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Good Reading Recipe

A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of contention on Dear Author because of an F review for Trinity Blacio’s The Claiming. In the midst of the usual cache of mean girl accusations were also a lot of intersecting issues related to the elements that we each take into consideration when deciding whether a book is good or bad, works for us or doesn’t. And one of the reasons I think conversations like the one over The Claiming become so heated is that we don’t always separate out the various quantitative and qualitative measures that go into our responses, the overlapping issues of correctness, style, and taste, especially when there are so many people talking around and through so many nuances of our specific responses.

I tend to be a somewhat analytical reader by nature, so when I endeavor to review a book, one of the first things I do is start breaking down each of these categories as they relate to the book, weighing and measuring how each worked for me and how much of each shaped my experience of reading.

Correctness

Correctness is a measure of how well the author conforms to basic rules of grammar, syntax, and spelling, as well as historical detail and general proper use of words and terms. At this level I am basically looking at objective criteria: does the author match subjects with verbs correctly? Does she know how to use direct and indirect objects? Is she using words according to their proper definitions? Is punctuation correct; more than anything, proper use of punctuation cues the reader so she knows when to pause, when to shift focus, and how to put different ideas together. But if grammar rules are not used correctly, is it for a good reason (i.e. the spoken words of a character or for the purposes of clarity)? Is the syntax proper (syntax is the ordering of words and the structure of sentences)?

Syntax, for example, is often where you can detect that English is not a writer’s native language because of the differences between languages. In Mandarin, for example, there are no tenses beyond present, and in French a negating word (non, for example) is both separate from and positioned after its referent. In any case this level of analysis is pretty basic and easily comes down to a question of whether the author seems to know and is following particular rules. I think that all authors should aspire to a level of correctness that at least covers basic comprehensibility and clarity as the foundation of their storytelling.

Style

Past the issue of correctness is that of style, or that element of an author’s work connected to how she expresses her story in writing, how the words follow one another and work together to speak to the reader. Does the author use a lot of descriptive language? Do her paragraphs tend toward long or short? Does she favor a lot of dialogue and who narrates the story?

Now this is where things start to get sticky, because for most of us, if an author’s style does not agree with us, we are likely to say that a book is not well-written. And subjectively speaking, this is true, because for a reader to love a book it must speak to them compellingly, and if the reader finds the way the story is expressed on the page to be unappealing or difficult or frustrating or boring, the book is not speaking to that reader in a compelling way. For that reader, the writing is not successful.

However, style is a fundamentally subjective element of good writing in that what one reader despises, another will find absolutely transcendent. How many times have we had the style debate about Judith Ivory or Laura Kinsale or JR Ward? Some readers prefer very dense prose, some prefer very simple prose. Moreover, readers will not identify prose with the same descriptors, especially if they have strong positive or negative feelings about it. I, for example, believe that Laura Kinsale has a very dense prose style, but have debated with other readers who do not find her prose dense at all. All of us are fans of her books but we describe her style somewhat differently. And who knows if any of us comprehends it in the way that the author herself does. That is simply another element of the complicated relationship between readers, authors, and texts.

Taste

Moving past style we ultimately reach issues of taste, which are the most subjective of all, because taste gets at what appeals to us aesthetically, viscerally, intellectually, emotionally – literally what we find acceptable, even desirable, or what turns us off or makes us recoil. Taste is the realm in which we begin to make moral judgments about what we are reading – that it’s bad for us to read, that it’s educational or dangerous or improving. When whatever we’re reading is sexually charged, these questions of taste become even more prominent and imperative for many readers, and they can even encompass the element of style depending on how an author’s style and her use of genre elements conform to a reader’s expectations about how a tasteful or distasteful story in a particular genre or subgenre typically reads.

As Romance readers we see this all the time in the lampooning of particular genre conventions, where we recognize particular elements or ways of presenting things in the genre but we also see that they are being painted as distasteful.

