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Book Reviews: Getting Through An Unpleasant Book

28/05/2011

I was reading the comments on my review of The DMZ over at Luxury Reading, which I rated 2.5/5 stars for a variety of what I considered to be poor writing decisions. The overwhelming sentiment (exaggerating slightly — there were five comments total) seemed to include a bit of surprise that I slogged through the book rather than abandoning it as well as a personal unwillingness to do the same. That, of course, started me thinking about the process of reading books for review rather than only for pleasure and about my approach to those books I choose to review.

Obviously if you’ve read this blog you know that I am new to the world of “professional” blog reviewers — I’ve previously written reviews of interesting books and movies but only at the beginning of this year did I choose to narrow my focus to those reviews and to writing in general. This means doing more reviews, opening myself up to new authors and genres, and yes, accepting the certainty that I will not enjoy every book I review.

As a writer, I think the book review as a concept is beneficial to so many people: the author, of course, who can use a range of reviews to gauge reader reaction to her book and to address issues that readers may have with her writing (though only professionally, don’t be like those wingbat crazy authors who give us all a bad name); other readers, who may rely heavily on reviews to choose their reading; and the reviewer, who learns not only to read critically but also to write clearly and impartially about those books for the benefit of others. Not every book will be personally appealing, though like other reviewers (I’m sure) I tend to choose books that skew toward my preferred genres. Likewise, even a book firmly entrenched in my absolute favorite genre may present insurmountable obstacles to its enjoyment through writing style, formatting, or any combination of subpar plot/characterization/etc.

When I read a book for pleasure, my decision to read or ignore a book is simple, as is my decision to continue or abandon one with signs of lackluster. To begin, I give the book my “three page test”: if I am not intrigued by a character, location, or plot point within the first three pages then I put the book down. I won’t speak to whether or not this is fair; I simply believe that a good author is able to hook the reader within seconds and will not devote more than seconds to finding out. If I have already been reading and feel weighed down or bored by the narrative, I’ll continue until the end of the chapter to see if things improve. If not, the book joins my Did-Not-Finish shelf. I inevitably pick the book up again and give it another go, but not without remembering why it was there to begin with.

Some reviewers acknowledge that a book may be too unwieldy or uninteresting to finish and will note that in their review. However, when I choose to review a book my perspective changes: it is no longer my decision to continue or abandon; rather, by opening the book I have made a pact with it and with the author, tacitly of course, that I will do whatever it takes to get from start to finish. Believe me, completing a book that one finds to be unpleasant is no easier now than it was when we had to read The Red Badge of Courage or anything by Steinbeck in high school, but just like in high school I have a responsibility to make it to the bitter end.

To do so, I give myself a set of short-term goals with a strict deadline, such as “you must read at least one chapter a day, and you have to be finished with the book by next Saturday.” Then I carry the book with me everywhere in lieu of others, to eliminate the potential for avoidance and distraction. I remind myself that I am reading the book for the benefit of others, and that any issues I may have with the book must have a rational and impartial explanation. I can’t hate a main character because he has the same name as my ex-boyfriend from the eighth grade, but I can be disappointed in an author’s lack of effective descriptors.

Also, I try to tailor my thought process to what specifically I dislike about the book. While I may subjectively not be entertained by the story, my responsibility as a reviewer is to determine whether the book is readable to others who may enjoy it — a well-written story is worthy of a high rating whether or not it’s my cup of tea.

At the end of the day, when it comes to reviewing the “unpleasant book” I believe Nike said it best in the ’90s: Just Do It.

Thoughts to try on: How do you determine what is a “good” or a “bad” book? Do you continue reading a book you don’t enjoy just to finish it? How do you think your approach to books would change if you began reviewing them?

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