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?


TerriOsburn said...

I admit to getting tired of the raving, but it's more a recent thing. There have been several books I've picked up in the last year or so that I really disliked. This is after years of rarely finding a book I wasn't willing to finish.

Inconsistencies with characters, rehashed plots or even a lack of a coherent plot at all. These same books have been raved about online by other readers, leaving me to scratch my head and wonder what they were reading.

At the same time, books are subjective, and I know that. I'm well aware that before I started writing my own stories, I was much less critical and never noticed elements that bother me now. There are books I love that others could care less about. It happens.

I've never bothered following reviews, but if a reviewer raves about every single book she ever reads, I don't give her much credibility. Just my take though.

Janga said...

Terri, do you group readers who blog about what they read and reviewers together? In my mind, they are two distinct groups. I read reviews at AAR regularly and at a few other review sites sometimes. Like you, if the reviewers at those sites should do nothing but rave, I'd think they were not effective reviewers. But I think readers who don't present themselves as reviewers, who merely talk about books, are free to choose whether they will rave, rant, or mix the two.

When I started Just Janga, I carried over the policy we had at Romance Vagabonds to review only books we liked. I don't think every book I read is rave-worthy. I just choose to blog about those that are. I try to very my topics enough so that my raves won't become wearisome. :)

Sherry said...

I read a book recently that I did not like and when I blogged about it, I got raked over the coals by an anonymous commenter that I believe was the writer. He has not left me alone about it. So, yes, I think I am a raving reader- either good or bad, I am gonna rave about it. Whether anyone agrees with me or not. LOL!

Santa said...

I must confess that I am a raving reader because if I don't have anything nice to say about something - I say nothing at all. The pleasure I take in reading is my own. A great read for me is one that takes me away from the day to day drudgeries that weigh down my world. If they do so and happen to place a carpet that could not have been weaved in the time period I'm reading - I'm cool with that. Did the characters walk off the page for me? Did I feel invited into their lives-cheering and jeering as I went along. These elements define a great book for me.

I will say that my silence of late has been because so many of the books I've read lately have been the same story told over and over again with different outfits being the only thing that distinquishes them from one another.

That is why I revisit my auto-buy authors again and again. Sure, there may be a misfire from tome to tome but the vast majority of what remains puts a smile on my face, a tingle in my fingertips and, on occasion, the need for a moment alone.

And I have to say that the non-ravers seem to relish dismantling a book or author. I don't see this as reviewing. Tell me what you didn't like and what could have been improved upon...and then move on. I respect your opinion when it is respectfully given.

TerriOsburn said...

Janga, I absolutely mean reviewers and not bloggers who do the occasional review. If a person has established herself as a reviewer offering her opinions to followers about the books that have been sent her way, then those followers deserve honesty. If she reviewed 52 books a year and raved about all 52, I don't see how readers could take her seriously.

I also need to point out that though I will rave in places about a book I adored, I will not write reviews. Must like Santa, I read for enjoyment and an escape and I'm not willing to apply a homework assignment to what I'm reading. :)

I also agree that reviewers who have something negative to say about a book should always give a reason, qualify that this element/aspect did not work for her (not that it's awful changing the opinion to a fact), and should never attack the author. It is one thing to express disappointment, another to lambast an individual who has done her best and simply not pleased you.

After all, she did a good enough job to please an editing team, and that should mean something. Though these days, not always.

irisheyes said...

I'm a raving reader too, Janga! Nothing better than devouring a book you absolutely love and then going out and spreading the good news. In keeping with my character, though, I think that my enthusiasm is probably pretty low key and my criticism is almost non existent (at least on the internet).

I think I'm pretty much on the same page as most when it comes to reviewers - not everything is perfect or the best. As my wise daughter likes to say if there are no losers there can be no winners (can you tell she is heavily into softball mode?). I think as with everything I like to know why and I think a little tact goes a long way. So although I believe in being kind, I also appreciate an honest constructive review on something I intend on spending my hard earned money on.

Once or twice I've voiced my irritation with a book/author/story and each time I've felt guilty afterwards. So, I've adopted the "if you can't say something nice..." motto. Even though, sometimes I'd like to rant to the high heavens about books I've paid good money for and felt like throwing against the wall. Especially when all the buzz was over the top positive. Unfortunately, the latter scenario has happened with more frequency over the past couple of years. Like Terri - I get the book, am part way through it and scratching my head wondering if everyone has been reading the same book I am.

