Books Are Awesome
“But not all do, and the books that break those boundaries are not bad because they are different. Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.”
I probably don’t know you, person reading this on the internet. And yet, we are here because of one important, shared belief:
Books are awesome.
They are! Few things are as enjoyable as those moments when you fall completely into a book. I have vivid memories of reading Watership Down on a subway or The Lord of the Rings in a Korean hanok in autumn. That moment of offering up some of my favorite books to the woman who would become my wife, and having her fall as deep into it as I have. My children are both named after literary figures. I am certain you, person on the internet, have similar stories about your stories.
There is one small annoyance with books, and that is: expectations.
I’m not referring to lowering expectations so you can enjoy the worst books humanity has to offer (though if you want to, more power to you.) I am referring to changing expectations.
There are certain beliefs about books. What makes a good book, or a bad one. These are almost largely all wrong. It might be right for you but it is not necessarily right for everyone. This is probably the most difficult part of reviewing books regularly.
There are books I love, wildly, passionately, that other people have declared the worst thing ever. That’s fine. Taste is subjective. I have heard people sing the praises of certain series or authors who do nothing for me, as well. We all have this. The more popular the author the more divisive.
Here’s what it comes down to: There is an attempt to say books must have characters with arcs and agency, and the plots must follow Freytag’s Triangle or Campbell’s monomyth or Plato’s Three-Act Structure or some other similar structure. There are a lot of books that do this. The vast, vast majority of books do this.
But not all do, and the books that break those boundaries are not bad because they are different. Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.
Books can be about plot, or premise, or character, or setting. A few even manage to be about prose. It is extremely reasonable to decide to go all-in on one or two of these and let the rest languish. A checklist approach where a book is docked for not having enough setting because it simply wasn’t the focus seems to miss the limitless potential of literature.
A book that is a slow character study should not be dinged for not being a fast-paced thriller. A book that details the lack of agency the individual happens to have in a bureaucratic nightmare should not be dinged for failing to give its lead agency.
1984 would not be improved if Winston Smith led a rebellion against Big Brother, nor would The Trial be improved if Josef K was a secret agent infiltrating the Committee of Affairs.
I think a lot of this just takes author advice and codifies it into rules. But we don’t need these rules, and we never did.
There are a lot of fantastic books out there. Read them. Enjoy them. Let them work their magic over you. And meet them where they’re at.
Check Out Some of Ryan’s Other Posts
There Have Always been Fantasy Novels For Adults – Article by Author Ryan Howse
Interview with Author Deston J. Munden by Ryan Howse
I’m funnier without context.
Okay, you want context.
I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.
Absolutely love this post.
I’ve found one of the things book blogging has forced me to assess recently is this relationship w expectations in stories, and if ever those expectations are fair or just deprive us of experiencing other ways to connect to and tell stories.
The more I review the less I’m sure of what a good book is. Or maybe it’s just the more I’m sure there is not definition to what a good book is.
Especially love what you said abt “Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist. Books can be about plot, or premise, or character, or setting. A few even manage to be about prose.” and I more and more agree with this.
The trickiest, but admittedly most challenging —and thus fun— part is incorporating this thought into reviewing.
This post makes so much sense. I’ve been guilty of expecting characters to be all good and feeling disappointed when they don’t turn out to be the way I imagine them.