Correctness + Style + Taste = Comprehensive Reader Response

When you have a book that provokes strong reactions at every level – correctness, style, and taste – you’re likely to have heated disagreements because of the inevitable merging of objective and subjective elements in reader responses, especially when those responses are profoundly negative or positive on every level. It is clear to me reading through those comments on The Claiming that issues of taste, style, and correctness overlaid the debate over the book, in part because so many readers were having issues with two or three of those levels simultaneously, even though they were not explicitly articulating them as such.

When there are a substantial number of objective errors in addition to the style and taste issues some readers had with the book, readers may not always make these distinctions, even if at some level they recognize them. Because these errors are at the foundational level of reading – that is, because they greet the reader at the most basic level of comprehension – they can exacerbate problems some had with other textual elements and other response factors. And of all textual elements, these errors are the easiest to fix; in fact, in professionally produced books, there is a basic expectation that the work has been vetted at the level of punctuation, grammar, spelling, and word choice. Electronically published books should be no different in meeting reader expectations for this kind of editing, and this issue is certainly not limited to ebooks by any means (I have read some NY pubbed books that are doozies in this regard). Nor do I believe that the vast majority of readers expect a book to be pristine.

However, among these three tiers of reading, only one, correctness, is fully within the power of the author and the publisher to present acceptably in the text. How style and taste are interpreted is always going to be a complicated collaboration between reader and text, and there will never be unanimous agreement on the relative value of these elements in any given books. Different readers will give different weights to each element, judging a specific book’s success or failure from the unique meeting place of that book and that reader, a place that might feel very welcoming or very uncomfortable to the reader, further shaping the reader’s response.

I believe that at a minimum level readers are entitled to professionally written and edited books, and if a book cannot meet those minimal standards of sentence level coherence and grammatical and syntactical clarity it should not be offered for sale. I further believe that the publisher is the gatekeeper in making this call, and if the publisher fails to make it responsibly, both author and readers are being ill-served. If a publisher offers an author’s work for sale before it is ready for professional publication, I think they are sending a message of disrespect for the author, for readers, and for the work itself, and that both author and reader have a right to feel insulted, even if their reactions face in opposing directions.

Beyond this basic level of professional writing and editing, however, stylistic and taste considerations are subjectively evaluated both by author and reader, and each must understand that she is making a judgment. The author is making a series of judgments in fashioning her story, choosing her characters and plot elements, and articulating her vision. The reader is making judgments about each of those things, and her judgment might be vastly different, leading to wildly different conclusions about the purpose and value of the work. Such is the nature of writing for people who read, and reading works published for general consumption.

While readers may not ever be able to articulate these distinctions between correctness, style, and taste in their responses, I hope that authors do, and that no matter how individual readers respond to their work that they can rely on the strength of their creative vision, as well as productive, professional, mutually enriching relationships with their publishers. Because readers are going to continue doing what we do, and it’s always going to involve a fairly complex and uncompromising mix of responses, which may or may not be to the taste of authors.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

42 Comments

  1. Maria Zannini
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 05:14:03

    This is probably the most eloquent and articulate explanation I’ve ever read on reviewing.

    Thank you.

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  2. joanne
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 07:06:37

    Very nice expression of how you go about the reviewing process Janet, thank you.

    grammar, syntax, and spelling

    I can’t even read a discussion about this subject. There is no excuse in the world for a published piece — print or epub — to have inumerable errors in grammar & spelling.

    For the rest: I’m not the least analytical. I can not separate all those parts of a book into their different areas and then examine them as a whole. Which brings me to how grateful I am to reviewers who can do that. From well thought out reviews I learn the things that might, and often do, influence my book purchases.

    I also think perhaps that what you are calling style I think of as ‘pace’. Does the story move in a forward direction and take me with it? Even my personal ‘taste’ can take a back seat to a story that is not my ‘cuppa’ if the writing is involving and appealing. It’s one of the reasons I love it when Linda Howard writes a new book— she inevitably pisses off so many people with one thing or another— that it’s great fun reading what has made other readers angry. (it’s never the grammar)

    I also say want to repeat myself: I’m grateful to Jane for taking one for the team with her reviews of books like The Claiming?!!

