Business Musings: Taste (or Blaming The Writer)

Business Musings: Taste (or Blaming The Writer)

When I teach craft workshops, one of the things I work on the hardest is teaching writers the difference between taste and “good fiction.” I put “good fiction” in quotes, because there seems to be this belief among most writers and readers that “good fiction” is something quantifiable.

Certain books are “good” because they have elements that professors approve of, or elements that the culture has deemed worthy.

Bad books are ones that either don’t have those elements or don’t seem to make those elements the top priority.

Much of this comes from the bad old days of highly curated fiction. Most of it was curated by privileged white males, many of whom came from East Coast families with money.  The book I’ve cited off and on, which has been utterly fascinating for me, Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader, spends its early chapters discussing Gottlieb’s travels through Europe as a young man, doing one of those tours that so many of the American East Coast wealthy of a certain era believed essential to becoming a well-rounded human being.

That curation led to a certain kind of book being “the” book. Usually it dealt with angst or bad marriages or affairs (think John Updike or John Cheever). Even when it was daring, it really wasn’t. Most of Philip Roth’s work looks at the dark side of that world or at things no one in those circles discussed.

That early curation—and the acceptance of it through universities, bookstores, and libraries—led to alternate voices getting shut out. Books written by people of color about the worlds they grew up in, books written by women, or people of the LGBTQ community were at best overlooked, at worst actively discouraged.

And then there was genre fiction. It was a lot more open to diverse voices, but that was because the people in charge of the cull-sure (yes, I intend that) didn’t think genre fiction worthy of their time, so they kept their turned-up noses out of it.

(This attitude still exists. Professor Richard Goldstein, who was editor of The Village Voice, wrote a piece in The Washington Post over the July 4th holiday about how his students turned him on to Marvel movies, which he had—as a matter of course—considered crap. Even his realization op-ed is filled with That Tone. You’ll see if you click through. Oh, and the sad thing? This guy has written about popular culture for four decades. Sigh.)

I’ve written about the detrimental effect of this attitude on writers in The Pursuit of Perfection (which you can get in book form or free in its original posts on this website. I’ve linked to the first of three.).

But it also has detrimental effect on readers. Readers believe—because they’re trained to believe—that all books should aspire to this made-up classification. If a book doesn’t satisfy a reader, then the book is inherently bad.

In fact, readers blame the author. Even if the author has a ton of credentials, readers will say things like “I can’t believe this author has been publishing for years. They seem like an amateur to me.”

The reader is judging on some scale that someone else put in their brain. And they assume that the book must fall somewhere on that scale. If the reader is dissatisfied, the reader blames the writer for being bad at her job, rather than understanding that some things really aren’t to the reader’s taste.

We consumers don’t seem to have that problem in other areas of our lives. We know that some of us prefer jeans and t-shirts to suits and ties. We know that some of us like pink and some like dark blue. We know that some of us love pizza and the rest of the world is wrong. I mean…oops. You get it, though. We’re accepting of differences in taste in a wide variety of things, from clothing to cars to restaurants.

We’re not as accepting in the world of art and entertainment. We often apologize for the things we love. We call them “guilty pleasures,” because we know that someone will judge us on the things we adore. Really, though, we’re talking about pleasures. The things we love are the things we love. Full stop. The end. We love them. They have value to us.

Why do I teach writers about taste first? Because when I’m teaching the workshop, I have a built-in authority. I also have strong opinions. My opinions are just that: opinions. I’m wrong when I’m forced to read fiction in a subgenre or with a storyline that I actively loathe. I’m not fond of clowns, drug stories, carnival stories, or stories about babies (and pets and kids under 12) in jeopardy. I truly loathe stories with protagonists who are deliberately stupid, especially if that stupidity is there only to forward the plot. And I absolutely hate stories that are told with a “mythic” tone, and very little detail—the stuff that pretends at poetry, but actually reads like a bad translation from the ancient Greek.

I make the students in my classes read a variety of books before class, some of which I haven’t read either. We discuss those books. I ask the students on the very first night to pick the book from the list they loved, the book they hated, and the book that surprised them. Often the book they loved and the book that surprised them were one and the same, because that book was in a genre they had dismissed as crap but had never read.