Initially when I found all of you on these sites I wanted to get into deep philosophical discussions on books I loved (and hated). Then I realized what my DH likes to try to drill into our heads all the time - once it is out there on the internet it is there forever! That makes me a little anxious about voicing negative opinions and so (unless it is through e-mail) I keep my own counsel.

Did I answer any of the questions? LOL As usual I'm being noncommital. The long and the short of it is that if I don't like something I keep my mouth shut and if I do I rave! I also have no problem with those who LOVE every book they read, unfortunately, their opinion doesn't hold a lot of weight with me.

irisheyes said...

I should probably add that I'm trying to find a way to add constructive reviews to the sites I am a part of because I, myself, find them very helpful. I'm always afraid that anything I say that is negative will be taken the wrong way so I'm kind of finding my way.

I started testing the waters recently on the EJ/JQ BB by stating certain things that didn't sit right with me after finishing my recent Carla Kelly reads.

I would also like to add that I've read many of your reviews and you've got it down, IMHO. Whether you are giving a book 3 stars or 5 you always explain why and it always makes perfect sense to me, even if I don't agree. I think that is the key.

Janga said...

Sherry, I think the smartest, classiest writers understand not everyone is going to love their books and don't comment on negative reviews. I know one writer who never reads her reviews. That's probably a wise choice. :)

Thanks for dropping by.

Janga said...

San, what would we ever do without our autobuys? I treasure those writers that I know I can depend on to always give me a good story. And my cure for the reading blahs is always to turn to a beloved keeper for a reread. I have rows of what I call my Velveteen Rabbit books: they've been read so many times they are tattered and worn, but they have become "real" to me. I love them.

MsHellion said...

I don't read formal reviews. I'd rather get word of mouth. However, in the locations where I trust the reviews (EJ BB, et al), I do wonder about some of the raving reviews. Esp if I hated the book. I have a lower threshold of patience for irritating things in a book.

You and I differ. If I don't finish the book, it's an F. *LOL* And occasionally if I do finish the book, it's at least a D-.

I have a lot of A-'s hanging out on my shelves, some A's, lots and lots of stuff in the B range.

I sometimes grade favored authors harder, if the book doesn't measure up to their usual fare. Sometimes I'll chalk it up to that they can't all be way-awesome, but I will wonder why the author suddenly thinks there should be yet another KIDNAPPING as an ending to her books.

Janga said...

Ter, I laughed at your final qualification. LOL! I understand!

I don't mind reviewing books I like. I tend to think more analytically about the books I review, but doing so generally just increases my appreciation of the author's gifts and skills. But I do try to distinguish between pure raves and reviews. I'll be blogging later this week about my top ten reads of the first half of 2010--no analysis, just gush with no apologies. However, I'm working on a review now of a book I finished last week of a book that was an A read for me, and I am consciously and deliberately analytical in my approach. Maybe I won't succeed in eliminating all the gush, but it will certainly be controlled.

Janga said...

Irish wrote: Then I realized what my DH likes to try to drill into our heads all the time - once it is out there on the internet it is there forever! That makes me a little anxious about voicing negative opinions and so (unless it is through e-mail) I keep my own counsel.

I think that's a wise decision, Irish. I sometimes cringe when I read the harsh comments some aspiring writers make in public forums about books they're read. Don't they realize that writer's agent, friends, and fans--all people the NYP writer may someday want to view her in friendly ways--may be reading her attack. I'm not advocating lies and hypocrisy, but I do think silence os often the best choice. Thank goodness for safe zones offered by private emails and loops where we can be honest.

Janga said...

Hellie, I often wonder if reviewers read the same book I did. This can be the case when a reviewer gives a D to a book I loved or an A to a book I thought was a total loss. Once a book that I had ranted about to a friend as one of the worst of the year ended up as a Rita-nominated book. Clearly those judges and I were measuring with different criteria. :)

I thought about you and what you'd say to her comments when I Read EJ's interview at the Literary Project. :)

Keira Soleore said...

Janga, if you're recommending I'm paying attention. But this is true of very few people, who've recommended books that I've loved.

Like Santa, I've found the tried and true "auto-buy" tend to satisfy, though based on buzz I do experiement a bit. Sometimes, I'm highly rewarded (westerns the sub-genre), sometimes, I end up with frustration. But so it goes.

In general, I read very, very few reviews. Among those, like Terri, if a reviewer is only waxing positive, I stop reading them, because I cannot trust their opinion. Any reviewer who makes statements (positive, negative, neutral) has to substantiate and back them up. Without supporting reasons, the statements have no value for me.