read.

Most often I read book reviews after I’ve read the book, seeking out the most convenient ones — on Amazon.com, rather than professional reviews in literary journals or even popular magazines and other reviewing sites. My purpose in doing so is simply to find out what other readers thought of the book in question before I finish with it — a sort of one-way conversation with a community of readers.

I avoid the five-star and one-star reviews, which are mainly uncritical cheerleading or condemnation. The four, three and even two-star reviews tend to be more thoughtful and interesting, demonstrating an interesting dynamic between “professional” reviews and ordinary readers. Take, for instance, the comments on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower. (All right, it’s not at all recent (1995), but the title attracted me, given my gardener’s predilection for blue flowers). This book won the Booker Prize and received glowing commendations in all sorts of media outlets.

Prizes and attention from literary celebrities are wonderful marketing tools for books. Note the proliferation of prizes, awards and medals in the past couple of decades, as books have become commodities. A lot of people, it seems, will buy a book because it’s an award winner (everyone loves a winner) or because it has Oprah’s seal of approval. Not surprisingly, folks who do this expect the book to be a good read. They open it expecting to be entertained, their appetite whetted by the incandescent prose of enthusiastic endorsements.

Often, it seems, the book fails to live up to the reader’s expectations. Many who found The Blue Flower disappointing said, in their own reviews on Amazon, that they bought the book because of the prize and the reviews, but did not expect to find it so challenging. Entertainment, you see, should not be challenging, or require any mental effort on the part of the entertainee.  Laura Miller, commenting on Salon.com, notes that readers value something they call “flow,” which is not generally evaluated by professional reviewers. Writing that flows, says Miller, can be consumed quickly and effortlessly in part because it uses familiar phrases (i.e. cliches) that don’t get in the way of finding out how the story ends. So is flowing prose merely the equivalent of processed food, pap for the uncritical mind?

But back to The Blue Flower (which I actually enjoyed). One three-star reviewer’s comment seems particularly apt. He or she described it as “a novel for other writers to admire [rather] than a book to really enjoy.” What got in the way of many readers’ enjoyment of this book was a certain detachment from the characters which prevented readers from really caring about them, the frequency of untranslated German words and phrases, and what some identified as a consciously awkward style, as though the novel was a bad translation, presumably from German.

Some would say this simply demonstrates that there are literary readers and nonliterary readers. The former appreciate the subtleties and nuances in a book such as The Blue Flower; the latter find them obscure or tedious and prefer a fast, plot-driven read such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

But here is another idea, expressed in a recent posting to the Preservation & Conservation Administration News by Kevin Driedger. Commenting on the inherent impermanence of all things, including books, Driedger opines that books are merely vehicles for text. And about text, Driedger has a really interesting idea: “The meaning of a text,” he says, “does not reside in the text itself, or with the author and the author’s intent, but the meaning of a text is created by a community of readers as it interacts with the text.” The community of readers, its values and purposes, is always changing. Therefore so is the meaning of the texts with which it interacts.

Now that any reader can express their opinion about a book for all to see, the interaction of readers with texts is far more visible than it used to be. What is the effect, then, of thousands of readers who say that a literary novel such as The Blue Flower is obscure and boring, and thousands more who say that it is wonderful, subtle and revealing? Or, conversely, the zillions (well, 1,600) of 5-star raves in favour of The Da Vinci Code? Are the borders between literary and popular fiction breaking down at last?

And what does this mean for the anxious, as-yet-unpublished writer, brooding over his or her precious manuscript, determined to hone it into something that will cut through the defenses of jaded editors? There are so many rules for writers, stated in uncompromising terms: you must show, not tell. You must introduce conflict on the first page. You must plant a ‘hook’ in the first paragraph. You must avoid words ending with ‘ly.’ Well, I see books — real, published books — that break these rules splendidly. (I have been told that once you have been admitted into the fold of Published Authors you can break the rules; it’s only those who labour in the outer darkness that need to observe them — slavishly).

Write something interesting. Write it from your heart, revise it, ask a few trusted and thoughtful people to read it, revise yet again. Then get your text out there by whatever means you find practicable, and let the community of readers interact with it, each in their own way.

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