They also get to hear my prejudices. I go last, and sometimes I will state outright that I hated a book 90% of them loved. That puts them on notice: if they write a story like that book, I’m not their audience. Not because what they do is wrong or lacks value, but because that kind of story is not to my taste.

As reader reviews have become more prevalent—heck, as reviews have become more prevalent—that awareness of taste flies out the window. Book reviews on Amazon often go on and on about a writer’s lack of ability, even if the writer (especially if the writer) has a huge fan base.

I find it fascinating that readers don’t step back and simply say what they would say about food: My friend bought me a pickle sandwich and even though I loathe pickles and sandwiches, I tried it. Sure enough, this pickle sandwich did not change my mind. I still loathe pickles and sandwiches.

When discussing food, we don’t go on and on about the amateur nature of the chef or question how a chain restaurant came into being. We rightly put the emphasis on our preferences, and then discuss from there.

But in entertainment, that equanimity goes out the window. We blame the director if a movie is “bad,” or we wonder how that famous actor could lower himself to be in a film like that. We call paintings that we don’t understand or whose color scheme we hate “amateurish” or “dull” and wonder why the artist didn’t do something worthy of her skills.

And we judge books on that invisible scale, planted in our head by curators long dead.

I try to teach writers to stop blaming their colleagues for “bad” books. Instead, I make the writers take a step back from the book itself.

Sure, I tell them, the book might not be to your taste. But the book is an international bestseller. What qualities does it have that makes it something other readers love?

And the answer is not “other readers are stupid.” You have to dig deeper than that or you won’t learn.

Sometimes, it’s impossible for you as a reader to see what other readers loved about a book. Your own taste gets in the way. That’s when you quiz your friends about the reasons they loved the book.

And you don’t put them on the defensive. You don’t say, “I hated that novel. Why did you like it?”

Instead, you say something like, “You’ve read all of the Harry Potter books. What do you find most appealing about them?”

Usually you’ll get an unreserved fannish gush. There’s a lot to learn in those gushes, because they’re never about the language or the little turns of phrase. They’re about the world or the story or the way that the book sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. They’re about storytelling and a little bit about the reader themselves.

Anyone who reads my recommended reading list knows I have a huge weakness for hidden prince(ss) stories. I love that trope. I don’t know why. But I gobble up those books every time I find one. As someone who comes to my recommended reading list, you can dismiss those books because I have a fondness for them. Or you might share that fondness. Again, it’s a matter of taste.

Once you, as a writer, realize that reading is all about taste, it frees you up. If you’re foolish enough to read your own reviews, the bad reviews will sting less. The good reviews won’t feel as good, though, because you didn’t achieve perfection. Your writing just meshed with some reader’s taste.

I don’t read my own reviews. No long-time professional writer that I know of does. The reviews are irrelevant to our work.

But I do read reviews on other writers’ work. Not to find out if the book is “good,” but to see if the book achieves something that I want. I never read the reviews of some writers. I would buy the books by my absolute favorites no matter what.

Sometimes, though, I’m on the fence about a book. I use reviews to inform my decision. I never read the five-star reviews. I read the one- and two-star reviews. They will tell me what irritated the reader. Usually it’s because the reader had some weird expectation or the book was priced too high (or too low). Or the reader had a bad experience with the book’s seller.

But every now and then, I see something that gets me off the fence. I mentioned this in last month’s recommended reading list.  I used to buy every book Nora Roberts wrote. But, in the past two or three years, it felt like the spark that made a Nora Roberts book special had vanished, as if she were going through the motions.

There are a million reasons that a writer can go stale. She might be writing the same thing over and over to meet fan demand, and literally lose interest. She might be getting tired or ill. She might be burned out, and unwilling to admit it.

Writers are people too, and their lives have an impact on their creativity.

Sometimes, though, that stale feeling has nothing to do with the writer and everything to do with the reader. I binge on subgenres. I binged on Regency romance after the 2016 election for reasons I still can’t fathom, and once I was out of the binge, it took me nearly six months before I could even look at a Regency cover, let alone read another Regency romance. That was all on me.

I was willing to admit that the problem with the Nora Roberts books might have been all me, and my taste.

