Friday, November 18, 2011

What I Learned, The moral and realistic argument & Happy Gay Friday

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the seven arguments readers use - consciously or not - to form an opinion about a book (here's the link to that post).
The more reviews or impressions of books I read on blogs and Goodreads, the more it strikes me how often books get very low rates based on one (or both) of the first two arguments I mentioned then: the realistic argument and the moral argument.

A little recap of those 2 out of 7 arguments:

Realistic argument
A book is good (or bad) when it’s projecting the world (un)realistically, when the story’s reality is (un)believable.

Moral argument
A book is good (or bad) when it contains certain ideas about sex, religion, morals or politics.

Especially the second argument can cause people to rate harshly when there's no match with their own morals. I noticed this seems to be more often the case when a story is set in a completely different world than ours with a different set of morals, for example regarding slavery or physical punishment and abuse. But also contemporary stories can fall from grace because of one immoral act or a character that doesn't act appropriate. Books with a BDSM theme in its more extreme varieties can become a deal breaker for some readers as well.
In that genre not only the moral but the realistic argument often comes into the game as well. It appears as if there are quite a few authors out there that "don't know what they're talking about" when they write about BDSM scenes and relationships and "definitely don't live the lifestyle themselves" (not my words). The stories that they write can not always count on the 'realistic' vote. And sometimes I can't help but wonder how these readers can possibly know... but alas.
Another trope that can always count on some disbelievers is the instant-love between two protags. There are quite some readers that totally don't like this happening in their romances because 'how realistic is it' to fall in love in 2, 3 days/hours or whatever short period of time?

I always feel a little gullible and amoral when I come across another reader's opinion like this of a book I also read and hadn't these concerns about. And when I haven't read the book yet, it never makes me think that I don't want to read the book because of that. I want to see for myself HOW the author handled the topic, the immoral bastard or the building of the unbelievable world. It's never the immoral act itself or the unbelievable action/setting in itself that makes me conclude the story isn't for me. It's always the way it is written that is more important to me.

Not that I don't avoid certain topics that I don't find very attractive. Of course, I have my own likes and dislikes (who doesn't?), but when I happen to stumble upon one of these tropes I like to avoid I would never say I hate the book just because I think incest is wrong or because I dislike humiliation and abuse, to name just a few examples. It depends on how the book is written if I'll think it's good or not.
For instance, I've once read a book about an old pedophile seducing a young guy (it's written by a Dutch author) which was much more than just about that. But the way the author described the feelings of the old man and paced the plot, was done so well, that I totally loved the book. She also left the moral judgement to her readers, she didn't tell us if her protagonist's behavior was good or bad, which challenged me to review my own opinions. Everything together made me conclude this was a great book, although I still think pedophilia is morally wrong.

In general I like to think of myself as quite open-minded and tolerant, although I learn new things about my own misconceptions every day (like only this week I was made aware of my ignorance regarding the topic of trans* people). Reading and talking about books always have helped me to learn and to look at things differently, because of the 'insiders' view a good author can give you to enhance your understanding of certain moral issues. When an author manages to create a believable story which is written so well that it can open your mind a little bit further, it's magical.
And it is what keeps me reading, because it goes for all the different genres I've read, even, or perhaps especially, for romance.

Happy Gay Friday!


  1. That is really interesting Janna. I think you are right that we each have our things that affect our feelings about a book and they are not all the same. I reviewed a book yesterday where I was bothered by what I saw as unrealistic behavior. But most of my readers who commented weren't bothered by that at all. Then I have books that I love b/c of the way they make me feel (emotive I guess) and I can ignore other things that may bug other people about the book.

    I guess that is why most reviews (at least mine) are really just one person's opinion about the book. They are rarely the definitive reason to read (or not read) something. More some more information and guidance to help you make your choices.

    Great post!

  2. I agree that rating a book poorly because it's a topic I don't "like" seems unfair.

    However I think realism counts to a degree. If a character behaves so out of the realm of the real, it smacks of a lazy author who didn't bother to do research. I'm one of those that is not a fan of insta-love, but enough times I have been convinced by an author that it's entirely possible that I don't avoid it at all costs. But for me personally, I've had more negative experiences with it than positive.

    There are topics I don't care for either. I don't like reading very angsty books. However I just reviewed a book for BER (up next week) that I was crying, then I was happy, then outraged, then crying. Ugh. Did I like it? I'm not sure. I would kind of say "not really" and yet I have found myself thinking about that story several times since then. The author obviously was very skilled in making those characters real for me so it received a good rating. That's a sign of a well-written book even if not to my own personal taste.

