Friday Fragments: Touchy Subjects

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had various ideas for blog posts that I’ve decided not to write. People have mentioned that Romancelandia (and the wider online Bookuniverse) seems extra sensitive and reactive these days. I count myself in this group. I worried both that these potential posts might offend people, and that I was writing them out of defensiveness rather than a desire to start a conversation. I think it’s time to back away slowly from discussion of bookish community relations for a while, and just talk about books. Less social, more reading. [No one incident prompted these comments, and I really don’t want to provide a forum for dissecting any one incident, either.]

Two things that happened to me this week that reflect the current mood:

1. A Goodreads friend contacted me because someone had contacted her to say a review of mine appeared to have the wrong star rating. It obviously did. I said in the body of the review that I wavered between four and five stars, but the rating was one star. (I’m sure that wasn’t true originally; I probably touched the wrong spot on my iPad screen one day). I fixed it.

Of course I’m not sure why the person didn’t just point out the discrepancy in a comment on the review. But I suspect she was worried about how I would react or that I’d perceive it as a challenge to my right to review as I saw fit. I think a lot of readers, authors, and reviewers feel we’re walking on eggshells these days, afraid of being misunderstood.

2. Today, I read a review that began this way:

People who make fun of romance novels assume that all of them are like this one. [It] . . . features purple prose galore, a club full of heroes with ridiculous nicknames (and the one in this book is a total ass), no plot to speak of, and the most unintentionally hilarious ending I’ve seen in quite some time – or maybe ever. In my house we are fond of quoting Jane from Pride and Prejudice; when someone can’t understand the appeal of something, someone else will say, “You do not allow for differences in situation and temperament.” I can’t imagine the situation or temperament that would enjoy this book.

I really enjoyed the review; it had a strong voice, was not gratuitously mean, and made clear why the reviewer thought the book was bad. The opening shows that the reviewer’s general attitude is “tastes differ, and I respect that,” but that she’s really unsure how this book could be to anyone’s taste.

For me, that paragraph doesn’t cross the line into reader-shaming. I found myself wondering, though, whether one of the readers who gave this book four or five stars on Goodreads (and there are such readers) would feel the same way. This question wouldn’t even have crossed my mind a year ago. And it’s not bad that I’ve learned to avoid denigrating others for their tastes. But I also believe we can go too far in being sensitive to reader-shaming. One of the things that first drew me to Romancelandia was the strong critical–by which I mean thoughtful, not negative–culture and, yes, the occasional snark.

Coming from an academic background, I regard statements like “it’s just my opinion” and “your mileage may vary” as redundant in an argument. I tell my students not to use them in writing, because obviously an argument states their opinion. I like reading strongly worded opinions. They make for lively discussion. While I don’t think it’s cool to say “if you like this you’re an idiot,” I’d rather a few feathers be ruffled by a forceful opinion than that reviewers pull their punches or qualify every statement. If you think a book is terrible, say why. If others disagree, they can ignore you, think you’re an idiot, or come explain their point of view. That’s what critical discourse is all about. Of course, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

In this moment of sensitive crankiness (I refer here to myself) I’ve found comfort in old favorites and books no one else I know is talking about. I re-read Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, which was my favorite of the Carsington books. I’m kind of surprised at that. Generally, I’m not fond of books that are viewed as “the hero’s book.” If fans talk mainly about how awesome/hot the hero is, I’m out. I like an equally-interesting, well-matched couple. As the title suggests, this is really Rupert’s book. Heroine Daphne, the bookish widow finally able to pursue her scholarly ambitions, who’s been taught her passions aren’t appropriate but learns otherwise from Rupert, is a fairly conventional romance-novel type. Rupert is less so, and he’s a big part of the book’s charm.

I never find him a convincingly stupid character, even when it comes to book smarts, and that’s perhaps a weakness of the book, as he’s supposed to be. But I did notice that he’s a master of what today we’d call emotional intelligence, something that’s seen as more typically feminine. He reads Daphne’s moods perfectly and finds subtle ways to distract and cheer her. I really enjoyed that, because so often in romance fiction the “emotional work” is, very conventionally, the purview of the heroine.