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  3. Claudia Dain
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 07:37:00

    What a well expressed explanation! I couldn’t agree with you more.

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  4. JulieD
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 07:49:21

    This was an interesting essay, and it got me thinking. The books I found the most frustating were the ones that failed on correctness. I’ve been fortunate and have only read a few books that had numerous spelling, puncutation, and grammar errors, so my issues have generally been when the author gets basic facts wrong. And it’s worse when the facts are key to the story.

    I once read a romantic suspense novel where part of the plot hinged on using a building’s electrical system to do something that it, in reality, couldn’t (basic physics, plus something any computer geek could tell you). I read another novel that started off in the U.K. and both the hero’s occupation and the some elements of the action didn’t jibe with what I know about U.K. law (and that I confirmed after five minutes on Google). *Sigh*

    I don’t expect any author to be perfect; everyone makes mistakes from time to time. But when the mistakes are key to the plot–and are easily researchable issues–it’s incredibly frustrating.

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  5. DonLinn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 08:44:56

    Well said, Janet. In particular, I believe the following is absolutely true:

    If a publisher offers an author's work for sale before it is ready for professional publication, I think they are sending a message of disrespect for the author, for readers, and for the work itself, and that both author and reader have a right to feel insulted, even if their reactions face in opposing directions.

    It goes without saying that this is true in both print and digital formats.

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  6. Aoife
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 09:04:53

    Janet, this is one of the best, and most succinct descriptions of how we judge books that I’ve read. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    So often when I read a response thread it is obvious to me that the posters really aren’t talking about the same thing, and that is frequently when any pretense of objectivity flies out the window, and hard feelings ensue. It’s also why I so often begin a comment with “Well, it depends on what you mean by X.”

    Personally, the first thing that I react to in a book is what you call “correctness.” If the author doesn’t get this right, then I have no interest in reading any further. It is my biggest criticism of many e-pubbed books. I’m not talking about the occasional typo or awkward sentance construction, either, I’m talking about a grasp of basic English grammar that would be embarrassing in a third grader. It doesn’t matter how “hot” the fantasy/plot is if the way it is communicated fails to follow the most elementary rules of the English language.

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  7. MF Makichen
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 09:06:19

    Janet,
    This is an excellent post. It’s become obvious to me that I can enjoy many books that reviewers may not rate very highly.

    In my opinion a reviewers job is to pay attention to everything you’ve outlined here in this post. Reviewers have to analyze the work on many different levels. As a reader I can turn that analytical part of my brain off. I can let myself be pulled into a story because of a character or the writer’s voice despite other flaws that reviewers must stay aware of. Hence, the difference in opinion and reactions to a book.

    I use reviews as a guidepost once I’m familiar with a reviewer’s taste compared to my own.

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  8. Keishon
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 09:23:12

    Different readers will give different weights to each element, judging a specific book's success or failure from the unique meeting place of that book and that reader, a place that might feel very welcoming or very uncomfortable to the reader, further shaping the reader's response.

    What an excellent post and I agree with a lot but that point in particular.

    I’m not a very analytical reader. For me, either the book works well or it doesn’t. I tend to overlook flaws when the story is really good, too. As a reviewer, I’m glad YOU look at those elements but for me, it’s more of how I react to the book overall. Hope that makes sense.

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  9. KMont
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 09:40:27

    This is really excellent and helpful information. Thanks!

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  10. SonomaLass
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 09:43:44

    This is an excellent analysis of … analysis. Hmmm, not at my most articulate on one cup of coffee.

    I read most books the way I eat most food (as my daughter says, “Rom nom nom”). Yet when I know I’m going to be asked to discuss how the book (or food) affected me, why I did or didn’t like it, what worked for me and what didn’t, I proceed more slowly and with different parts of my brain actively switched on. Re-reading Pride and Prejudice to teach it, for example, is a different process that just kicking back and enjoying my annual re-read for pleasure. Eating a new dish in a restaurant I intend to review takes a similar approach — in a sense, I’m trying to be objective about my subjective response.

