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 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.
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.
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.