While I read this, I was listening to Elizabeth Peters’s Crocodile on the Sandbank, one of my most favorite books ever, and I realized I like Chase’s book in part because the Egyptian setting and adventure plot remind me a bit of Crocodile. There’s a hint of Middlemarch‘s Dorothea in Daphne, too. A favorite partly because of links to other favorites.

At the moment, I’m reading Victoria Holt’s The India Fan, the opening of which, with its half-remembered, half-understood childhood scenes, reminds me of many Victorian novels. I also just started Zadie Smith’s NW. I really love her debut novel, White Teeth, which I’ve taught a couple of times with great success. I’m listening to E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, an Edwardian mystery classic. One thing’s for sure: I won’t encounter any of these authors on social media, and for that, this week, I’m grateful.

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35 Responses to Friday Fragments: Touchy Subjects

  1. i am currently re-reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (for an upcoming panel discussion), and am still amazed by how good it is; in fact, I am appreciating even more things about it with the re-read. I hadn’t realized how much my review/preview reading had begun to feel like an obligation until recently, when I had a large batch. It didn’t matter that I was enjoying the reading, it was just that my choices of what to read next were narrowed. The Butler re-read, and my reading of The Captive Prince, are making me really happy right now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love re-reading. It can be familiar and comforting, but partly because of that I always notice something new–the big picture of plot and characters I already understand, so I can pay more attention to nuances. And it’s usually something I do just to give me pleasure, without any sense of obligation to anyone or anything.

  2. lazaraspaste says:

    I have reached supersaturation levels with the word “shame”. Every time anyone uses the word, I exit the conversation because I know what’s coming. I have same feelings about the word “privilege”. I don’t think I’ve heard/read a discussion around “shaming” or “privilege” in the last year that hasn’t immediately degenerated into a “No, you” “No, you” sort of argument, which is sad. I find it emotionally exhausting.

    I’ve also completely stopped reading unless I have to for class. And even then . . .

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yeah. I think these issues are important, but we seem to be at a point where certain words are like Pavlov’s bell. People (and I count myself) respond according to a fixed script and we don’t have any new or productive conversations. Hence, backing away slowly.

      You know, the other day I was trying to remember what kind of books *I* read and loved as a “new adult.” And I realized that it was so hard to think not just because that was a long time ago, but because I was in college and grad school during those years and I did almost no pleasure reading. I read a ton of 19th century British novels (many of which I did enjoy, but still) and French theory, for the most part. And for the rare pleasure read, mostly mystery. The only books I can remember discovering and absolutely adoring in those years are Byatt’s Possession and the above-mentioned Crocodile on the Sandbank. So you have my deepest, deepest sympathy.

      • Ros says:

        When I was a student, I had just discovered Heyer. The books were in the middle of a reprint, so I had the deeply enjoyable experience of searching them out in second hand shops and occasionally finding a new one on the shelves of the bookshops.

      • lazaraspaste says:

        It’s pervasive in the culture. Probably it has to do with being in the middle of a massive, widespread paradigm shift in all areas of human life. I keep thinking we are at the high water mark of this and that surely everyone (me included) will calm down. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.

        Thanks. I was assured at PCA this year that the desire to read and the pleasure in reading returns. Alas, I do not know if I believe this.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          For me it was a year after filing dissertation, when I sat nursing a newborn and reading piles and piles of paperbacks. Sleeplessness disconnected the analytical parts of my brain and I just enjoyed. I don’t think giving birth is strictly necessary for the recovery of pleasure-reading, though.

    • It can be awfully difficult to read for pleasure when you’re reading so much for analytical purposes. I wasn’t in a humanities field so I didn’t have the busman’s holiday problem, luckily for me. I read in a lot of different genres and I picked according to what seemed to fit my attention and context. Sometimes it was a Signet Victorian/Edwardian trad by Mary Anne Gibbs, sometimes it was Henry James, sometimes it was Martin Amis. But in some ways it was a lot easier then because it was just me and the library and the UBS. No virtual community, no book club, no social media to make me feel as if I should be reading the new new thing (in terms of relaxation reading; plenty of pressure to keep up with the literary new new thing).

