Going through the books I’ve read and rated (a part of my quest to identify all the books I ever read), I noticed something interesting. I give many five star ratings. I don’t think it’s because every single one of those writers wrote a perfect book – whatever that is – but it has more to do with whether or not what they wrote made me feel something. I rarely read solely because the subject is “interesting”. That I do for my other work around social policy. In that life, I read things that are interesting and that inform me about a particular issue and make me more effective as an advocate, speaker and writer; I enjoy it immensely and have learned so much about my country, the world and human nature in general.
But when I read recreationally, I read to “feel” something. If I learn something as well, that’s certainly a bonus.
So it’s been interesting to read reviews that other folks write, particularly bad reviews, of books that I enjoyed. Often, the negative reviewer will list at length the ways that the main character frustrated them or made them angry, how the protagonist made decisions they were befuddled by . . . and then they’ll go on to rate the book at one or two stars.
How can it be, I wonder, that you were made to feel something just by reading this author’s words on a page, and then go on to undervalue those words?
Now, this is very different from the negative review that says, “I just didn’t believe it. The author did not convince me” that these characters were in this situation, or that being in that situation, they would have made the decisions they made. That, I think, may merit some disappointment. But to acknowledge that the writing evoked an emotion and then go on to say that you didn’t like the book because you didn’t like the emotion itself, puzzles me.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I saw the movies, ‘Gone, Baby Gone’ and ‘Mystic River’, I was absolutely horrified and made despondent by the subject matter. I was literally haunted by both for weeks after I’d seen them. Now imagine if I had been a movie critic and panned both on that basis alone.
Similarly, Chris Bohjalian’s book ‘The Double Bind’ continues to disturb me to this day, years after I first read it. I see it on my bookshelf and walk past it quickly, preferring not to even look at the cover, perhaps ever again. That emotion, however uncomfortable, does not take it off my list of all-time best books I ever read, almost purely because of how it makes me feel.
In my own writing, I strive for that. I want my characters to piss you off, or make you love them, or make you sad. If someone says that my main female character is a “nasty piece of work”, my hope is that they mean she’s a flawed person, not a flawed product of my imagination.
In my soon-to-be-released book ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ my struggle has been that the main character is very unlike anyone I know, and certainly very unlike me. She is painfully insecure, easily susceptible to the influence of others, and not at all sure of who she is. These character traits make her say and do things that I find inherently unsympathetic. And that makes it tough to get in touch with her. So I’ve had to constantly remind myself that I need not like her choices, or even like her. I simply need to believe her. I hope you’ll check out ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ next month and then write me a review telling me if you believed her.
In the meantime, read the teaser and leave me a comment.