    “Correctness” is a good way to describe that basic level of getting it right (or wrong). Although the criteria there are objective, responses are still subjective, because not everyone notices the same errors or is bothered by them to the same degree. Bad grammar and punctuation, and other langauge errors, can make me so crazy that I’m disgusted with the book and everyone connected to it — that’s from too many years of bad student writing. Minor errors just take me out of the story; if the writing is otherwise working for me, I get sucked right back in. For example, I was reading a book recently where the characters looked up at the stars and identified the Big Dipper. Since the book was set in England, and everyone I know in the UK calls that constellation the Plough, I was thrown right out of the fictional world. It wasn’t a big enough error to make me dislike the book, though.

    Thanks for this insightful post.

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  11. jennie nash
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 10:23:15

    This is brilliant. Really. It’s oddly comforting to see a mathematical equation for something that seems so unknowable. I will use this to help my students understand the different things they have to think about when writing….Thanks for the post.

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  12. mia madwyn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 10:54:42

    …and in French a negating word (non, for example) is both separate from and positioned after its referent.

    I hate to be a bother, but could you give an example of this? I asked a friend who went to school in France and speaks French and she didn’t understand the statement to be able to illustrate it. (Which may be an issue of terminology; she was not taught French as an American student would be taught it.)

    Interesting article breaking down the reviewing process, which is ultimately so subjective, as you demonstrate!

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  13. Kirsten
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:01:00

    is this it, Robin?

    je ne parle pas les francais.

    [I don't speak French]

    ne and pas enclose the verb, parle

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  14. mia madwyn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:06:06

    How would that translate into English, so that it showed up in the way a writer presents their prose? I understand the concept, that you can often detect not only that a writer comes to English from a different language, but also that you can detect which language at times. I just don’t know anything about French and wondered what this looks like in English!

    Thank you!

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  15. Jessa Slade
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:09:07

    Excellent breakdown. When I think of whether I liked a book I tend to focus on specifics of plot, character, pacing. This broader, deeper scope is an analytical tool I hadn’t really considered before. It explains why I can hate Sleeping Beauty for being an unconscious wimp character and yet love Sleeping Beauty for the way it appeals to my taste for pretty, pointed fantasy.

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  16. Robin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:22:24

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    For those of you who do not characterize yourselves as analytical readers, I would argue that there is *always* a logic to how readers respond to books, even if they cannot articulate and discern that logic. So even if you do not think explicitly in terms of categories of response, IMO at some level you are picking up and reacting to particular elements of the text, and that the accumulated effect of those reactions creates an overall response.

    So for me, one of the purposes in writing this was to suggest that reader reactions don’t come out of nowhere, even if the response seems irrational or illogical to the author.

    Also, I wanted to point out (thanks to @victoriajanssen and @mcvane/Maili) that the whole issue of worldbuilding and historical detail is not treated very much in this essay, and that is because the topic is so large and so complex (and likely to overshadow everything else) that it will be its own post. However, I would just say now that I consider those things inclusive in the correctness category, even though I would say they’re like Correctness- Level 2. So more to come on that . . .

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  17. Marta
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:26:23

    I am more of an analytical reader as well, but I have never thought of this before.

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  18. Robin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:28:13

    @mia madwyn: Kirsten beat me to the example (thank you Kirsten), although I admit freely that my characterization within the essay was not the most clear or articulate. In her example, we most commonly use the contracted form of the negative, and we put the whole thing before the verb.

    During the discussion over The Claiming, there was speculation about whether the author was a native English speaker. In my experience as a teacher of many ESL students, I have found that most often the tell-tale signs of non-native English writers are found in the syntax — that is, the way a sentence employs English words that are not necessarily in the same order or structure w/in the sentence as in idiomatic English.