But, that’s not the case. Turns out, Nora was going through a particularly ugly divorce from her long-time publisher. She was writing, but the enjoyment had left. Here’s how she put it on her blog in March of 2016:

For the past several weeks, I’ve been house hunting–publishing houses, that is. While publishing’s a business, a house is still a home, and moving is stressful, complicated–and for a creature of routine like myself–just fraught….

There were changes in the house I worked with, lived in, was part of for more than twenty years, and with those changes I no longer felt at home there. Home, for me, is the center, the core, personally and professionally, so I need to feel comfortable and in place. I need to fit and feel connected.

How damning is that? She was one of the top sellers at Penguin Random House. The subtext here is that they treated her like shit, so she left. Seriously. How awful.

I read that post in 2016, and felt a spark of encouragement about her fiction. Because she wrote this:

once you work through the fraught, there are new possibilities, a fresh page, a new start….(I) find myself, a creature of routine, not only okay with the changes, but delighted by them.

Oh, I thought. She’s happy with her writing again. Which meant that about two years later, I needed to pick up one of her books (because it would take two years for traditional publishing to get a new book out).

I forgot that, kinda sorta. It was in the back of my mind, though. And one afternoon this spring, I read the reviews of her latest book, Shelter in Place. You know, those one- and two-star reviews, most of which were furious with her for writing something that challenged their expectations. The romance wasn’t romancy. The crime was violent. The book was not at all “a Nora Roberts” book.

I read the blurb and it said nothing about romance. Shelter in Place explored the aftermath (years later) of a mass shooting, in a thriller style. It was a departure, which it seemed Penguin Random House did not want her to do. Nora Unfettered! I had to try the book.

And I loved it. I see why others didn’t, especially if they were settling in for a romance. But I was happy again as a reader. This book reminded me of early Nora, the one who showed me how big books could be written, and how romances could explode out of their boundaries. I may not read all of her books in the future, but I will read the ones that catch me, now that she feels unfettered and no longer fraught.

This evening, as I was trying to find that Nora blog post, I found this in a professional review of the book: “Roberts writes in a way that can be best described as merely adequately readable prose.” The reviewer had been expecting a typical Nora book, and this ain’t it.

So clearly, the writing did not meet some unseen bar. Because—you know—that scale.

I saw nothing wrong with Nora’s prose. In fact, I had to stop midway through because she used a technique that I had never seen before. I envy that technique. I will steal that technique. It was amazing and high level and astonishing. (And I only saw it because I had been interrupted in my reading, had dropped my bookmark, and had to find my way back into the story. Otherwise, I never would have noticed. I was lost in that book when I read it.)

That blaming of the writer, and that emphasis on the words is reflexive. It’s what we were taught in school.

However, this craft we call “writing” isn’t about words. It’s about telling stories. And there is no secret scale that makes one story better than another.

It’s all about taste.

So it’s time, writers, to stop blaming your colleagues when one of their books doesn’t satisfy you. Maybe the book isn’t to your taste. Maybe you don’t like that sort of story. Maybe the writer didn’t tell the story the way you would have told the story.

All valuable ways of looking at fiction. But you as a writer have to stop using that invisible scale inculcated in us when we were children—in a different world, one run by a handful of people who had a stranglehold on publishing. That scale does not exist. It never existed. There is no perfect novel. Nor is there—from a writer of Nora’s caliber—“merely adequately readable prose.”

If you start admitting that a book isn’t to your taste, you free yourself up to read—and write—things that take risks. You can write books that don’t belong on that imaginary scale. You can drop the chains that force you to struggle with that scale, and start writing things that interest you.

You can find the freedom to write what you love. But only if you stop blaming other writers.

It’s all taste, folks. And your taste is as valid as mine. It’s just different. And that’s okay.

***

As I wrote those last words, the jazz station I love started playing the classic Star Trek theme song in a jazz style. At first, I resisted. That’s a TV theme song. But this jazz piece was so inventive and fun that I fell in love.

If the John Stetch Trio had listened to what pundits say—that you can’t reimagine TV theme songs as great jazz—then they wouldn’t have put this lovely and fun piece of music out, and I wouldn’t have been delighted.

