As I’ve thought about this phenomenon, it occurs to me that one of the reasons this happens is reading can be a very different experience, depending on the person. It all comes down to expectations. What I look for in a book might well be very different than what you look for, but on the surface, we’re both evaluating the same process.
I know–this doesn’t seem like rocket science, really. And it isn’t. But I think the key to using reviews “correctly” is to find someone who shares your views, and then listen to that person or persons. This is one of the reasons why I’m against sites like Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. They give you a false sense of “Accuracy” when it comes to reviews. If 100 reviewers hated a book, and you loved it, are you wrong?
Of course not. There is no “right” or “wrong” with taste. Someone could pick apart your opinion, show how the book in point is poorly written, or has a bad plot, or has awful characterization. But again, if you liked it, what does it matter? And yet we have this driving need sometime to validate our opinions. We want to appear well-read. We want people to confirm that we have good taste.
The internet is a great tool to combat this. It gives people the chance to look around–to find tastes that mirror their own–and then associate with those people more. This is also a reason why the way reading is taught in public schools ends up making so many people feel like they “hate reading.” They’re being forced to evaluate books by someone else’s criteria. As a former English major, I can respect that. As a current librarian and author, it makes no sense whatsoever. (Of course, I realize the difficulties inherent in trying to teach a skill like literary analysis. You need some sort of common text. Maybe it’s just a necessary evil. I don’t know.)
In any case, this post is just a long way for me to set up a basic rundown of what I look for in books (and in movies, for that matter. As I wrote this, it seems like they mirror each other pretty closely). If you’ve been a longtime reader of the blog, this probably already is pretty apparent to you. But I thought it might be interesting for me to get it down in blog form, and then see if anyone else out there would like to share their criteria for “good.”
No rocks are going to be thrown at you.
Here we go:
In the end, I like to be entertained first and foremost. If I happen to learn something along the way, great. But that’s secondary. I want a great plot that is driven by great characters. I love witty dialogue. I like to see skill in artistry, but I don’t like to be hit over the head with it. In other words, I’m all for beautiful language or scene design, but they’re not enough to carry a book or film for me. Beautiful language + boring/slow plot = bored Bryce.
I’m not big on scenery or little background details. I don’t like getting bogged down in history. I want just what’s relevant, and I want to be able to fill in the rest. Humor is always a plus, assuming it’s tastefully done and earned, as opposed to forced.
I don’t like fluff. I’ll put up with it for a book or two, maybe, but in the end, if I feel like there’s nothing substantive going on, I’m looking elsewhere. (I don’t like most sitcoms, for example. The writing has to be really good, and the humor really sharp, to keep me happy.)
In the end, I reserve the right to like a book or movie, even if I shouldn’t. There are guilty pleasure exceptions. Lots of pyrotechnics. Over the top action. Stupid decisions for the sake of the plot–as long as the book or movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I try to approach each book or film on its own terms. These are established early on. Is it a tense drama? A screwball comedy? Hard science fiction? Great. As long as it’s doing it well, I’ll hang around for a while. But I put down a book or stop a movie that bores me. I didn’t used to do that, but these days, I know full well there’s something better out there. Why waste my life with a piece of art that doesn’t grab on to me and demand to be finished?
I guess it all comes down to being entertained. Slow parts are bad. Funny parts are good. Extra credit for banter and explosions.
That’s pretty broad, I realize. Maybe that’s why people like to compare favorite films. I love Groundhog Day. I think it’s a work of art on a whole different level of Zen. If you hate the movie, you and are aren’t going to agree on a lot of things.
But we can still be friends.
Why do you read books or watch movies?