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  19. Melissa Blue
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:40:42

    Very good analysis. Syntax and style is a biggie for me when it comes down to “do I like this book?” If there isn’t a flow i.e. I’m having to stop and re-read sentences then it’s very hard for me to lose myself in a book. If the pacing is too slow or too fast. (If I have to read two or more paragraphs of description…)

    Taste only comes into play, most times, when I’m deciding on the book.

    Thanks for the post. I would have never thought of the why and what my preferences are.

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  20. mia madwyn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:41:41

    Earlier I said, I understand the concept, that you can often detect not only that a writer comes to English from a different language, but also that you can detect which language at times.

    So yes, I do understand the concept of syntax and how a person’s nation/language of origin is often revealed that way.

    I was hoping to get a translation of the French example given in response to my original question, since as a non-French speaker, I have no idea what point was made. Or an example of a sentence in English that would illustrate the in French a negating word (non, for example) is both separate from and positioned after its referent example given originally.

    I seem not to be communicating well myself. Maybe I need more English lessons!

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  21. ReacherFan
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 11:57:44

    I read for pleasure, but pleasure is a complex thing. Yes technical abilities are certainly a part of it. I love a book so smoothly written that it’s like literary silk. Even if the story is slight, frothy and purely entertainment, these books can be a joy in the hands of a master writer. Take that same smooth as silk style and write a story with characters I cannot identify with or even like and it’s a complete failure for me.

    I recently gave a ‘A-’ to Rhys Bowen’s A Royal Pain. I gave Maya Banks’ Sweet Persuasion an ‘F’ for my enjoyment, but did acknowledge my personal dislike and ended up giving the book itself a separate ‘technical’ score.

    In a way, I can understand why sports like ice skating had a dual scoring system. You can be technically brilliant yet completely fail or alienate the reader in some way. Or you can have a stunningly original piece of work and be so appallingly awful in the basic technical skills the work is a shambles. In the end, only individual readers can judge what they can and cannot forgive and all reviewers can do is say why they judged as they did. Professional reviewers disagree all the time in sports, food, theater, movies, and books. There is always a strong subjective element. Why should amateurs be any different? In life we judge everything by different and very personal measures. It’s opinion. That is how it should be.

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  22. Robin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 12:18:53

    @mia madwyn: I’m sorry, Mia, but I don’t understand your question. I think you may be getting stuck on the fact that I made my point badly. All I was trying to say was that in French, for example, the negating word (in Kirsten’s example, that’s ne + pas) is not necessarily in the same form or position in the sentence as we would expect in English, where we tend to expect the sentence linearly from left to right. Latin is actually the best and worst example to show this, since word order in Latin can be extremely confusing for English speakers (you often have the direct object precede the verb!), but since no one really speaks Latin these days outside, like, the Vatican, I didn’t use it.

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  23. mia madwyn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 12:28:27

    Okay, since I’ve already derailed these comments (sorry!) let me try again.

    Could you give an example of an English sentence that would reveal to you that its author was French, because of its positioning of a negating word?

    A friend pointed out to me that a French girl (in French) would always say “mon papa” (did I get that right), even when addressing her father directly, and in a Tale of Two Cities you see the heroine do that in English, say, “My Papa,” to her father. (Making this up, but, possibly something like, “But, my Papa! You must come with us.”)

    If the example were Spanish or Italian, the English might read, “He spat on the grave of his mother,” rather than, “He spat on his mother’s grave,” because there is no possessive in those languages.

    So I was just trying to imagine/hear the French example.

    Sorry for being a plague!

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  24. joanne
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 12:52:44

    For those of you who do not characterize yourselves as analytical readers, I would argue that there is *always* a logic to how readers respond to books, even if they cannot articulate and discern that logic.

    Janet I’m absolutely sure that you’re right about this. My point (obviously not articulated well, lol!) was that simply being a reader rather than a reader/reviewer allows me the freedom of not having to think about my responses to an authors’ work.

