How Do You Judge a Book?

As a reader, I spend a lot of time analyzing fiction. It’s automatic for me, like breathing or sleeping or ordering from India Gate when I don’t feel like cooking. I’ve tried to read solely for enjoyment, but on each page, I catch myself identifying and thinking about the elements, styles, and constructs that make the book jump or fall flat. I wonder what the author was thinking here and there. I consider what I might’ve done differently in a scene or with a character or relationship. And sometimes I just kind of stammer and drool and bang my head on my desk repeatedly to remind myself that I’ve got so much to learn before the end of the world.

(It’s a writer thing, that neurotic, head-desk, end-of-the-world stuff. Nothing to worry about.)

Anyway, since an intense critical examination of books became part of my job as an author, I assumed that my threshold for inconsistencies and factual (that is, factual according to the established world of each particular story) errors would decrease dramatically; that I’d become a rabid, flaw-finding maniac sniffing out any reason to to give a book a less than perfect review.

Yes, I was that kid in elementary school when we had to trade papers with our neighbor to score tests. Bring me my red pen… mwahahaha….

Who me? No. Wait. Really. I’ve actually had the opposite experience. These days, the more I read, the less critical I am as a reader. It’s not that I accept or encourage mediocrity, or that my standards for evaluating literature have degraded. It’s just that the aspects I look to for quality have shifted. Now, I’m much more likely to judge a book by the general feeling it leaves in me after I turn the last page:

  • Did the book make me sigh, laugh, cry, get mad, or have some other emotional reaction?
  • Did I stay up late reading it just to find out how or if it all worked out?
  • Am I still thinking about the characters, wondering how they’re doing now that their particular story is over?
  • Did the book inspire me to check out others of its genre or by its author?
  • Did the writing leave me inspired or challenged to push myself harder as a writer?
  • Did it make me want to explore new territory in my own work?

If I can answer yes to at least some of these questions, chances are I really enjoyed the book. Maybe even loved it, flaws and all. So there’s a spelling error. A character wearing glasses in chapter 1 with 20/20 vision in chapter 7. A chapter 3 vegetarian eating a hamburger with meat-pushing YA author Josh Berk in the final scene. Of course we all try to avoid these things by writing as clear and clean as possible, by constantly reviewing our work, by using beta readers. But sometimes things slip through the cracks, and after enduring the writing, revision, and copyediting process multiple times, I’ve gained quite an appreciation for those cracks.

Authors don’t always write linearly–instead, we write in scenes. In blocks and sentences. In fits and starts. We cut and paste. We add and subtract. Rearrange, erase, fatten up, scrap, start over. Then an agent and an editor get in on the deal, making more suggestions and changes. We go back and revise, sometimes in sections, sometimes completely backwards from the last scene to the first. A hundred times. A thousand times. It starts to feel like the photograph you’ve seen from your childhood. You swear you can remember every detail of the event, but it’s just that you’ve seen the picture and heard the stories so many times that you think those are your memories.

Authors do that to. We don’t remember if we wrote something or just thought about it. If that scene was in version one or version twelve. If an editor’s suggestion will have cascading effects throughout the entire novel, and whether we caught all of them. Hey. Stuff happens. Things get missed. It’s why in the ARC version of TWENTY BOY SUMMER, I’ve got a dead boy making his appearance at a beach party. Fortunately it was discovered before the hardcover book went to print, but guess who caught it? Not me or the dozens of others who’d read versions of the book along the way. Nope. It was Mom, reading my first ARC copy. She actually read that scene a few times before calling me to make sure I wasn’t trying to throw a supernatural twist in there!

So now, if I spot minor inconsistencies or errors in a book, I don’t automatically write it off as sloppy or lazy or unworthy. Chances are, it’s not going to ruin my enjoyment of the story or hamper my ability to connect with the characters. Same for an otherwise compelling plot that might slow down for a chapter, or a time line that misses a few dates. It’s not that I don’t care about consistency and accuracy or that I don’t pay very careful attention to details in my own work. It’s just these issues are minor in comparison to the things that really make a book enjoyable and unique for me:

  • Believable, multi-dimensional, flawed characters
  • Great writing
  • A story that takes me to a new place
  • A book that jolts me in some emotional way
  • A book that stays with me long after the story’s end

What about you, readers? What’s your criteria for a good story? How critical are you? Are you willing to overlook flaws in a story, or do you pounce with your red pen?

8 thoughts on “How Do You Judge a Book?

  1. Great, great, great post. I feel the same way. Since I started writing, the things I care about HAVE shifted, and they are all the things you bulleted here. Thanks for pinning down these thoughts!

    • That shift is so interesting. I wonder if book bloggers who aren’t necessarily writers experience similar things, just by nature of the fact that they read *so many* books.

  2. I’ll stay with a book as long as the characters are interesting. Once I am attached to a character I’ll wade through page after page of terrible writing if only to find out what happens in the end to that character. To make a book great, the characters then have to do something interesting and the problem has to be resolved in a satisfactory manner. I need closure. Thanks for a great post.

    • I agree with you about staying with great characters, even through poor writing. But in the end, if the writing is that poor overall, I find the characters aren’t all that great, either. And if they really can withstand poor writing, I still might not have *enjoyed* the book, even if I stayed with it to find out the characters’ fates at the end.

  3. Like you I am willing to forgive a few minor flaws as long as the plot is holding my attention.

    I am finding that as I read more books I am becoming less tolerant of average books. I used to finish every book that I started, but now I realise that life is too short to continue reading books that fail to engage me.

    I am also finidng that I am more likely to have a problem with books that cover topics I’ve already read about several times. I like books to be original, or at least look at things from a fresh perspective.

    Unlike Cassandra Jane I quite like ambiguity at the end though!

    • I agree. From my days of taking AP English in highschool and the fact that I’ve always loved reading, I find myself analyzing books as I go. I often find that when picking out favorite quotes I don’t just pick out things that are profound, but also things that are beautifully written, regardless of the actual subject of the quote.

  4. You mean that having a vegetarian eat a hamburger with me should be avoided because of plot/character continuity, right? Not that eating a hamburger with me should be avoided. Because really I’m a charming lunch guest. And I’m not really a meat-pusher. OK, yes, I am.

    Anyway, great post!

  5. I can definitely overlook flaws if a book is overall great. I mean every book has some flaws, nothing’s perfect. What I love in a book is it’s ability to get me attached to the characters. Like Matt in Twenty Boy Summer for instance. He was in the book for about a chapter and I already fell in love with him. It was so sad when he had to die. I also love it when a book causes me to stay up reading it till I finish (although that’s not always the smart thing to do). If a book makes me think about something a certain way, or makes me learn something new about myself, then it’s a good book to me. It shouldn’t matter if there are tiny mistakes somewhere, hidden. It should all be about how you feel after the book is over. Books are very powerful, that’s why I love them. :]

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