It is precisely that attitude that I’m talking about in this blog post.

Anyway…thanks for listening to my riff on an old theme. I believe strongly in writers learning the difference between following some strictures that have no meaning and their own personal taste. I come back to this now and then, when I feel this topic needs reiteration.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: Taste…or Blaming The Writer,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / marzolino.




patreon

39 responses to “Business Musings: Taste (or Blaming The Writer)”

  1. Indiana Jim says:

    I wish the critics of The Last Jedi would read this post! It says so succinctly the things I try to put into words. Thanks for writing it!

  2. HSS says:

    I hate when readers harp on typos and grammar. Even the best written and well edited books have those; like cockroaches they pop up when no one is looking.

    We forget that grammar is a living tool. The way I was taught grammar is not the way it’s being taught today. When I was growing up, contractions such as He’s or She’s were considered improper grammar and spoken by uneducated people. Today, it’s taught in elementary school as proper grammar. And don’t get me started on commas; seriously you are going to pan a book because of a lack of or the use of commas.

    English authors use a lot of dialogue tags, head-hopping, POV shifts in a scene, and adverbs. A British author was dismayed that American authors will write an entire paragraph instead of using one adverb. He went on to say, that American authors have too many stupid rules that get in the way of good storytelling. British books break so many of the American writing rules, but still tell a damn good story.

    As for taste, I always believe that if you want a certain kind of writing/book; write it!

  3. […] I was pretty much done writing it. But I recently read a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, titled Business Musings: Taste (or Blaming The Writer), that opened my eyes. I think in the back of my mind I always sort of realized it, but her putting […]

  4. Cynthia Lee says:

    Beth,

    I did not know that about Alexandre Dumas. I’m going to try and learn more it right now. Thank you.

  5. Sharon says:

    Thanks for this! Makes me feel better about my own reactions to books.

    I read 2 or 3 books a week for pleasure. It sometimes feels like a very guilty pleasure when I should be doing something else (like cleaning the house). And need to start studying the ones I find excellent.

    I have a special category in my GR books called ‘books everyone else loved’ which means I acknowledge the books were not to my taste but that I was one of a few exceptions. I too like to read reviews to see what the 1- and 2-star raters said. It’s usually very illuminating.

    I had the experience last week with a novel that has been critically and reader acclaimed all over the place for years but I couldn’t get past 20% (I don’t bother with page numbers in an ebook). The thing was, I understood why everyone else loved the book while not feeling compelled to finish it – life is toodamnedshort. Another novel I absolutely loved that was criticized to high heavens for both political reasons and for (ostensibly) trivializing the very serious subject matter. Maybe some justification? I only know I didn’t care about any of that when I was reading it.

    It’s a relief as a reader to just be able to accept the ‘not to my taste’ philosophy rather than think ‘there’s something wrong with me – why didn’t I like it?’ or to heap blame (and for Big Name Authors, the problems with typos, especially in ebooks, are often editorial and not the fault of the author at all).

    Sometimes it’s also useful to address my own prejudices (I have a few insurmountable ones) after finishing a book that I didn’t like and face up to them – because that also helps me in my writing (i.e., don’t write that kind of book or you will hate doing it).

  6. A.Beth says:

    I remember reading someone’s review of Twilight — blog entry, not on any of the selling pages for the book — and while I am still not Twilight’s target audience, the interesting things said about the agency of the main character stuck with me. So I will sometimes even diffidently defend that book, because it meant a lot to an online acquaintance.

    (I will say that there are, indeed, the occasional objectively bad works — because darnit, my friend and I worked hard to make that poem absolute drek, to see exactly how bad we could get before the “pay us to publish your poem in this book!” scammers stopped sending acceptance letters. It took us two tries. >:)

    • savantefolle says:

      Beth: hahaha! You may have heard of the ominous “Atlanta Nights”, a novel especially written as badly as they could by excellent authors, that got accepted by a pay-to-publish house!

  7. LindaB says:

    How dare that writer not write something to my liking! What nerve! (As if the world dances to their tune.)