    I can say “I didn’t care for it” or “I loved it” and there is no one who will call me onto the carpet for being less eloquent or coherent.
    For which I am eternally grateful since it seems too much like work.
    Without the paycheck.
    So thank you (all of you) for the book reviews!

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  25. Ashwinder
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 13:10:03

    @mia madwyn: I think part of your confusion is stemming from the fact that the French negative probably isn’t a good example of what the author of this essay is trying to illustrate. Since there’s no real direct equivalent in English of the French system of negation, a native French speaker isn’t likely to make an error, unless it’s in the area of double negatives. You can have them in French:

    Il ne me donne jamais rien.

    He never gives me anything, but a French speaker might say more literally “He never gives me nothing.”

    Probably a better example would be with possessive adjectives. In French possessive adjectives agree with the noun they modify. In English they agree with the person doing the possessing.

    So for example you might be talking about a man’s leg. The French word for leg is feminine (sa jambe, whether the jambe belongs to a man or woman), so a French person might erroneously say “her leg” in all instances.

    Another common place where sytnax can show a person to be a non-native speaker is in the use of prepositions. Prepositions rarely translate literally from one language to another.

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  26. Robin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 13:15:54

    @mia madwyn: Ashwinder is correct. Honestly, I was not thinking about specific examples in English when I was writing; those two just came to me as I was working. And many times, I think it’s easier to detect that someone is not a native English speaker than it is to identify their native language.

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  27. Estara
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 13:16:56

    @mia madwyn: Not being French, I’m guessing here but how about “I don’t speak not the French.” ?

    Since we’re talking about influence of other languages in English books, one typical romance mistake that throws me out of the book often, is if you have your handsome European hero or heroine (I’m not talking about descendants, I do mean actual people from Europe) using their own language for sweet-talking or angry moments AND THEN the author (who obviously is not from that country her/himself) doesn’t use the correct case in the language (having nominative or genitive or dative or even using plural where we would use singular or getting the spelling wrong).

    Now, most often I can get back into the story and I know that authors don’t have the money to pay for real Germans (in my case – sometimes I can see French errors, too) checking their manuscript, but at least USE AN ONLINE DICTIONARY!! so we don’t get errors like the fact that all nouns have capital letters in German and your German not using them correctly (e.g. writing “mein liebling” for “my dear/my darling”, not realising that Liebling is a noun in German ).

    These days I have lower tolerance for those mistakes, because clearing them up is so easy.

    A tip for authors wanting to use German words: LEO English-German Dictionary – this won’t help with the cases but at least with the capital letters.

    Oh and while I am talking about the pet names: “My love” in German is not “meine Geliebte” (that’s “my lover”), but something like “meine Liebe/ mein Liebes/ meine Liebste” (and I’m only talking about the female love interest here… you can see the pitfalls).

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  28. J L Wilson
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 14:01:22

    A well-thought-out explanation. I come from an academic background, and I remember taking courses in literary analysis that didn’t get to the heart of the matter as clearly as this article did. Well done!

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  29. SonomaLass
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 14:45:38

    @mia madwyn: A number of native French speakers I know tend to say things like “I understand not what you are saying” or “I dance not the waltz,” putting the negating term “not” right after the verb, where the French “pas” would be, instead of saying “do not” in front of the verb, which is the more standard construction for native English speakers.

    imply being a reader rather than a reader/reviewer allows me the freedom of not having to think about my responses to an authors' work.

    I can say “I didn't care for it” or “I loved it” and there is no one who will call me onto the carpet for being less eloquent or coherent.

    @joanne: I agree; that’s the difference (for me) between reading to review (or study, or teach) a book and reading it just to (hopefully) enjoy it. I think those contexts, review or academic analysis, call for me to analyze my reaction as part of analyzing the book — being objective about my subjective reaction. All my reading could be subject to the same analysis, but I don’t always bother to do so if I’m not trying to explain it to others.

