This happens quite often: I start reading a book, and within a few pages I find myself thrown out of the story. Maybe there are too many grammatical errors, or the story doesn’t make sense, or possibly the writing is bland and uninspiring. I’ve read too many books in need of an edit, and sympathise with those who moan at the amateur nature of independently-published books.
But I don’t like to give up on books, so I plough through to the end, inwardly moaning about the hours of my time I’m wasting.
Then I’ll pop on to Amazon or Goodreads, interested to read what others thought of the book. And I’ll be confronted with pages of five-star reviews. They’ll praise the exciting story (that I considered tedious and predictable), or the wonderful characters (that I found to be cardboard cut-out cliches). These reviews talk of the enjoyment they got from the story, and how much they’re looking forward to that author’s next book.
This happens often enough that I wonder if I missed something, or if my judgement on books is awry.
But it isn’t. What I think of a particular book is what I think of it. It’s my personal opinion.
There is no right or wrong here. Everyone is different. What I look for in a good book will not necessarily correspond with others’ idea of an enjoyable read.
Other people will have different opinions.
Some readers can’t get past more than a handful of grammar issues, but others don’t even notice the mistakes. Some readers are turned off by bland descriptions, while others are enraptured with the dialogue in the very same book. Some people enjoy the richness of the language, while to others the words are nothing more than a way of getting the story across.
Everyone is different, in both their preferences and what they expect from a book. An author like Dan Brown is often frowned upon by those who prefer more intellectual books (whatever they are), but he has far more readers than any of the year’s Booker nominees. James Joyce’s works are considered classics by some, and undreadable nonsense by others. Some people relate to Twilight‘s Bella, and others find her a nonentity.
This doesn’t only happen in books, of course. A new art-house film might receive outstanding reviews from film critics, but it will never come close to making as much money as the latest big-budget effects-driven spectacular. The latest pop music sensation will easily outsell a band that is pushing the boundaries of music. Sometimes, a musician might straddle both ‘popular’ and ‘experimental’ music, but they are rare indeed. Bjork continues to produce challenging music, but she is no longer the ‘popular’ artist she was when she had hits with tracks such as ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ or ‘Human Behaviour’.
So if her older music was more popular, is it better than her latest stuff?
That’s not a sensible question. It’s different. Each album is what it is. Just as each book by each author is what it is. As every author is individual, so is every reader. Every reader is seeking something different from a book.
So no, I’m not in the wrong if I don’t enjoy a book that others view as a classic. I might not have the same opinion as the majority of others, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Just different.
And that is why reviews can only ever be guidelines. For all the importance placed on them, especially in the independent-publishing field, they are not fact. A load of good reviews might mean that the book is popular, but they are still only the opinions of individuals.
Of course, reviews have their uses. If a review favourably compares a book to one of your favourites, of it that reviewer has given positive reviews to other books you like, then you might want to check the book out. If the reviews talk about plot twists, or evocative language, or snappy, sarcastic dialogue, and you enjoy these things, then it’s more likely that you will agree with their opinion of the book.
Negative reviews can be ‘positive’ in guiding a reader to a book too. If you enjoy violence and lots of swearing in your books, and a negative review decries the coarse language and gore-filled descriptions, this might be the book for you. If the reviewer moans that the sappy relationship gets in the way of the mystery, but you like romance stories, that could be a good sign.
So is there a lesson in this? If there is, it is probably to take reviews with a pinch of salt. Read them, yes. Take note of the thoughts of others. But don’t take their word as anything other than their personal opinions. Understand that when you read the book, you are doing so for yourself, not for them. Remember that you can think for yourself, and you can reach your own conclusions.
If you disagree with a review, it’s not a case of right and wrong, just a difference of opinion.