    Alas, blaming the writer is a popular pastime. I mean, nitpicking the occasional typo, going ballistic over a minor historical detail, going out of their way to complain that a story that they liked is too short, i.e. “not worth the money” (usually a lousy 99 cents), railing about a book’s price to a traditionally published author who doesn’t set prices, writers are convenient punching bags for whatever is wrong in some reader’s lives. But then, the writer’s name is in large print on the cover–a convenient target.

    How to stop this? I have no idea. I doubt there is a way. I just wish a lot of this didn’t make it into the reviews, because love ’em or hate ’em, reviews do affect sales. I suppose the only way is to keep writing, keep learning and never read reviews.

  8. Kessie says:

    I recently saw a post on a writer’s group where someone was looking at the first pages of a lot of popular books. They looked at The Way of Kings by Sanderson. What do they ask about? “He used a lot of dialogue tags and adverbs!”

    I facepalmed so hard. I’ve been around so many people who dogpile Rowling for using both in Harry Potter. And I’m like, dude, you’re missing the point. Those “writing errors” we’ve been hounded about by our editors help get the story into the reader’s head. Some artists use hard lines and draw comics. Other artists hate hard lines and make luminous oil paintings. But it’s all art, and it all appeals to somebody out there.

    My mom begged me to read The Lake House by Kate Morton. I did, even though it’s not really my cup of tea. I got hooked, blazed through it in two days, and cried rivers at the ending. I thought it was amazing. Then you look at the 1-star reviews on Amazon, and people call the ending “contrived” and “unbelievable”. The same ending that had me bawling because it was so good. So yeah, it’s all just taste. IMO this is why writers should never read reviews. :-p

  9. Kit Daven says:

    Thanks for writing this Kris. Seriously! I recently attended the Ad Astra convention in Toronto, and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the writers I overheard thanking other writers for “writing well-formed sentences” and “proper grammar” or arguing over what makes a story good or bad. Those seem to be the writers that garner the most attention at this convention. I had one fella pop by my table and simultaneously applaud my marketing and diss my writing. He told me he wouldn’t buy my book because the prose was too simple and he liked to be challenged. (How he knew how I wrote without actually reading any of my fiction, I don’t know.) There is a persistent attitude that only one kind of writing is worthy of attention and accolades, but I don’t share that attitude. Then I read your blog or Chuck Wendig’s or JF Penn’s, and it’s refreshing to hear other writers celebrate all forms of narrative. I feel less alone with the attitudes that I have toward literature when writers like you shared your experience and knowledge. And as for taste: I can’t stand stories with families in jeopardy or countdowns, and I know these are two key elements to bestselling stories. 🙂

  10. I’ve been reading back in the 70’s, and only a few days ago, realized that one of the appeals of that decade is that none of those books was targeted at me. I still remember my realization, years ago, that I had been catered to with books and media, and now I felt alienated because I was no longer catered to. At first, that was annoying, losing privilege, but now it’s freeing, because I’m reading into far stranger territory. At this point, I don’t even read the blurbs because I really want to be fully surprised by the book. And when I do run into books that don’t work for me, I know that I’m not the target audience, so I can usually articulate what I didn’t like as a matter of taste, but sometimes, I still think that the writer was an idiot. In some instances, I’m left in awe as a writer bounces between the inane and the sublime.

  11. I personally am sensitive to imprecision in communication and find it distracting. I have a preference for authors who follow grammar rules and all—which is heightened a bit by the fact that I do work some as an editor. (The tutor type, in the sense of helping folks bridge the gap between what they intended to say and what’s on the page, with explanations when warranted, so they can form their own understanding and need less help in future writing.)

    BUT that’s because I generally dislike assuming what someone intended to say, and I’m often cognizant of gaps in communication where that proves necessary. That doesn’t make such open-to-assumption writing innately bad.

    The entire point of grammar is to assist comprehension, same as the point of using words consistently with their dictionary definitions. The more fluent, coherent, and consistent a person is with the logic underlying the general rules of language known by the reader, the more precisely they can communicate what they intend to, to the reader.

    Some folks can read an imprecisely written text and be perfectly comfortable injecting whatever assumptions work for comprehension, often without realizing they’re doing so. If there’s a story they can enjoy or appreciate in that, great! And if that’s who a writer is aiming for, as an audience, and they’re succeeding, why should their work be “fixed” by a third party?

