The first post in my series started with taking opportunities to express your opinion on the Internet. Specifically, your opinion about novels you think are good or bad. If you’re going to express your views, why not make it an opinion worth reading.
George Orwell said, “…The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” So I mention Orwell’s wall as a way of structuring how we think about works of fiction. This approach can go by other names such as Reader Response or Ethical Criticism, but Orwell’s wall is the best metaphor I’ve found to explain critiquing books. Allow me to explain further.
You read novel “X” and hate it. You log onto Good Reads, Amazon, or whatever platform to express your opinion to “save” some unsuspecting victim from spending good money on a bad story. Enraged that you wasted your time on a dumb novel, you click one star and set yourself to type a blistering response. All of sudden, the only thing you can think to write is “I hated this.” You may say you hated the plot, you might say you hated the characters, but many reading your response would be unimpressed by a simplistic opinion without offering a reason. If you want to be taken seriously, it helps to form well thought out critical opinions as opposed to full on “rants” or an all out “gush”. Hence, we can use a familiar form of criticism and Orwell’s wall to construct something more interesting than a rant or a gush.
Purdue University’s online writers resource, The Purdue Owl, defines Reader Response as the view that, “… considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text…(Reader Response) can take a number of different approaches…[but maintains]…that a text cannot be separated from what it does [for the reader]…”(Owl). Reader Response, sometimes called Ethical criticism, is used in public schools to teach literature. Students read an assigned book, discussion follows where students vocalize their responses to help them process their opinions to “think out loud” and then organize their thoughts to express their take on the book. If you said that sounds a lot like “I love it or hate it” you would be close, but not quite there because teachers also want to know why a student thinks the way they do about a book.
Those that ascribe to Reader Response bring to their reading experience the complete subtexts of their life experiences or lack thereof, reading ability, world view, and morality to analyze the merit of a story. This subtext forms a lens in which to judge a work.Keep in mind that those opinions can be shaped by reading and a reader’s comprehension.
Of course, everyone’s life experience can be unique and varied, so much so that a story may garner a variety of opinions. Is an opinion biased? Yes, of course it is, but Reader Response is most useful when you collect a lot of opinions from a good cross section of people of different backgrounds. When you see a lot of readers giving a book four out of five stars, you can count on one of two things: 1) Either a lot of people with the same life biases liked the book, 2) The book managed to catch the favor of a large cross section of different people and would be worth paying attention to. Either way, such ratings become more valuable by the increased number of opinions referenced. The fewer the opinions, the least trustworthy, unless you know the reading habits of the few people expressing that favorable or unfavorable view. This is how professional critics work.
Using Orwell’s mirror you can structure an opinion to make it more useful. You start out with the basic novel construction (is the wall a good wall?). “Does the novel have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? Do you comprehend what you read, or were you tripping over poor writing. Sometimes a poor reading experience is blamed on the author, when it could be the reader’s poor comprehension.
The second half of Orwell’s wall is the trickiest part and embraces the basic idea of Ethical criticism, “…even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” Did the novel take you any place worth while? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by a train wreck? Is that place somewhere other readers would like to go, or should they even want to go?”
This is where world view plays into Reader Response, Ethical Criticism, and Orwell’s wall. Many readers want the literature they read to be a mirror of who they perceive themselves to be, or want they aspire to. They want their personal beliefs reflected in their stories. Some readers like to have their self-views challenged, but many don’t, at least not on a regular basis.
Allow me a personal example. I hate Romance as a literary genre. My writing associates know this and accept this, but don’t share that opinion. I will almost never pick up a romance novel to read no matter how enticing the book cover is. To me, it is usually “stupid trash.” Those of you who do like romance might be saying, “Well who does that guy think he is?” Are you mad yet?
Is my view fair to all romance novels? No. There is nothing fair about my view because I am judging a whole set of unread books by some invisible perception or misperception buried in my psyche. This is the problem with Reader Response and Ethical Criticism. The perception of a book’s quality is dependent on what a reader brings to a story.
There have been some stories I’ve read and liked at certain times in my life, only to reread them later, and ask myself, “What was I thinking when I read this? This is awful.” In other words, the novel didn’t change, I did.
The true value of Reader Response comes from being around like minded readers and finding things that perpetuate personal preferences. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but if you want to grow as a person and a reader, it helps to read things other than just your preferences.
Believe it or not, I read a romance novel every once in a while. In addition, I have specifically read four romance manuscripts over the last several years and I found should these projects ever get published, I would buy them. The authors absolutely defeated my personal biases and silenced my inner credit. I think that’s pretty amazing, and very rare.
So to move to more meaningful opinions start by using Orwell’s wall. When you approach a novel, does it have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? When you, the reader, finish the story; do you understand where the author has taken you and why?
Next, is what the novel embraces good, bad, or indifferent? Did the novel take you any place at all? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by morbid curiosity when watching a train wreck? Did the novel take to a place you wanted to go as a reader? Did it take you someplace you’ve never been before? Is that place somewhere you and other readers should like to go, or even want to go?” Then write your opinion down and share it.
It’s also helpful to the author to know why you didn’t like the book. Maybe they’ll take your comments seriously and use your feedback to get better with the next novel. No one can get better when the comment is “your book stinks.”
Of course, those are the comments an author or prospective reader should never take seriously. I think I said that in my article some place. I know it was in the first blog article.
I usually read reviews before buying a book, and I tend to look at the three-star reviews first, followed by the four stars. I don’t even look at the one’s, two’s and five’s. Why? Three stars tell me the reader probably read the entire book and felt conflicted. A good three-star will explain what the reviewer did and didn’t like.
I like to read the 3 and 4 star reviews when someone takes the time to write them. A lot of times, the five stars are usually friends of the author, unless there is a lot of them. One such case Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan on Good Reads. There are a lot of them.