Thursday, February 20, 2014

Does 'I Hate It' Equal 'It's Lousy'?

How do you tell if a book is good or not, as you're reading? I was talking about writing and reading good fiction at a workshop and a woman asked: "So if you're reading a book and you can't get into it, that means it's no good?"

Oh, nay, lass. Not necessarily, anyway. Matter of taste and personal preference must be considered.

A restaurant offers many different dishes. If a dish new to you was placed before you and you tasted it and didn't care for it, I hope you wouldn't say it was bad food, unless it was poorly prepared. And there are some empirical standards by which we judge food: ice cream should be cold, a steak should be sizzling, a pilaf should offer some complexity as well as a pleasing blend of flavors, there shouldn't be a dead fly in anything, and so on.

(I might add that little chickens should be nicely browned.)

Same with writing. You rightly expect to find lively characters, an engrossing story line, and some measure of style, for starters. If you read something that contains mistakes of grammar, implausible plotting, and bland dialogue, then you're justified to call that writing bad, and can legitimately post a negative review on your favorite online forum.

What if you like adventure tales, but you pick up a book that turns out to be chick lit? Not to your taste, not your preference. Are you justified in calling it bad, and warning others away from it? No, not merely on that basis.

In fiction as in anything, defensible standards can be good guidance. We only cause damage when we assume our taste should be everybody's taste.

[Photo of nicely browned little chickens by ES. Little chickens nicely browned by MB.] 

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