    With my own favorite movies, the common criticisms are usually just ignorant or missing the point(s). Like, in Jupiter Ascending, sure the pacing would’ve been more accessible as three movies, but I’m honestly unconvinced that would’ve helped more than it hurt. Drawing out the story would’ve given more room to notice and process all the horrific details, like the apparent person-vehicle hybrid. (Pretty much every other critique I’ve seen has fallen in the “missing the point” category.)

    The “There’s one right taste!” BS folds into editing itself, too. Some writers want an editor to just fix the text for them, where they’ll insist an editor is “bad” for…double-checking something that could’ve easily been a typo, or for asking for clarification of something so that the punctuation can reflect the author’s intent. Some get pissed off if the editor dares change anything, even if it’s an obvious typo like “hire” instead of “here”, or if Track Changes is used to show a suggestion and comment that it is such.

    I’ve even had some writers insist I’m a bad editor for double-checking that they used the word they intended when it’s an easy typo of a term that would also fit the context well. My returning clients, though, love that I do that.

  12. Bill Peschel says:

    “So it’s time, writers, to stop blaming your colleagues when one of their books doesn’t satisfy you. Maybe the book isn’t to your taste. Maybe you don’t like that sort of story. Maybe the writer didn’t tell the story the way you would have told the story.”

    “I used to buy every book Nora Roberts wrote. But, in the past two or three years, it felt like the spark that made a Nora Roberts book special had vanished, as if she were going through the motions.”

    Is there a contradiction?

    • Nope. That’s my opinion of her work the last few years. I could be wrong. But clearly those books weren’t to my taste.

      • Tom Simon says:

        And yet, by your own confession, your first impulse was to blame the writer for putting in what you saw as insufficient effort.

        • Apparently, you missed this: “I was willing to admit that the problem with the Nora Roberts books might have been all me, and my taste.” What I should have added after that sentence is this: “I hoped that she would return to the kind of books that interested me the most.” When I learned about the troubles she was having with Randy Penguin (and she was not alone there–they have a terrible person overseeing their genre division right now), I hoped that she would be able to bust out with different kinds of stories once she moved. And lo and behold, that was the case. I’m sorry she went through that, but am happy that she can now write all over the board rather than be confined to just a few subgenres, heavily overseen by the terrible person at Randy Penguin.

  13. I needed this post today, Kris. I’ve been reading some indie bestsellers lately with the hopes of discovering why they are bestsellers, and mostly I haven’t liked the books at all. In my private notes on the books, I’ve made some pretty scathing remarks, which might have made it into online reviews. Reframing my dislike as a matter of taste sounds like a really good idea. Thanks again.

  14. Emily Dunn says:

    Have you seen the Rights of the Reader poster?
    https://www.hbook.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/pennac_poster.pdf

    That little poster filled my head as I read your comments on culture and genre and reading snobbery.

    I had an old-guard college professor bemoan the state of modern poetry, and I argued that poetry had moved to song, with “Hotel California” as my proof. (Stupid of me, in hindsight, but he was willing to have the debate and my grade didn’t suffer. ?)

    A reading group to which I belonged (before moving hundreds of miles away) bought into the snootiness. They wanted to read angsty novels. I had enough trauma in my life to want to avoid additional drama that didn’t have a good resolution, especially since I had to teach Faulkner and his ilk to HS students. So I didn’t read those books. I read genre books of my choosing and discussed their books without their knowing that I hadn’t read. (If that convoluted thought process makes sense.) Then I turned them on to Jane Austen.

    My point is that we still discussed the same relationships and “drama” and recurrent major themes as in the so-called literary books, but I was happier with the endings—and they never realized what I had done.

    I think “school” tries to force a canon of accepted works. In the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades this means dropping out some old white guys like RLStevenson and ADumas to read obvious modern themes and diverse voices, but half the class is bored because the writing’s gone preachy. James Fenimore Cooper is horrible to read but tells a great story. The canon in 10th to 12th controls the majority of those years. By the time of graduation, the “taste” view of literature is set unless English teachers are willing to leave the anthologies to the side and discover their own texts for the required curriculum—and most teachers would rather walk lockstep with the textbook (put out by old-guard publishers).

