Back in December, Greg from Book Riot posted about the four bookish phrases he would like to see improved upon in book reviews:
A friend once old me about a creative writing professor he had in college who would bracket large swaths of a story in red, and simply write “Do Better.” It wasn’t specific, but he said it sure got his attention. When I hear the following four very common phrases in book-related discussions, that’s the first thought on my mind — arrrrrrgh, do better! It’s not that these phrases are wrong, per se. It’s just that, with a little more effort, something much more meaningful could be said.
I’d like to take a few minutes to go over the four phrases Greg chose, and why I think they’re not as bad as he seems to think. And I’m going to work backwards through his list, just because I’m crrrrazy like that! Or because I’m saving the best for last. It’s definitely one of those two options.
1. “This novel needed an editor.”
If there were unnecessary digressions, explain why they’re unnecessary. If there’s superfluous plot arcs, think about what the author was trying to accomplish by including them, and then think again if they’re truly superfluous.
Even after explaining himself, I’m not sure that I understand why Greg is so upset with this phrase. He seems quite determined to believe that most people who use this phrase are commenting on the length of a novel, saying with a better editor it wouldn’t have been so hefty. While on it’s own, I might agree with Greg that this phrase is questionable, with a little explanation as to why one feels this novel needed an editor, I see nothing wrong with including this phrase in one’s review. In my own reviews, if I mention editing it’s generally to refer to the book’s overall polish, or seemingly lack thereof: grammar issues, poor syntax or a lack of direction; it’s quite rare I employ this phrase to discuss the length of a novel.
2. “I wanted to like this book, but didn’t.”
It’s totally and utterly and completely and totally redundant. Unless you’re setting out to hate-read a book, and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of fish, OF COURSE you wanted to like the book. Just skip it.
I use this bookish phrase ALL THE TIME. So maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m about to defend it. Or maybe, it’s because I have great reasons for using it! I think the biggest reason I use this phrase in a review is to highlight my expectations going in, so my readers can decide for themselves if the book is one they would enjoy without my expectation baggage. Perhaps the marketing by the publisher/author was misleading. Perhaps I had it confused with a different novel. Perhaps a review I had read suggested one string of events, and I found the opposite to be true. Whatever the reason, acknowledging that I wanted to like the novel for (reasons), is really just a segue way into a larger discussion surrounding why the novel did (or didn’t) work for me. Are there other phrases which could accomplish the same result without the redundancy? Probably. But I like this one.
Okay, so you’re ambivalent, unimpressed, disappointed. Cool, I get it. It happens. But could you possibly describe your feelings in a way that doesn’t sound like you’ve just eaten an entire bucket of chicken and are now struggling to remove ass from couch? Thanks.
While Greg has highlighted several words that are used to describe the feelings behind the word “meh,” I would argue that none of them quite live up to the word. “Meh” is a feeling, and the best way to describe that specific feeling is to use the word for it. So while describing how ambivalent I was towards a novel accomplishes one thing, I think stating that, overall, my feelings were quite “meh” accomplishes something else entirely. Charleen from Cheap Thrills articulates this much better than I, so I will direct you to her post, In Defense of “Meh” for further reading.
4. “I didn’t connect with the characters.”
…characters you don’t “connect” with (or who seem unrealistic to you) are probably types of people with whom you’re unfamiliar, and so your not understanding them is your fault, not the author’s.
To be completely honest, it was Greg’s inclusion of this specific bookish phrase that encouraged me to write this whole post. First, I think he’s painting us all with a rather broad brush here, assuming that the vast majority of reviewers can’t understand the difference between being unfamiliar with a character (and therefore, disliking them purely because they are different) and finding characters to be flat. It’s not a matter of not understanding, it’s a matter of an author being able to properly humanize any type of character so that we see their humanity and connect it to the humanity we have in ourselves. As Insatiable Booksluts pointed out, “if we only ever expect to connect with types of people we knew about beforehand, that would take a huge benefit out of reading (which has been shown in studies to improve empathy–this is probably why!).” Whether I can relate to the type of person a character is is irrelevant because at the end of the day, all characters are ultimately human.
From Greg’s comments, 2 things can be deduced:
1. Readers are at fault if they can’t empathize with characters, because they are not familiar with them.
2. Readers are not familiar with the types of “people” they have yet to experience.
So for anyone who was unable to connect with Harry Potter, it must have been because they haven’t experienced wizards.
For anyone who couldn’t with Bella when she choose Edward over Jacob, it must have been because they’ve never been the girlfriend of a vampire and the best friend of a werewolf.
And for anyone who couldn’t connect with Tris when she felt guilty over having no reservations for choosing Dauntless, it must have been because they’ve never experienced choosing which faction to devote their lives to.
As Alex Ristea points out, “if the author does his/her job right, they will give us characters that seem real and hopefully that we care deeply about.”
It doesn’t matter if I’ve never experienced the types of things the characters I’m reading about are going through; it’s completely irrelevant. I do not need lived experienced to have understanding. What I need is an author who can bring their characters to life, an author who can humanize their characters so I connect with them on the most basic of levels so that even if I don’t necessarily understand what they’re going through, it feels real.
At the end of the day, that’s what connecting with characters does: it brings those characters to life.
Are you also tired of these phrases? If not, what phrases are you tired of?