Way back in the Stone Age (pre-Internet), book reviews were done mostly by literary professionals, or by those supposedly in a position to give educated opinions. Individual readers had very limited public voice in such things. These were the times when our teachers determined what we should read and why the chosen books were important to read. Many of us as teenagers often found “literature” not to our taste.
Looking back, we may realize that the reason we disliked these books is that we were too young to fully appreciate them. After all, many of these books were written for adults. In some cases, if we read them as adults, we appreciated them—but not always.
A recent article from Kris Rusch reminded me of the divide between what is considered “literature” and “good” and what is ignored or considered “trash” by literary critics.
I’ll let Kris Rusch weigh in here, then I’ll add my further comments.
An issue that Kris does not deal with in her article is that of reviews from readers. When the Internet became a venue of reader opinions, book critics sometimes reacted—usually negatively. Why qualified the general reading masses to review books? Such opinions, the elite felt, were best left to those who understood writing.
This is where things get murky and that thing called “taste” enters the picture. Stories can exist on two levels: the basic story and a deeper meaning. The literary crowd usually deem books that lack the “deeper meaning” as being basically not worthy as literature.
What we must understand is that the classics of literature did not start out that way. They were usually written for reader enjoyment, and few were written with deeper meanings, although we can point to some written with the purpose of having a message in them: The Time Machine, Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm, 1984 to name a few. Readers read for different reasons and those reasons are not always constant. Some read purely for pleasure, some read for deep meaning, some read for both—and the same readers don’t always read for the same reasons all the time.
My personal view is that a story written to have a deeper meaning should still have an engaging surface story. All of the above mentioned classics do, and if we miss the deeper meaning, we can still appreciate the story irrespective of what lies beneath the surface.
Granted, reader reviews can be flawed, and they can lack substance. Some can be vengeful. But intelligent readers know how to read past these. There is absolutely nothing wrong with general readers expressing their opinions about a book. This is your basic word of mouth in today’s world. Good books and bad books have always existed, and the reviews will always sort those out. Reviews that focus on taste alone have their use in helping readers with similar tastes find books they might like.
What’s always interesting is that if we look at the reviews on Amazon for well-respected books, the classics and bestsellers, we’ll find opinions still range all over the place, yet the reviews will zero in on the true worth. Yes, some people even hate Harry Potter. That’s their personal taste, and they’re entitled to their opinion.
We’re certainly allowed to read badly written books. I’ve never seen any studies claiming that reading bad books destroys our brains. The only danger I see is that if we aspire to be writers, then we really need to be able to recognize good writing and bad writing so that we don’t copy it. And as Kris Rusch points out, we must not blame those writers for their writing. Let’s just worry about our own writing.