Thursday, June 24, 2010
The Raving Reader
A few weeks ago, while searching for reviews of a particular book, I came across a blogger’s rant against readers who rave about the books they read. Nobody, the blogger insisted, could possibly read so many books that truly merited the level of praise that some readers were dishing out. Perhaps the blogger’s purpose was to provoke her reader. If so, she certainly succeeded with me.
Is there a rule that only so many good books can be written? If I’ve read one good book this month, have I reached my quota? Or am I allowed two? Or five? How do I know when I’ve read so many good books that everything else I read must fall short of my definition of “good book”?
And defining presents another problem? Perhaps the blogger’s definition of a good book and mine are quite different. Some reviewers seem to reserve their highest grade for books they see as flawless. I’m not one of those reviewers. If the perfect book exists, I’ve never read it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “excellence” as “the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree.” I’m comfortable labeling books that possess interesting characters I grow to care about, involved in compelling situations and presented in lucid, graceful prose as “excellent,” even if I have a few quibbles about the book. I do grade the books I read. The grade is strictly subjective, and it is intended for my eyes only. Because I read selectively (around 85% from my auto-buy authors), I almost never give a grade below a C+. If the book is really bad, I don’t finish it. And I don’t grade DNFs.
During my decades in the classroom, I never understood colleagues who boasted that only 10% of their students merited an A. I never knew in advance what grades a particular group of students might earn. I taught an advanced composition class once of exceptionally bright, motivated students in which I gave over 50% of them an A and most of the rest a B. On the other hand, I taught classes in which I gave not a single A and a distressing number of Ds and Fs. The grades depended upon the quality of the work produced by the students in each, unique group. I feel this way about the books I read too. Some months I read a string of A books; some months I read none.
When I do finish a book and note it as an A read, I want to share my enthusiasm for what I’ve read. The OED tells me that one meaning of “rave,” one that’s been in use at least since Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, is “to speak or write about someone or something with great enthusiasm or admiration.” Given this definition, I confess: I am a raving reader. I rush here or to Goodreads or to the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board or to my trusted online group and allow myself to freely express my enthusiasm for the books I love. Sometimes I’m sure I sound like an infatuated adolescent. If I’m writing a full review, I strive for a more reasoned tone, but I’m sure even then my enthusiasm breaks through. I never thought about counting my book raves, but since I write in various venues, formally and informally, about books that I have found excellent over more than half a century of reading, I’m sure that the number I rave about would drive that complaining blogger to distraction.
I offer no apologies for being a raving reader. I do believe that if those of us who love romance fiction want to see it earn the respect awarded to other genres by the larger reading public, we have to be willing for the texts of romance to be subjected to stringent, fair criticism. I believe there is a place for objective evaluations that point out where a specific book falls short of a critic’s criteria for excellence. At the same time, I have no tolerance for mean-spirited reviews that attack an author or for smug snark that is more an opportunity for the critic to display his/her cleverness than to honestly evaluate a book. But, for the most part, when I’m writing about books, I’m sharing what I loved about characters, plot, or prose. It’s what I like to do. I started to read a book this week that I found clichéd, boring, and superficial. I’m sure someone will tell readers what she found lacking in this particular book. I won’t be that person. Instead I can’t wait to tell you about this ARC I read that has a hero and heroine who captured my attention and my heart, a story that made me laugh and cry, and language with phrases that continue to sing in my ears. Yep, I’m raving again.
Do you grade the books you read? Are you sometimes irritated by the enthusiasm of raving readers? Or are you a raving reader?