    So, “schooling” presents “taste”. And if we don’t question, challenge, and present new (without preaching what we are doing—because preaching of any sort turns people off), then the lock-step people who operate by convenience never “think” about what they are doing.

    My students used to ask what I read. After Antigone and Lear and their ilk or ELMasters etc., they could go through life thinking I focused on death, death, death. I would run through Heyer and Hillerman and Stewart, Norton and Lackey and Tolkien. “Why aren’t we reading those? We would like those.”

    Indeed.

    Maybe it’s modern education that’s killing reading.

    I’ve ranted far off-track. But the same “taste” controls the world I used to inhabit. I fought my battles by using modern poetry and diverse poets, by pushing for speculative fiction electives, and by sneaking The Woodwife past my department chair as a supplement for the mythology section of a sophomore course. Then come budget cuts and statewide testing pushes and—I’m glad I’m out.

    But I feel pity for all the students who ask “What do you read” and reading groups who follow some approved list without ever asking if they “enjoy” what they’re reading.

    • Beth says:

      I agree so much with your points, High School is so bad for teaching kids that there is only one kind of “good” book and sucking the joy out of reading. There’s such a focus on tearing a book apart to figure out what makes it “good”, and all that happens in they end up with lifeless pieces of story at their feet and the idea that they aren’t supposed to read anything but “good” books, and that “good” books aren’t fun to read.

      One minor point I want to mention, though, is that Alexandre Dumas isn’t an old white guy. His father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the son of an African slave in Haiti. Thomas-Alexandre himself was a slave during his childhood, and wasn’t freed until he came to France at 14. It really frustrates me that Dumas has been so thoroughly whitewashed by history that very few people seem to have ever heard about this. Honestly, I wish more people knew about Dumas’ father, because he was the highest ranking PoC in Napoleon’s army (Bridgadier General) and had a pretty fascinating life. Sorry, I know I went on a tangent, but I hope you find it interesting. I wish there was more focus on historical diverse voices as well as modern ones, so I try to highlight them where I can.

      • Emily Dunn says:

        Thank you, Beth. I didn’t — and I know my peers did not— know this about Dumas. This background pings so many notes about his Monte Cristo. I love knowing this!

    • Alexander Dumas was Black. Grandson of a slave, I think?

  15. jodi252 says:

    Thanks – this was an intriguing post. We all read books that others love and we can’t abide and tried to figure out the why of it all. I’m going to take your advice and start asking people what they like about books – I think there’s a goldmine in there.

  16. I read that review and thought the reviewer’s criticism of the character not suffering PTSD told me everything I needed to know about the reviewer’s competence to make such an observation.

    PS: I’d love to see a description of the technique that bowled you over.

  17. Harvey Stanbrough says:

    With due respect, there is at least one major writer out there whose books I can’t handle at all. In every case, the writing is filled with inconsistencies, erroneous facts, etc. In other words, I was shoved out of the story too many times to continue.

    I realize I’m probably wrong, but my point here is that it is possible to have a great story poorly presented. And nothing about poor presentation (typos or not, inconsistencies or not, erroneous facts or not, etc.) has anything to do with taste. Presentation is all on the writer.

    • Nope. Sorry. If that writer is major, as you’re saying, then your reaction is taste. Other readers go deep in the story and aren’t bothered by what bothered you.

      Errors of fact and such exist in almost every novel. Sometimes you the reader shrug it off. Sometimes you’re not an expert in the area, so you don’t know. If the story is good (from your perspective) you go with it. If the story isn’t holding you, you notice all that stuff.

      It’s all taste.

  18. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. As a reader, I’ve always wanted to see more adventures where women get some of the adventures. One of the stories I grew up with was Most Dangerous Game, which showed up on every action TV show after it was published, so I’ve wanted to write an adventure story like that (and have it planned). I mentioned this on a writing message board. It got a lot of interest from the women, who wanted to see something like that. The men? Well, there was one professionally published writer who opened sneered at the thought of this kind of book even existing. Um…it’s not like you have to read it.