      You’ll come back to pleasure reading, and it’s always there waiting for you.

  3. TheHusband taught the Invisible Knapsack paper (the original, longer one) in a class this semester, and on rereading it I was struck by how different her use of privilege is from the way it gets invoked these days (not just in the recent kerfuffles, but more generally). In the paper McIntosh is focused entirely on understanding and managing her own privilege, whereas in so many discussions now it becomes directed at someone else. People still use it in the original sense, but there’s an awful lot of lobbing it at others.

    I think that reader shaming is bound up with the emphasis on emotional reading that seems so prevalent right now, at least it does to me. Romance is the genre that seems to depend the most directly on an emotional connection for the reader, and while I used to feel comfortable arguing about books, now I feel as if I might seem to be attacking the legitimacy of the emotional response, rather than just putting forth a different perspective. In the two books you talked about in your last two posts, you and a couple of other commenters talked about the emotions you felt. It was harder for me to comment from a different perspective because I didn’t want to diminish or denigrate your pleasure in the books. And this is when I KNOW you are interested in hearing disparate points of view. It’s almost impossible in conversations where I have less certainty about that. Even introducing facts sometimes seems unwelcome. It’s very disheartening.

    To end on an upbeat note: like Victoria I’m finding that reading for review can turn pleasure reading into an obligation, but I have three books on deck and I know they’ll all be interesting and worthwhile, regardless of where I come down on them in the end.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      When I talked about the Ruthie Knox novella I was thinking about this whole issue of emotional reading. I realized that my initial, primary response was emotional–because it spoke to some of my experiences, it moved me. I also think it’s a good book if I step back and look at it more objectively, but I did have issues with it, when I stopped to think. I didn’t write a proper review of it precisely because I didn’t really want to *think* about it, but just enjoy my response (that doesn’t happen to me often). But at the same time, I realize that might make someone more hesitant to disagree or offer a different perspective. Maybe when I want that experience, I should just remain publicly silent about having read the book.

      With Eleanor & Park, I was interested in thinking about how the book overcame my (emotional?) resistance to the type of story it tells. I read a really good, quite critical review of it this week; I didn’t agree with everything that reader said, but some of her points made me reconsider my own response to the book. In that case, I was less wed to just enjoying my emotional response.

      • No, no, you shouldn’t remain silent! That’s the last thing you should do. Those are the moments when you share your pleasurable feelings with others who feel the same way. And I know that if I *had* commented, you would have engaged me. I just didn’t want to spoil the mood, because we don’t seem to be having many good ones these days.

        I didn’t mean to make it sound as if you were contributing to the inhibiting context, I’m sorry that it came out that way (I meant when you can’t even introduce factual information, THAT is disheartening). I meant more that in an atmosphere where emotions are getting stomped on, I enjoyed reading what you guys were saying even though I didn’t share it and I didn’t want to turn the conversation into something different.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          The feeling that a different perspective could “spoil the mood” is what makes me saddest right now. A variety of perspectives is what I love about book discussion! And yet at the same time, I find that I myself am feeling extra impatient with people who have a different perspective on bookish subjects than I do. (“Can’t you *just see* that blah blah blah?! Jeez!”). I am sure these moments have happened before, and that this too shall pass. At least I hope so.

  4. Ridley says:

    I think this is just a contentious time for women and that’s carrying over into our book discussions. I’ve never heard “rape culture” as often as I have in the past year, yet women’s reproductive choices are under attack in the US at the same time. Some women likely want to disappear into some escapist fiction and wish everyone would just shut the fuck up about the kyriarchal implications of what they enjoy. Other women want to tackle romance from a social justice perspective and agitate for change.

