Why do you like what you like to read?

August 28, 2011 § 6 Comments

Relatively simple question, no?  Yet it is one that often does not generate more than simple responses that do not scratch deeper than the question’s surface.  “I like ____ because of the characters…”  But what about the characters?  Some might respond with “I want believable, sympathetic characters.”  Fair enough, except when there are works that revolve around characters whose mores are going to differ dramatically from the reader’s:  “I don’t like unsympathetic characters.  I cannot be sucked into the story that way.”

Why can’t you?  This is a question I often have when I read certain book reviews.  I am left wondering what the actual forest (the story’s themes, prose, etc.) is due to the outsized coverage of the trees (how the reviewer tries to “relate” with fictional characters, often distorting the narrative to focus on this).  Granted, many people read just to react.  “Oh, that dastardly villain!  S/he shall get what’s coming to her/him!” or “Yay!  These characters rock for getting what they so richly deserve!”  But should that be all there is to it?

I realize no two readers will parse a story in the exact same fashion.  One person’s overblown cod-Wagnerian purple prose will be another’s surrealistic treasure containing just the right mixture of mood, tone, and narrative voice.  But can someone be considered a “better reader” than another?  Some might be tempted to say no, that readers have their own particular “blind spots” and that some well-known literary critics are going to miss the whole damn point in favor of lambasting a populist work for its unimaginative characters, pedestrian prose, and recycled plots.  After all, these proponents of a literary egalitarianism might argue, there should be no “gatekeepers” and that a review from say a Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist should carry more weight than a mini-review in The New Yorker due to the reviewer’s presumed greater familiarity with the subject and his/her possible freedom from certain critical mechanics that might make the communication of the book’s merits more difficult for those who want a scaled/starred review without “all that extraneous bullshit.”

There is, of course, an audience for those sorts of reviews, but some might argue that certain literary genres (say various fantasy and SF subgenres) suffer from an overabundance of these sorts of reviews that serve as a checklist of “likes” and “dislikes” without much in the way of explaining why these are pros or cons in a particular tale.  It doesn’t help when a hypothetical reviewer proclaims Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun to be a subpar work because “Severian is an unlikeable character” or “It is a confusing mess of a story that skips key moments in favor of silly asides to the reader.”  Such comments, beyond lacking a basic awareness of the type of story being told, reflect a lack of commitment to delve further into that question of “Why do you like what you like to read?”

Perhaps others might answer this question differently, but for myself, why I like to read what I like to read presumes an undertone of doubt and uncertainty.  Why do I not read as many SF/F works as I did for most of the past decade?  Are my reading tastes changing and if so, why?  Am I getting the full picture or at least a representational sample when I read a work?  Can my views be changed by talking about it with another reader or reflecting back on it after a passage of time?  I believe such doubts are healthy when writing a review.  It forces me to keep asking other questions and being more engaged with the work as a whole.  For others, it’ll be different, at least in how they approach the story and the questions they ask, but those who refuse to go beyond answering “why do you like what you like to read?” with certain formulaic responses that seem to derive from what the reader wants rather than being open to changing your expectations and thoughts to suit the text in front of you, those readers will likely be those whose opinions I dismiss with as much thought as they seemingly put into their often-vapid reviews.


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