  19. Prasenjeet says:

    Hi Kris. Agree with you about taste. I do loathe romance movies where the couple treats each other, pardon my language like “shit” followed by an HEA. So far I’ve read just one Nora Roberts novel (I’ll definitely check out Shelter in Place as that seems like my type of novel) and I could see what you meant. The story was OK (taste). The Romance seemed like it had no emotional connection (taste) but the suspense was excellent (taste). But there were times where the setting felt confusing. The character was in her bedroom and discovered a dead snake. The snake wasn’t in the bedroom but on the street outside her house. I thought maybe I was not reading it right. But the descriptions were confusing throughout the novel. Then there was a dinner party scene where there were more than four people and Nora didn’t use any character tags. As a result, it was impossible to tell who was speaking what? When I checked the one star reviews, they too said the same thing.Then I guess it becomes a craft problem. Isn’t it? Something that writers should watch out for. I know that Nora is an experienced writer, so such errors should not have been there in the first place. Or maybe it was her editor, who removed the descriptions and the character tags as unnecessary words. What do you say?

    • Um, no. Writers of Nora’s level don’t have craft problems. You clearly weren’t deep in the story, so you lost track. Are you reading with your critical voice on rather than reading for enjoyment? Sure sounds like it. If you read critically, you never see the author’s intent. You’re reading words, not getting lost in a story.

      • Prasenjeet says:

        I try not to read with my critical voice on. I just felt Nora’s novel didn’t move me in the same way Nicholas Spark’s novel does. But then I think I’m responding to taste. Which brings me to another point, the taste problem applies more to established writers than new writers. I guess if you don’t like Stephen King, it’s a matter of taste. But if you don’t like “New Indie Published Writer A”, it probably is craft. Or how else do you differentiate between a taste problem and a craft problem? If a brand new writer gets a one star review saying his/her characters were flat, should he/she take it as a taste problem or probably as a craft problem?

        • Writers should always try to improve their craft, no matter what level they’re at. Assume you will get better over time. But I love your other assumption. Just because a writer is newly published doesn’t mean he’s a bad writer or a bad storyteller. And just because someone doesn’t like the book doesn’t mean the new writer failed any more than the established writer has. I just finished three different novels by brand new writers. All were engaging in really amazing ways. New voices are great. Sometimes there are technical flaws. But I read Amanda Hocking’s early novels (before she was published by NY), and she really, really, really needed help with commas. Even so, the novels were compelling reads. There was a reason she had such a following right from the start. Then I read a Scott Turow novel right afterward, and that book was filled with misspellings and punctuation errors. If there had been a copy editor, it had been a bad one. (I’ve never seen anything like it before or since in Turow’s work.) So, I got to see Turow unfiltered, and he made as many tiny errors of wordcraft as the rest of us. So what? His stories were good. So were Amanda Hocking’s. And that’s what the bulk of readers read for.

          To answer you, a new writer should never read his reviews. Nor should he respond to them. He should be working on craft, all the time, by writing the next work, not reexamining old ones.

          • Tom Simon says:

            You appear to overstate your case. If everything is taste, and no piece of writing is better than another except by purely subjective criteria, what room does that leave for craft? I don’t believe for a moment that you think it’s as purely a matter of individual fancy as you let on, else you would not be teaching.

            • Craft is always important, and writers should improve their craft. But the craft is storytelling not writing. Writers should learn how to use their craft to improve their storytelling, and always strive to get better. But that doesn’t mean that their stories will appeal to every single reader. Again, it’s taste.

  20. Dayle says:

    Yes! I refuse to have “guilty” pleasures. I don’t like feeling guilty about anything.

    And I also read books that are not to my taste, sometimes, to figure out why other people like them. In other words, what works in this book? What can I learn from it?

    I’m looking forward to reading the new Nora and I’m curious to see if I can spot the technique you mentioned!

  21. Excessivelyperky says:

    God, I hope that means the next few IN DEATH books by ‘JD Robb’ will get better–a lot of the recent books have Amazon reviews that sum up to ‘I hope she gets a better ghostwriter’ when it comes to Eve Dallas and Co. (and the latest volume obliquely addressed those rumors, but given that particular book felt phoned it, it didn’t help the perception of the quality of the book).

Leave a Reply