    Neither approach is any more right or wrong than the other, but there isn’t any real way for these camps to play nice with each other. Now add in blogs that don’t claim to be one or the other, and you have your fireworks.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is a good point. I think also sometimes people get tired of feeling that they “should” (or are being told they should) examine everything, even their leisure pursuits and most intimate lives, from a political point of view.

      Part of it is that romance fiction so often seems to get equated with our private fantasies–as Sunita says above, it might be the genre where people’s emotional connections to characters and situations are most important and are most often invoked. Given that kind of conversation, it can be hard to separate “you” from what you read.

      That’s always kind of bugged me. A book is a cultural product. It is the conscious work of its author (however unconscious some of what motivates it may be). Sure, there’s a fantasy element to romance fiction, and it may reflect or inspire our private sexual fantasies, but it’s not a sexual fantasy of either the author’s or the reader’s just plopped on a page. And yet, sometimes that’s how we talk and feel (me too), which makes critical conversations very difficult. I actually really don’t want to know if some stranger online had to go find her husband/boyfriend/vibrator after reading X book. Go tell your girlfriends over coffee. (oops, I got way off topic and my cranky is showing!)

  5. cecilia250 says:

    I really struggle with the whole “shame” conversation, because (to put it bluntly) a few of the books I read do seem like a total waste of attention. It doesn’t resonate at all for me when people declare we should all be proud to read whatever we want to read. There are some authors whose work I enjoy and admire, but with others, even if I enjoy them, I can’t defend my choice to occupy my brain with them. I tell few friends about what I read the most, and even then, only about a narrow range of books. I know I’m not supposed to think like that, so I don’t usually like to put in my negative 2-cents’ worth. But today, I just feel like putting that out there.

    I’m not invested in what other people like, and I definitely wouldn’t think to scold someone for her tastes. Like Sunita mentioned, the emotional response to the books is often significant – for me, as well as for others. At the same time, too many of the books I read don’t seem particularly well-written or interesting to me as an experienced reader, and I just can’t see myself openly reading them.

    On another topic you raise, what I liked as a “new adult” was a lot of mystery – Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, P. D. James, Martha Grimes – and assorted other writers (Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume and Byatt’s Possession stand out as ones I know I read and loved in those days). Plus I quite liked or loved a lot of the assigned readings in university. I don’t think I would have been drawn to NA at all.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have liked some awful TV. Wooden acting, cheap production values, cliched script. And some pretty bad books, though that’s harder for me. That enjoyment is all about emotional response. I’m not ashamed of it exactly, but I am also not bothered if other people say it’s awful. I think I don’t advertise these tastes partly because they are purely personal. If your buttons aren’t the same as mine, there’s nothing to enjoy, while a well-crafted show/book/film can be enjoyed on many levels. Recognizing the badness doesn’t negate my emotional response.

      I don’t think new adult would have appealed to me at that age, either. I do think there’s a dearth of books with protagonists in their late teens/early 20s. I can think of coming-of-age books written for adults with child/teen protagonists, but few with college/post-college ones. (In college my friends and I all read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. That would probably count). NA is one of those topics I’m backing away from, but as far as I can see, the only books being marketed with that label right now are contemporary romances, many of which seem to have similar tropes (there are a lot of dark secrets and forbidden loves in the blurbs I read; that doesn’t make them all the same, but it seems like for the most part these stories cover the range of a line like Harlequin Presents, rather than the range of YA, which is an audience category and includes all genres). I would love to see more books of all kinds with characters in that age range, and maybe a marketing label helps with that. On the other hand, further segmenting of books seems disheartening in some ways. Will I have to look for “middle-aged soccer mom” fiction?

  6. sonomalass says:

    My favorite books with characters in the “NA” range are Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, about a group of university students recruited to save the world in an archetypal mythos. I first read it in my 30s, and it’s a favorite re-read (as is Kay generally). His treatment of their age/experience is spot on, and it’s integral to the tension of the plot, as each of the young people is called upon to recognize and fulfill an adult destiny. It’s more complex and nuanced than my childhood favorite, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander.

