Thursday, 11 July 2013

I'll Have What She's Having! Why You Never Agree On Books And How To Fix It

I have been around the block. Done my time in the world of the reader and reviewer. Observed and expressed and defended opinions on books. Moderated arguments, debates and tantrums between readers, and between readers and authors, and between authors and authors.
Had a couple altercations myself over the years.
Thinking about it lately, it makes me want to talk about it on my blog. And so I blog...
I have been a member of the book review site Goodreads for over four and a half years (as of July 2013). That is a lot of time with thousands of people, looking at thousands of books, being involved in or reading thousands of discussions, seeing thousands of reviews and their thousands of responses, and along the way I have witnessed a plethora of attitudes, but what I always note with interest is the evolution of attitude changes. These are the most interesting to me and, as a head moderator of a growing Historical Fiction book group on the site, if I can help with attitude shifts and changes in that genre I feel I, and my fellow moderators, have helped the historical fiction book community - readers and authors - in a positive way.

You speaketh lies! Now take it back!
Over the years I have observed some pretty rotten and churlish behaviour by people who have an opinion on a book or an author and can not cope with the idea of another person not agreeing or seeing what they see.
For example, picture this scenario: One person will give a book 5 stars (out of 5) and rave about the book and then someone they know will give the book 1 star (out of 5) and leave a negative review.

The person then takes a defensive posture. Exhibiting some kind of learned instinct to accuse the other person of not 'getting' the book. Or being 'a snob'. Or just 'being picky'. And using disdain or a sneering tone to make the other person feel like the blame for not liking the book lays with the person and not with the book.

In the circles I move through in the online reviewer culture, this can be a fairly common attitude and in certain genres there really are some hot headed and aggressive displays going on on a daily basis. I steer clear of that scene. Which is made easier by the fact that they are genres I am not involved with and do not read. It has always mortified me though and for a long time have taken the stance that nobody is wrong, everybody is right.

It is just not possible that everyone will read the book the same way. No reader is at fault for not liking a popular book. No author is at fault for not appealing to every reader. The fact is, and I will only speak here of the genre I specialise in, that people read differently, have different attitudes, different educations, different emotions and, yes, even different hormone levels. Different life experiences, senses of humour or lack there of, varying degrees of intelligence, varying abilities to deconstruct and use a critical eye. Different wants or needs. Different interests in history and historical settings. And we all, day by day, week by week, month by month, experience a rollercoaster of moods.

The voices of narratives and characters are different in everyone's heads. We read in our own voices and that alone changes the 'sound' of a book and the way it is read. Some stop for punctuation, some do not. This can play a much underrated role in the way a person evaluates the way a book reads.

For the record, I include them all when I read. I yell dialogue (in my head of course) if it has an exclamation mark, and if an exclamation mark comes at the end of dialogue unexpectedly, then I will go back and read the line again with the proper emphasis.
I stop for fullstops, pause for commas. Pause to change pace for dialogue. It makes me a slower reader, but I think it makes me a more refined reader. It is easier to pick up flaws in an author's writing when you are using all the author's own directions on pausing, stopping and expressing.
In my book group, (which many of you know since it is stated in my Blog profile) Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group , myself and my assistant moderators are never shy to mention to people that all viewpoints are welcome. That members should not be shy to say what they feel about a book and that we will defend their right to do so. It is so important that a reader should never feel bad for not liking a book and in turn, a reader who then goes on to review should never feel bad or be made to feel bad for leaving a negative review.
Allowing for diversity of opinion and not oppressing it makes for a better environment for reader and
The reader gets to be open and unafraid that their honest views will put them at risk of rebuffs and insults.

Make sure you are holding ground for all the right reasons
And the author? If the discussion on their book is diverse and open and honest then they are put in a unique position that authors rarely get to be in. Like a fly on the wall, only they are allowed to contribute and see, first hand, readers' spontaneous reactions to their books.

They get to see how readers, all from such varied walks of life and interests, discuss their books. Outside of the Goodreads website. Whether their books are being read amoung friends and discussed in a coffee shop, or in a library book club, or between a father/mother and son/daughter as the book is handed around, what the author can be assured of is that through the eyes of a group of few in an online Goodreads book club, the author will be able to see samples of what all those private conversations might be like. Not every one of those people in a coffee shop or library is going to be positive about the book. And nor should they be in an online book club.

It is a terrific opportunity for authors to see total disclosure by readers and in turn, it is a good atmosphere for the readers to be involved in.
Otherwise, if everyone is saying yes, yes, other readers who want to say no, no, never will. This leads authors to think they do not have to improve their writing process and leads readers to read books based on popularity and when they decide they don't like it, are too timid to admit it.
So, if you have never assessed how you react to others not liking the same books or authors as you, or ever scoffed at someone for not liking a book that is very popular or if you have used the old "well everyone else likes it" type comments to some poor unsuspecting soul who didn't like it, or perhaps you are an author unused to seeing negative feedback in the public arena, then please remember this. Stow it away in your mental folders. A quote of George S. Patton, which also happens to be our book groups motto:

"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking"

Makes sense doesn't it?

- MM


  1. Hear! Hear!
    Plus to me, the more different opinions the better 'sense' I get of a book. I don't more about specific content, just how the book is received by each individual. Helps me decide if it's a good fit for me (though I'm like a rubbish heap when it comes to books - I'll read just about anything). There is no way, 1 person can convey all that.

    1. Yeah, it gives balance to have both sides of the coin. When everyone loves a book when we are all doing a group read together it kind of gets boring. lol.

  2. I actually find the differences of opinion fascinating. It has prompted me to go back to review how I was interpreting something. I have learned to take reviews with a grain of salt since I have loved books that others rated low.

    1. I too take reviews with a grain of salt when deciding to read something. The amount of times I have seen all 4 or 5 star reviews and thought "this must be good" only to discover I hate it.
      Reviews are more of interest to me 'after' I have read the book. If we give a book 2 stars, it is then nice to find the other 2 star reviews for a book and see whether you had anything in common with those readers.
      Nice to read people's thoughts on books as you are checking a book out, but much more fun to read the book and discover who in your friend's list shared your opinion.

  3. Great post with some very valid points.
    My granny used to say "one man's meat is another man's poison".

    1. Thanks Tim. :) I know that saying too! Can't remember how it come to me though...

  4. Reviews are subjective too. I am trying to leave a review for every book I read, If I really don't like it, I would rather not review it than leave a bad one - I review to make make people want to buy the book. I also review music for a music ezine, which is a step up into a more professional arena (I think) which demands a little more objectiveness about the review - somehow to separate what was done badly from what I just didn't like (which is personal taste) - that is harder. Here is the problem with these sites, reviews are done by anybody, and some people who find a book not to their tastes will give a bad review, when it is unjustified because their is nothing wrong with the book in actuality.
    The difference to this is the geeks who slam a good book because something might be slightly wrong historically. These reviewers are nuts with nothing better to do with their lives.....

  5. Who says "there is nothing wrong with the book in actuality"? You? Did you even read my blog post? You may think there is nothing wrong with the book, the next person may think there is. Who's right? You both are! That's the whole point. The problem starts when a person regards themselves superior to others and think their opinion on books is the only right one.

    And what are you talking about "geeks who slam a good book because something might be slightly wrong historically. These reviewers are nuts with nothing better to do with their lives..."
    I personally have never 'slammed' a book for being "slightly wrong historically" and I don't know a single reviewer who ever has. I don't know your books, Andy, but if that is what you think someone did to you then I would need to see this for myself. I have a hard time believing anybody would slam someone's hist fic just because of a "slight" historical accuracy,