    As others have said, when you find a reviewer whose taste mirrors yours, you can trust that person’s recommendations. Moreover, when a reviewer explains her or his reaction in terms of taste, it helps readers judge whether or not they would react the same way. I think there are some readers who, never having taught or reviewed or thought about the books they read in that way, don’t realize that there is that kind of process going on in their reaction. Which is why words like “good” and “bad” get bandied about in discussion, with some people meaning “correct” and “incorrect” and others meaning “to my taste” or “not to my taste.” This often leads to misunderstandings, in my experience.

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  30. Kelly
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 18:39:00

    This is an excellent breakdown of “things that go through my head when reviewing but that I never analyzed so succinctly before.” I think it’ll help me, in the future, when I’m trying to put my finger on what I like and dislike about a book.

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  31. Throwmearope
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 19:06:48

    Okay, I do speak French, so it’s “je ne parle pas francais.” (You have to add a little curly cue to the base of the “c,” but I am not going to look up how to do that on Mozilla–sorry.) And I know a fair amount of kids who are learning English. We host French exchange students quite often. They would say, “I speak not the English.” Or “I speak not the English so well.”

    But I agree with Robin (er, Janet) 100% about grammatical correctness. My on-line name is from a quote in one of the prefaces written for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

    I’m paraphrasing here (since I no longer carry Strunk and White in my hip pocket)–White said Strunk used to exhort his students to clear out the swamp of their unclear writing–or at the very least throw the poor reader a rope. So, please, dear authors, at least throw me a rope. If I have to read a paragraph three times to figure out which garden path you’d like to lead me up, I’m out of there.

    I’m not a writer, but if you are, I expect you to do a decent job at it. And if you can’t bother to use correct grammar, spell check (for crying out loud), proper punctuation (okay, so I never do, but see above about me not being a writer), etc., then I think it is less than professional. I think the majority of readers who have a literature background would agree. This is the bare minimum.

    Edited to add, sorry I saw Ashwinder’s after I finally finished this comment.

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  32. Robin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 20:53:31

    @Throwmearope: Thank you for the clarification and the examples; I haven’t seriously attempted French since grad school, and even then it was very painful for me, lol.

    There is an additional issue when native speakers disagree on proper usage (I know this can drive authors batty when they’re trying to use pieces of a language unfamiliar to them), but I think in most languages there are several valid usages.

    @J L Wilson: Thanks. I have an academic background, too, in literature, and I didn’t even break this down until I read the comments on the Blacio review.

    @ReacherFan: Thank you for the sports analogy; I had not thought of it, but it’s very useful. Readers talk all the time about how they recognize the technical skill of a book that doesn’t necessarily move them, although I think most readers will favor the “artistic” side of the equation, which makes sense. My own preference in reviewing is to see both sides evaluated, because for me both are important. It took me a good while to understand why Romance readers could give sub-C grades to books that were well-written but not “romantic” to the reader.

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  33. Patricia Briggs
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 20:59:32

    As a long-time reader, I would also say that another factor that is difficult to describe is the mood of the reader. For example, I am a big Dick Francis fan, and the first time I read Flying Finish, I was very unhappy with it. A couple of years later, I picked it up (as the only Dick Francis book I hadn’t reread) and found I really enjoyed it. A writer can only bring so much influence to the table — the reader brings the other half.

    I tend to be more forgiving of ebooks than I am of paper published books. I cut new authors a lot of slack, and old favorites not so much. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a nitty gritty medieval romance (Roberta Gellis) and if I pick up a lighter one (Garwood or Dodd, for instance whom I also love) I get grumpy at them for not writing like Gellis or Kinsale, which is hardly fair.

    For these reasons I seldom say I don’t like a book/author unless I’ve tried it multiple times. (I would not be a great reviewer ). The exception, is, of course, when there are too many “craft” mistakes. Poor research, poor grammar, poor plotting.
    Best,
    Patty

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  34. mia madwyn
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 21:08:59

    Thanks to Robin for your patience and to ashwinder, estara, sonoma lass and throwmearope for the examples and further clarification.