    On the issue of shame and emotional reading, I find that women in particular are subject to that bifurcation between what pleases us and what we’re proud of in our leisure activity. My aunt used to talk about her “trashy books” and “trashy shows” even as she spent hours on them — I always saw it as a way of deflecting criticism, as if acknowledging that this was “trashy” entertainment would keep others from criticizing her taste. Lots of us do a similar thing — we have our “guilty pleasure” or our “vegging out” books and TV shows. The men I know don’t really do that — they watch sports or hours TV shows with a range of production values, and they never call it “trash,” denigrate it or seem to be apologetic or ashamed of the amount of their leisure time so spent. I haven’t gotten my head around this yet as far as what it means, beyond wondering if Fornes’s ideas about the value of “women’s work” apply also to “women’s leisure activity,” nor am I prepared to state that ALL men or ALL women do ANYTHING. But it’s a pattern of expression that intrigues me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love Prydain; I must add that Kay to my list.

      I love when you come in with the communication perspective. That’s a very, very good point about the gendering of this language. No one in my house has ever said “Time for the trashy soccer game.” Of course, as we all know, the culture at large denigrates women’s entertainment choices far more than men’s. It might be partly the fact that women’s choices of “trashy” shows are often about the emotional and domestic (reality TV, soaps) and that’s so often denigrated. But watching sports is also a form of emotional catharsis (I always joke than even if I am not watching a game I know exactly what’s happening from the noises in the basement). And why is it any more of a “guilty” pleasure to watch people acting than to watch people playing a game? It’s a mystery.

      I did have my conversation with my husband recently where he said he had not read a “real book” in about a year and maybe he should fix that. So he might regard his comics reading as a bit of a guilty pleasure at times, even though, ironically, it has provided a whole new direction for his career and he’s been presenting on it at academic conferences, etc.

  7. To be blunt, I never realized there was supposed to be some type of shame attached to reading choices within the romance genre until blogs began turning a critical lens on the genre. I didn’t discover romance novels until I was a “New Adult” because my mom considered the genre a bad influence on her formative years. When I did begin reading romances and sites like All About Romance, it was like Pandora’s Box had opened–not only were there tons and tons of these wonderful books, but tons and tons of wonderful romance readers with whom to discuss the genre. Most of my earliest discoveries were those “bodice rippers” everyone now poo-poohs, and I still love some of those wild, OTT books. And really, because I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum and been considered weird and strange even by my own family members, I’ve never understood the concept of the “guilty pleasure”–if I like it it’s because it speaks to me on some or multiple levels.

    This is not to say I don’t enjoy the meaty, thorough, and textured discussions of the genre, nor do I want to get rid of the critiques, but I feel it has begun to box the genre into “This is Good Romance You Should Be Reading” and “This is Bad Romance You Should Feel Ashamed of Loving”. I see this overlap of the academic critique and pleasure reading/reviewing space play out in the incredulity at Dear Author reviewing and featuring more New Adult romance and “cracktastic” reads over books that come “from us” (aka romance writers who travel the traditional road of producing romance novels–both in content and publication method). However, this could also be a manifestation of Romancelandia’s fragmentation as YA continues to dominate reading choices and self-publishing has turned how we read and what we read on its head (not to mention the Fifty Shades phenomenon). And maybe the unease and touchiness is because that loose but tight-knit connection between romance authors, book bloggers, readers, review sites, et al is changing and we’re trying to find our footing even as we wish things would remain the same.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think this is one of those areas where if you don’t already feel some shame, nothing some idiot writes about romance & its readers will make you feel shame. Though it might piss you off.

      I’d agree that things are shifting rapidly in the genre right now, and that probably people having their certainties and sense of kinship with others shaken is causing some of the tetchiness.

  8. Merrian says:

    It’s interesting to me that when I think of romance genre reading and shame it seems to fall into two areas:
    1. External/non-romance reader views about romance reading and readers is my first experience of shaming and I do hate how I can fall into a defensive stance when talking about my reading and often use the existence of the blogging and reviewing community for a seeming justification of my reading – look all the bright, clever and passionate women reading and talking about romance novels…. which is about my internalised shame needing justification for my choices.
    2. The internal to the community of romance genre readers shaming is a more muddled thing for me. I think Ridley’s comment above sums up the tensions really well. Except I would add that for me, it feel’s shaming to be told there isn’t an acceptable place to think and talk analytically about my reading in romancelandia because it is spoiling the experience for others. That feels like being silenced, that other peoples experiences are more important than mine and also more normative.

