You pick up a book, or watch a movie or TV show that has received rave reviews, from friends, professional critics and internet posters–and you don’t like it. At all.
You don’t get it. You can’t understand what everyone else is flipping out over.
Of course, it happens to everyone. The sitcom Seinfeld even devoted an episode to it when Elaine couldn’t understand why everyone else thought The English Patient was a great movie.
This happened to me again just the other day. I was seeing rave reviews for Gillian Flynn‘s new book Gone Girl all over the place. The blurb sounded interesting to me. I had an extra Audible credit in my account and decided to download it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I had made a mistake. I just couldn’t get into it.
I gave it about three chapters, then quit. I went to Amazon to see if there were negative reviews, and as with most popular books, there were more than a few. (What is it about human beings that we so desperately want someone to validate what we feel?) Only a few people disliked it from the beginning of the story. The others mostly complained about how they didn’t care for the twist ending.
After putting aside Gone Girl, I’ll admit I was in a bit of a snit, annoyed with the people who had given these glowing reviews and convinced me to spend an Audible credit on the book. I gave a lot of thought to exactly what was bothering me about the book.
It turns out that most of what bothered me was connected to my own personal taste.
The first issue I had was it front-loads the story with a lot of exposition.
I stopped reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo after two chapters for the same reason. I want to get right into the action, not hear about the characters’ life histories up to the point where the story begins. (In the case of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it was also the economic history of Europe for the last thirty years.)
The other thing that put me off about Gone Girl was the writing style. It’s a very descriptive, stylized form of prose writing.
I happen to prefer a leaner, plainer, more direct style of writing. I don’t know why that is–maybe because I read a lot of writers like James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald when I was in my teens. That may also be why I like stories to get right into the action. It’s not that I can’t appreciate dense writing (heck, I love Thomas Hardy, you can’t get denser than that) but I want something to happen in the middle of it.
That’s the point–this is my personal preference. Because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it has no value. There are people who enjoy this style of writing. There are people who love to read a lot of detail about the characters’ histories at the beginning of a story.
They’re not wrong.
They’re just not me.
The thing is, when people write reviews, sometimes they forget this. Too often it boils down to “I loved it, so it’s a work of genius” or “I didn’t like it, so it’s a piece of crap.”
Clearly, Gillian Flynn is a talented writer. Clearly, Stieg Larsson hit some kind of nerve with his Millennium series. That’s a remarkable achievement. I don’t have to read the books to admire how he grabbed the imaginations of so many people.
While our first response to a story is emotional, we should make an effort not to be entirely emotional when writing reviews. We don’t have to pretend a book rocked our world when it didn’t. It’s actually O.K. not to like something other people like. But we should try to figure out why we didn’t care for a book–and whether those reasons are personal taste, rather than poor execution. Every author deserves that much respect.
Oh, and for the record–I agree with Elaine. I also didn’t love The English Patient. However, unlike Elaine, I won’t try to convince everyone else they’re wrong because they liked it.