Voice Makes All the Difference

I just finished reading two very different books, back to back. The first one (which shall remain nameless), received multiple starred reviews and ended up on a number of “best books” for the year it was published. Middle grade/YA fantasy. The author has won multiple big name awards. The book has great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I had to fight to get through it, honestly. In the end, I gave it a 3/10. It wasn’t the plot. I liked the plot and found it intriguing. I also liked the magic system and the characters just fine. Better than fine, in many cases. But I had to force myself to keep reading, and that’s never the recipe for success.

After I slogged through it, I wondered to myself what made the book such a chore for me to read. In the end, I decided it was the voice. I kept getting kicked out of the story because the voice was too stilted for me. The focus in many places was on style and word choice over actually telling a story.

That feels odd to write, coming from a person who’s studied literature and once wanted to be an English professor. But it’s true, and I realized it when I read the next book: The Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card.

It’s the tale of a Latter-day Saint couple who are dealing with many very ordinary problems: difficulties at home, at work, in a new area, and with their family. It’s got fantastical elements, but they’re very much in the background. It takes place in the 80s, and much of what was written about Latter-day Saint culture in the book was disappointing to me, not because it was wrong, but because it was right. It was a very unflattering view of the religion, in the same way the mirror and the lighting in a Macy’s changing room doesn’t do much for my self esteem.

And yet I blazed through the book, even though I didn’t care for the characters all the time, and even though often the plot seemed far more focused on nosing around through the religion than into what was actually happening in the story. I gave it a 7/10. Not stunning, but a good, solid read. (And an interesting look into how some people approach my religion, both the good and the bad side of it. There were parts I wanted to applaud, and other times I wanted to cringe. And interestingly, they weren’t always caused the different people.)

In a vacuum, if you described both books to me, I would have guessed I’d like the MG fantasy much more. But the reality was much, much different, which led to this blog post.

For me, my ideal book is one where I forget I’m reading. Where the pages turn themselves and I’m lost in the middle of a story. Every time something bumps up to jostle me out of that zone, it’s a missed opportunity. This doesn’t mean that I’ll only read books that make me lose myself, but what I get back for that price had better be worth it.

This isn’t to say that books that focus more on language or the way things are said are bad, or that what I like is better than what other people like. But it doesn’t explain a fair bit why people can have such widely disparate opinions about books. We’re all looking for something different.

Scott Card’s voice is (for me) extremely readable. He could probably write about the dictionary and I’d still be turning the pages, just because I like the way he communicates that information into my brain. In the end, I think of it this way: which would I prefer? The world’s most boring man telling me the world’s most interesting story, or the world’s best storyteller telling me the world’s most boring story?

You’d think they’d amount to the same thing, but I think you’d be wrong . . .


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