    As a writer this is something I’ve noticed–how a character or pov can feel like it’s from a foreign-born character and you can even “hear the accent” simply because of the author’s skillful sentence structures that mimic that of the character’s native tongue. It’s something I’ve noticed, and so when you mentioned it, Robin, I was quick to notice.

    Thank you all!

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  35. MaryK
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 00:02:40

    Because these errors are at the foundational level of reading – that is, because they greet the reader at the most basic level of comprehension – they can exacerbate problems some had with other textual elements and other response factors.

    I think this is pretty important. When I read, I embrace the author’s “world” completely. If errors like these start popping up, it throws me out of the “world,” and I lose my faith in the author’s storytelling ability. Sort of like, “if I can’t trust you to write a coherent sentence, how can I believe in your story?” For me, they’re not just pesky technical details – they reflect on the author’s authority as a writer.

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  36. Essay rec: the components of reader response to a book « Jules Jones
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 00:55:51

    [...] components of reader response to a book Janet at the romance blog Dear Author has posted an excellent essay discussing the three main strands that go into a reader’s reactions to a book …, noting that only one of these is objective, and considering how that can lead to misunderstandings [...]

  37. anon
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 01:04:23

    @#20
    “I seem not to be communicating well myself. Maybe I need more English lessons!”

    Example of what you’re looking for right there. “I seem not to be—” The negative after the verb it’s talking about.

    The native English standard would tend more toward “I don’t seem to be”

    ReplyReply

  38. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Bookcase flash! (and some other book stuff, of course)
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 02:06:06

    [...] Author has a nice article about the components (correctness, stlye, taste) that shape a reading [...]

  39. mia madwyn
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 05:37:54

    @ anon

    “I seem not to be communicating well myself. Maybe I need more English lessons!”

    Example of what you're looking for right there. “I seem not to be-’” The negative after the verb it's talking about.

    The native English standard would tend more toward “I don't seem to be”

    And my genealogy traces back to the 18th Century in Maryland! I’m relatively native as these things go. (wink)

    Thanks for the example, though. I tend to pick up the mannerisms of my characters when I’m writing, and this is one of those occasions.

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  40. kyra
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 05:48:12

    AMEN! Just because we read romance does not mean writing style should go out the window. I admire intelligent authors. Sloppiness is not to be excused, especially with Google so handy.

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  41. XandraG
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 10:14:35

    Great breakdown, Janet. It’s hard to articulate why a book “does it” for you, or doesn’t “do it” for you. And it’s helpful to both review readers and the authors of said books if they are reading the reviews to know why. As a reader, I can be sucked into a book and read it all in one sitting, or have to get up in the middle of the night and hide the ipod under the covers to finish reading it, but still not like it. I can love something but have no problem setting it down and coming back to it days or even weeks later.

    One question I do have for you–how much of a part does Convention play in a review?

    We all know there exists a set of conventions to every genre and even subgenre or subsets of a particular genre. How often does a book’s delivering on those conventions (or not) affect a reader’s like or dislike of the book.

    To use an example, if you have a paranormal shapeshifter romance, there exists conventions that fans of PSR have come to expect. There are a number, such as pack or group behavior, actual shifting, some sort of secret society, themes about family life as illustrated by a pack, and a romantic entanglement and its own associated conventions, to name a few. Generally, if a book meets some number of all the expected conventions, it “fits” expectations. But what of a book that is PSR but doesn’t include enough of the conventions? How much does that affect a review-quality look at a story?

    I hope I’m making sense, because I really am curious as to how much of a reader’s enjoyment of a story has to do with if they’re getting what they expected, which is more subjective (and may be able to be used to fine-tune promotion efforts and increase customer satisfaction with an end product)

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  42. Writing Roundup, June 26 « Jen’s Writing Journey
    Jun 26, 2009 @ 13:22:18

    [...] Good Reading Recipe Another post from Dear Author, this lists the criteria they use when reviewing a book. It is an exhaustive list, and it can help you write a better book to begin with. When you are reading a draft, try to approach it using these criteria to decide how and where to revise. [...]

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