I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. For years, actually. I guess the key word here is good and how a reader chooses to define it.
Back in my younger days, before I started writing or was just starting out, I had very particular opinions about what made a book good, snooty opinions that meant my views trumped others’ tastes and preferences. It was only when I got serious about writing that I realized just how difficult it is to tell any sort of story with any measure of success. I noticed the books I had formerly considered “beneath” me had readers who loved them. Who was I to decide those books weren’t good? It was around this time I shifted from categorizing books as “good” or “bad” to determining if a book was a good fit for me.
In college, my favorite class (by far!) was adolescent literature, taught by Albuquerque author Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson. I loved my class and my professor so much I cried when it was over.* Jeanne taught my class of future teachers so much about children’s literature. She was adamant that we use the word “enjoy” instead of “like or dislike” when discussing the books we’d read. Pushing us to find something to appreciate about a text (whether we liked a book or not) was what made a discussion rich and made reading a more interactive experience. I carried this concept into my teaching days, challenging my students to find what they enjoyed about a story even if they didn’t particularly like it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about preferences and how much they shape what we bring to a book. You might read a book’s jacket copy and have particular expectations going in that you feel aren’t met once you begin reading. You might not be the type of person who likes XYZ when it comes to storytelling. This happens sometimes to me when I read. It happens in my critique group, too, when someone points out something (or I point out something) that doesn’t feel like it’s working when really, in that particular situation, it’s not working for that specific reader. It’s a preference thing, in other words. Sometimes it happens when people come to my books and don’t get what they were looking for or find something that’s not to their taste (“I don’t like multiple point of view books” or “I wish there had been some reference material included” or you get the idea). I’m trying to be aware of my preferences and expectations when I come to a piece of writing. I’m trying to remember this when others read my books, too. I often think of something my critique partner, Uma Krishnaswami once said:
Few books are perfect. If you read like a writer you must read to gain what you can from each book, so reading then becomes a generous act. I tell my students they must learn to be generous readers and judge each book not by whether it’s the book they would have written but by whether it fulfilled the writer’s apparent intention for it.
That’s where I land nowadays as a reader. What can I appreciate about the book I’m reading, even if it’s not my preference? (I’m so glad for a book club that sometimes pushes me beyond my preferences, by the way! It is good to grow and good to be challenged.) Has the author fulfilled her purpose in writing it, as far as I can tell? This is a generous way to read. Whether a book is to my taste or not (and my taste has really broadened over the years).
You might notice I never publicly speak poorly of another author’s work (though I still have opinions! Listen in on a book club discussion sometime!). This was a personal decision I made once my own books were published.
I’m curious: How do you determine if a book is good? How much do preference and expectation play into the way you experience a book? How do you choose to talk about the books that aren’t for you? Comment below or hit reply if you’re reading this over email. And if you know anyone who might find this conversation interesting, I encourage you to pass it along!
*Imagine my surprise when, years later and living in Albuquerque again, I discovered she had once been a member of my beloved critique group! I get to see Jeanne when my group meets annually for our Christmas dinner. It has been such a pleasure to know this former teacher I admired so much now as a peer and friend.