The most recent issue of Vanity Fair had an interesting article about why certain book critics are dismayed about the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. Reviewers from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review are highly critical of Donna Tartt’s last novel, using words like marred, overwritten, and cliche. Meanwhile, more mainstream media outlets, like Time and The New York Times, feature reviews that give The Goldfinch the highest accolades. While the various reviewers have addressed their discrepant opinions, there seems to be a loose agreement that in today’s book culture, story is king and quality of writing is secondary.
To high-brow book critics (which I don’t mean in any derogatory sense), this stubborn fact doesn’t sit well. If an author’s writing skill has a lower value in the eye of the reader, whatever amount of objectivity in what makes a book good is lessened. There are still elements of plot and characterization that can be judged, but if story is truly king, then quality becomes a mark more of subjectivity than anything else.
I have been reviewing books for a couple of years now, mainly as a learning experience. I was an amateur when I started and despite my efforts at self-teaching myself about the art of reading, I remain an amateur now. Visit sites like Amazon and Goodreads and you will find drive-by reviews of little substance and strong opinions, reflecting what many critics have feared for many years now: the dumbing down of book culture.
Slate also published a damning article of adults who prefer to read YA novels. Particularly, the article suggests, “YA readers… are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Several rebuttal blog posts followed, once again setting a divide on what various people consider good fiction.
I have found my own personal reading tastes are inversely proportional to how busy and stressful my life is. When life is under control and I have quiet moments to sit and read a book, perhaps with a nice cup of coffee on the end table next to me, I tend toward the literary end. I would be much more likely to pick up a Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy, or Samuel Delaney novel than I would pick up something like a Star Wars tie-in novel. On the other hand, I am currently in the middle of a job transition and move overseas and find myself leaning toward lighter fiction and graphic novels. Frankly, it’s not that my tastes are changing — it’s that I do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to read anything deeper. If I were to pick up a literary novel that was more challenging I would likely be bored with it. Not because the writing is bad, but because I would miss the critical details and under-appreciate the well-crafted prose. And if I were to review a book like this, what could I even say? I would be left with surface-level criticisms and an overall generic and uninspiring review.
From my personal experience, I have found that for amateur reviewers, it is not an objective opinion or really even a subjective opinion that leads to a reader’s response. Readership bias plays perhaps the largest role in whether or not a book is deemed good. I will use Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie as one of these examples. First of all, I found it to be a fine novel and would probably cast my vote for it in the Hugo’s for best novel of the year, largely because the contenders are uninspiring in a year that actually had some very good fiction. Despite my own favorable opinion, I think a reviewer would be remiss to mention that the book had many problems of a debut novelist. The flow of the novel, the pacing, and how information was given to the reader (too little at first, then repetitive later on) were problematic and are aspects of novel writing that come as many writers progress in their careers. What Ann Leckie did extremely well, however, is her use of gender pronouns. This theme alone struck a chord with many readers. In fact, it struck such a chord that reviewers gave it flawless reviews, even calling it the best science fiction book of the decade. The highly positive reviews also seemed to parallel reviewers who particularly care or are activists for gender equality in science fiction (I don’t mean this as a slight on any reviewers, nor do I want to downplay the issue of gender parity. I’m sure there are subjects that would influence my opinion on how “good” I think a book is as well).
My conclusion in my meandering is that in the age of social media, amateur reviewers have a louder voice than ever. And if my hypothesis that book quality is more of a reflection of the personal bias and possibly even temporary circumstances of the reader, we have little to measure what makes a good book. Certainly the seemingly random best novel titles on the Hugo ballot reflect this notion. I don’t know if there is a solution to this or even if this is a problem to solve. I think the only thing a reader can do is find a reviewer whose tastes are most similar to their own and hope that the reviewer isn’t going through a particular season that can shift their perception of the book. Ultimately, each reader will have to decide on their own whether a novel is good.