    I don’t weigh romance genre books into good or bad for you. I read emotionally just as much as I do analytically which is also why I am seldom moved to write a Goodreads review. Sometimes it is that I don’t care enough, other times I don’t want to be that analytical reader. But I do think there is no way of divorcing what we read from the world around us and as Evangeline and Ridley point out this is a time of great change and tension which to me makes ‘escape’ not really possible because what is present and/or not represented in our stories is always about our everyday world.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wouldn’t say I feel shamed, but I do sometimes feel unwelcome or like a spoilsport. That’s part of my own touchy defensiveness right now. I find myself thinking, “Why can’t I just shut up and enjoy reading?!” and have to remind myself that this IS how I enjoy reading. It’s just as valid as any other form of enjoyment. Perhaps that’s ultimately where my post is coming from–the fear that Romanceland is going to become a place where I won’t feel welcome anymore, where my way of reading is seen as less good than love of the “cracktastic.” I don’t begrudge people their enjoyment, so it bothers me to hear things like “analysis kills a book.”

  9. SonomaLass says:

    Many readers have things they can overlook in a book that other readers can’t, and it’s hard for me to apply any objective criteria to those feelings. For some it’s historical accuracy, for others it’s a standard of prose — some people would even put basic correct English usage and decent proofreading on this list, simply because there are so many readers who aren’t bothered by those things. The people with the “highest” standards and narrowest tastes seem to me to be perpetually disappointed and cranky about their reading, often because they find something they can’t get past in a book that plenty of other readers have enjoyed. I think a lot of readers would be happier if there were MORE negative reviewing, more identification of what (if anything) you need to be able to overlook to enjoy a particular book. Kind of like a milder version of “trigger warnings” over content, although those are much more important because of the level of trauma we’re talking about. (I am not, nor would I ever, compare a sensitivity to historical inaccuracy to a sensitivity to sexual or violent content.)

    I guess I’m lucky not to have seen much of the negative response on line to analysis and in-depth (academic style) criticism. Indeed, long and deep reviews (often accompanied by a middling grade) seem to generate thoughtful and interesting comments. But I know what you mean, and I am sure there’s more of it out there than I’ve seen, mostly because I tend not to bother with reviews or discussions of books that others deem “cracktastic” (I hate that term but don’t have another one handy) if a quick look at the description tells me this isn’t a book I’m likely to enjoy. (When I dropped my literature minor in college, I told my advisor it was because life was too short to read fiction I didn’t like.)

    Ridley makes a good point about the tension between escapist reading and analytical reading — there are certainly readers who only do one of the two, and others who do both but not with the same books. And then there’s bringing both ways of reading to the same book: I think that’s part of what Robin’s getting at in her more recent DA opinion piece, which I can’t quote or reference in more detail because for some reason it won’t load for me tonight. But there’s something about tension within ourselves as readers when analytically considering material to which we have responded emotionally. If I enjoy the experience of reading a book, and then my analysis shows me that it is misogynistic or historically inaccurate or has problematic messages or whatever, then don’t I have to get into why that didn’t stop me from enjoying it? And is that going to be awkward or what?

    If analytical voices start to feel unwelcome in certain online spaces, I expect they will shift to occupy new spaces, hosted by people who make clear that they welcome analysis and not frequented by readers who aren’t interested in that approach. And who knows, maybe some of us will get back to our own blogs to express our thoughts, rather than leaving LOOONG comments on the blogs of our less lazy friends.

    • Las says:

      “If I enjoy the experience of reading a book, and then my analysis shows me that it is misogynistic or historically inaccurate or has problematic messages or whatever, then don’t I have to get into why that didn’t stop me from enjoying it? And is that going to be awkward or what?”

