Most of my posts should reveal that I’m not interested in simply summarizing the plot of a novel. This job is sufficiently accomplished in the book jacket and replicated on vendor sites. While some bloggers may derive pleasure from synthesizing salient facts from a novel, this production does not motivate me. What does interest me is finding some outside connection to the book. Sometimes these connections take the form of familiar sensory experiences, as in A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash and Christopher Tilghman’s The Right Hand Shore. Other times I’m able to forge a new connection, such as the uniquly presented point of view of fathers in Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, or perceive contemporary women’s issues in a new light, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau. I’d like to communicate a book’s utility, whether it be grippingly informative, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner, or potently philosophical, The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau.
My sister asked a very relevant question a couple of weeks ago, “Why do you only give good reviews?” Well, there are two answers to this question. One answer reflects the manner I receive books, and the other represents my basic worldview on reviewing.
To date, I have only reviewed books that have passed through the hands of people who know me well. In the scientific community, we call this selection bias. There is a much higher probability of me favoring books that have survived an initial screening with me in mind. I have a high stack of novels waiting to be read, and some genres are conspicuously absent due to this bias. One topic in particular, the I’m-trying-to-get-pregnant theme is known to be taboo. I have four children, don’t desire more, and have a deeply seeded, though neurotic, fear that somehow such writing will yield a second line on the dipstick.
I personally do not find pleasure or purpose in filleting a novel. My days as a statistical analyst contributing to peer-reviewed journal articles give me screenshot on the frustrating process that is publishing. The work passes through countless hands, drowns in gallons of red ink and may or may not actually make it to print. There is a lot of work that goes into even the shortest publication, and the simple fact that a work is in print shows that someone, somewhere, gave the work merit.
This is not to say that we’re all winners, and every book is worthwhile reading. What I am saying is that my likes and dislikes vary with my mood, the time of year, and the stage of life I’m in. While my kids were younger, a memoir encompassing the joys and frustrations of motherhood or Navy wifehood might interest me. I went through a phase, accidentally, and much to the dismay of my friends, of devouring medieval Norwegian historical fiction. Currently, you couldn’t pay me to read any of these now. (Well, actually, I would be interested in more of the Norwegian historical fiction, but I’m afraid I’ve tapped the source.) Does that mean these types of novels have no literary merit? Absolutely not! Most novels have an audience, sometime, somewhere, albeit few have the coveted popular vote of the bestseller list.
Have I read novels that would function better as kindling for a Girl Scout campout? Sure! I once was given an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) that gave a fictionalized account of some colonists at Jamestown. I stopped reading by the end of the first page when I passed over the words citing the founding of Jamestown in 1609. While I realize ARCs have not been scrubbed for final edits, such an error is inexcusable at any stage of the process. If a fourth grader on the East Coast can identify the error, the author, the agent, the editor, the friends who were passed a copy, all should have identified the error early on, too.
Another stop-read novel that comes to mind came across as whiny-women-are-always-supressed-by-men victim driven drivel. Yes, there is still discrimination of women in some situations. No, it is not appropriate nor accurrate to blanket all men as suppressors in this decade. While I was reading, I could hear my male former graduate school advisor, a middle-aged first-generation Indian male, screaming into the phone, “I will pay for childcare!” as it became clear I was quitting. As a white, middle-class female, I could not connect to the “downtrodden” white, middle-class female character of the 21st century. Sorry.
The times of reading pre-screened books is rapidly coming to an end, as I contemplate the first anonymously-tossed novel in my queue. The temptation to critique rather than reflect is high. I’m still not likely to write anything with the purpose of discouraging readership. As I type, I conjure some unique exceptions including the glorification of suicide or rape. A charismatic author crossing the line of fiction into harmful propaganda will probably get a giant red flag from me. Here is my public health/public service announcement gene expressing itself. What if, lacking in harmful potential, a novel is simply terrible? I doubt I’m even going to review it. I simply don’t have that kind of time. I have laundry to do instead.