      I think that’s the problem for a lot of people, and it’s frustrating because, personally, it’s never been an issue for me. I like all sorts of entertainment with problematic themes–that doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend those things aren’t problematic. One of the first things I did when I discovered romanceland was look up negative reviews of my favorite books. It’s fun for me to read how different people can read and experience stories differently, especially when I completely agree with all their criticisms about a book I loved. It sucks that that might be lost, because being strongly critical is now considered shaming by so many.

      they’ve been around a long time and have a large readership.

  10. willaful says:

    “I think a lot of readers would be happier if there were MORE negative reviewing, more identification of what (if anything) you need to be able to overlook to enjoy a particular book. ”

    Agreed. My personal issue lately is that I’m having a great deal of trouble getting a sense of what a book is like — the narrative voice, the style, the quality of the writing. For certain books, the top reviews are all content-free squeeing gif-fests. Those can be entertaining, but don’t tell me anything — except in a negative sense, which is that they’re starting to tell me that I won’t enjoy this book. I guess I need to use the filter option more.

    • willaful says:

      Amusingly enough, I just wrote one of these very same reviews! (Albeit without gifs.) It was partially from having a very strong emotional reaction, partially from not wanting to give spoilers (which my emotions were very strongly centered around) and partially, it’s the third book in a very popular series, wth cares?

  11. Liz Mc2 says:

    I am really appreciating this conversation, everyone, and it has helped re-energize me for blogging/reviewing. I hesitated even to write this much about how I’m feeling, but I’m glad I did.

    Voice/style matters a lot in whether I enjoy a book and can “overlook” certain things (or even notice them in the first place) and I appreciate reviews that give me a sense of that. I need to quote more in reviews; I think I have a hard time figuring out how to do it without producing an academic close reading. But I find that reviewers who quote a good chunk give me the best sense of whether my taste will align with theirs.

    I have been enjoying Robin’s DA series very much. The tensions she’s teasing out are some of the things that interest me most about my own reading of romance.

    • Kathryn says:

      Sonoma Lass: “If I enjoy the experience of reading a book, and then my analysis shows me that it is misogynistic or historically inaccurate or has problematic messages or whatever, then don’t I have to get into why that didn’t stop me from enjoying it? And is that going to be awkward or what?”

      Las: “I think that’s the problem for a lot of people, and it’s frustrating because, personally, it’s never been an issue for me. I like all sorts of entertainment with problematic themes–that doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend those things aren’t problematic.”

      I agree with Las, but it took me a long while to get to that place. It’s certainly the big issue I had with romance for a long time — why do I enjoy this experience so much when so many of these books are problematic (and problematic in so many ways)? But then I also struggled with this problem with much of the fantasy/science fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Heinlein anyone?) or with beloved childhood favourites like the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books .

      But even books that I emotionally really have enjoyed — I do want to know what other people think about them, what they saw in the work that gave them pleasure, what they found problematical, etc. Sometimes a review deepens my enjoyment of a work by revealing something that I overlooked, or a review allows me to better understand about why the story worked for me in spite of problematical elements. Often I will even agree with a reviewer about how such-n-such is a problem, although I may not always agree about whether that issue is a minor niggle or a deal breaker. And occasionally after reading/hearing a review, I may no longer feel comfortable with reading that story ever again and the memory of my pleasure may now be somewhat regretted or mildly tarnished. And, of course, that’s always a possible danger when reading a review (although I think it’s a rare danger), but that’s a danger of all learning. It can upset your preconceived notions and make you uncomfortable. But I think that I’m a much better reader, who actually gains more enjoyment from my reading because I’ve taken that risk and am willing to take that risk again and again. And I appreciate it that reviewers are also willing to take the risk of engaging with a text and analyzing their response to it.

      Interest in NA: I’m not really interested since most that I’ve seen reviewed has been contemporary issue/problem romance stories that feel to me like books that pretend to be aimed at 20-somethings, but are really read by teens, who are imaging themselves as 20-somethings. Sort of SE Hinton with some sex. And that’s really not my interest.

      In my own NA years, which were pre-Internet, I was also in grad school, reading lots of Latin and history/historiography, and my idea of relaxing was reading fiction in English. So I read those 19th century English novels, along with fantasy/science fiction, romances, mysteries, Canadian literature, NY Times best-sellers, and anything else that caught my fancy.

  12. So, I’ve debated commenting several times because I can no longer comment just as a reader and this is a very reader-focused post, but what the hey–I’ve been an official author for four months and a reader for thirty-some years.

    Las said: “One of the first things I did when I discovered romanceland was look up negative reviews of my favorite books. It’s fun for me to read how different people can read and experience stories differently, especially when I completely agree with all their criticisms about a book I loved.”

    When I finish a book I’ve loved, I *always* go on Goodreads and Amazon and look at the low-star reviews (if I hated the book, I look up the five and five star reviews). I want to see where and how we disagreed. Maybe they saw something I missed or maybe I interpreted something differently. I’m always curious what people think about the books they read, even if they think “I hated it.” If they hated it, I would prefer people be very specific about why (even if it’s my own book). I like to about books and that means liking to hear the good and the bad. I can’t imagine holding a conversation about any taste-related thing you care about without being able to say, “but I can’t stand pleated pants/action movies/garlic/modern art/50s-style furnishings, etc.”

    Finally, the internet has taken the solitary activity of reading and made it social, which is awesome. Stifling what people have to say about a book misses the point about why people read, what they choose to read and when, and how/why they want to talk about what they read. If we want people to LOVE reading (and we do, we do!) we have to let them talk about what they’re reading how they want to, either emotionally, with gifs, analytically, or any other way.

    Ridley said, “I think this is just a contentious time for women and that’s carrying over into our book discussions,” which I thought was interesting, though I don’t have a more nuanced response.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Authors are readers too! I find that (thoughtful) negative reviews of books I love often have excellent points; I just loved the book anyway. And that helps me understand how people can love books I hated/think are bad.

      I wonder if being a librarian helps with this, too. I think learning reader advisory really helps people to feel strongly about books but respectful of others’ tastes, and to be thoughtful of all the different ways and reasons there are to enjoy books.

  13. Kaetrin says:

    I like a mix of both the emotional and the analytical as, I think, I am both. In my own reviews, I try and say why something worked or did not work for me, in such a way that a review reader will be able to assess whether their own tastes may align.

    There are so many things I’ve become more sensitive to and more aware of as I’ve read more widely and participated in challenging discussions online. I don’t mind passion in a discussion at all and there have been plenty of times my views have been challenged and I’ve ended up changing my mind about the relative importance of something. I will say that I find it much easier to ask the stupid questions and learn things in an environment where I feel safe to do so. If I feel liable to what feels like attack, which has happened, then I shy away and i cannot engage and I don’t learn anything. Which frustrates me most of all.

  14. Keishon says:

    “it’s just my opinion” and “your mileage may vary” as redundant in an argument. I tell my students not to use them in writing, because obviously an argument states their opinion.

    Yes those are redundant statements but you know, sometimes people need reminding because the attacks come off as if your comments are absolute or something. I used to debate over adding such statements but have dropped them because they are redundant and should be understood.

    I admit to not being an analytical reader. It’s just not my style and never has been. I don’t look for messages that are not obvious, or read an author’s intent. The “shame” and “privilege” discussions make me turn right back around as I’m not the least bit interested. Books are there to entertain me. Or offer escape. Or both. I overlook a lot if I enjoy the novel enough. I don’t begrudge others who need more or enjoy analysis type of reviews. Each of us are different and I value other people’s opinions. I’ve also opted out of the passionate debates but that’s moot since I haven’t done so in a few years. I did enjoy reading this post but as I was read/skimming it those two sentences struck me and prompted me to post. Sorry I couldn’t add anything more substantive. Oh, I do hope you enjoy the Victoria Holt, btw. It’s not one of my favorites but a decent read.

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