    Although I think the sign of a good book is to make the reader care about the main characters. And if the topic is so repellent to a particular reader, you just will never connect and it's hard to completely separate the feelings you experienced while reading and the rating on the book. I'm always a bit surprised though when people are totally black and white about some issues that seem rather benign, such as cheating (as opposed to child rape or something that is undeniably heinous). I may not LIKE books with cheating, but I'm willing to be convinced that it can work in a story.

  3. Well, dang, Tam covered my points, and more eloquently than I would have!

  4. to see for myself HOW the author handled the topic...It's always the way it is written that is more important to me.

    Janna, this is awesome! So many readers (including me, I'm afraid) don't have your sense of curiosity, patience, and optimism.

    As an author, I'm grateful for every review I get, and I know every reader has the right to express her reaction in a review or rating.

    At the same time, I know the low ratings harm sales because readers are scanning ratings to guide them while shopping with too many choices and not enough time.

    When the low ratings are due to subjective things like differences in the way the author and reader perceive morality and realism, it can be frustrating to the author.

    The worst is probably the ubiquitous two-star review with no explanation (shooting down the book without evidence, also known as feedback, for other readers and the author). I have to wonder why the person who left the rating even bothered to take the time.

    The reviews that center on how I've written a story are the ones I find most valuable because I can always try to improve my writing. The best reviews aren't always the most glowing, but the ones that mention specific things in the story and convey that the story made an impression and touched the reader emotionally.

    Great post, Janna! Very thought-provoking.

  5. @ jahjay: I agree that reviews are always subjective. And like for you, the emotivistic argument is very important for me too, especially when reading the romance genre. It can make me overlook a lot of other shortcomings when I at least feel a strong emotional connection with the characters or was very captivated by the story. Indeed, we all base our opinions on more than just one of these arguments. I'm trying to be aware of most of them although that's not easy.

    As for reviews, I like to read more than one or two reviews before I decide to read (or not read) a book, because of exactly what you said about making choices.

  6. @Tam: Yes, realism counts to a degree, I agree. What you describe is exactly what I meant: it's HOW an author writes about the topic. Research can make a difference, true. Also, 'showing' instead of 'telling' can make me believe almost everything, for example insta-love.

    I'm curious now what book you're talking about that you reviewed for BER. Have to keep my eye on the site. :)

    I have to admit that I'm guilty of giving 2 or 3 star ratings on Goodreads without an explanation. I always have the intention to come back later for that, but life gets in the way of my good intentions. Lame excuse, I know...

  7. @Chris: LOL, yeah, she did it more eloquent than me too. Good excuse! :D

  8. I try not to let my own bias reflect in my ratings. I don't like erotica or menages, but I run into them while reviewing. It would be silly to rate an erotica low because it contained...erotica! . I will base my rating on the writing, plot and characters development.

  9. @Val:
    The worst is probably the ubiquitous two-star review with no explanation

    Like I confessed to Tam I'm guilty of giving my rating with no explanation too, so I'm the last one to say that reviewers should always give elaborate and thoughtfull opinions/reviews. ;)

    But having that said, I prefer to read (and write) reviews that focus on how a story is written too. These type of reviews usually give more background information I can use to make up my mind about if I'd like to read a book (or not).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts from an author's point of view, Val! :)

  10. @Sharon: LOL, that would be silly indeed, Sharon. ;D
    Those are the three main focus points for me too!

  11. Great point, Janna. I have to admit, I was surprised to see how much some readers on Goodreads hated what they deemed cheating in Barging In, and decided it would be better if I just didn't look at the reviews there in future :)

    I'm not so bothered by the morality of fictional characters, so long as I don't think the author is saying overall that antisocial behaviour is a good thing. What matters most to me is whether the story grabs me and keeps me reading, and whether the prose flows smoothly.

    Also, I have to connect with the characters in some way. If I don't like them, I probably won't like the book. That doesn't mean they have to be perfect, but they need some redeeming quality and I have to be able to believe they're real.

  12. @Josephine: Thanks! I can understand why you decided to stay away from GR reviews in future, lol.
    I don't like cheaters IRL, but they exist and sometimes have good reasons for cheating. When a character is a cheater it doesn't mean necessarily I won't like the book. I might not like the character very much at some point in the story but I can still admire how he's portrayed or how an author makes his behavior understandable or how it fits the story arc or whatever.
    And that last part will effect my rate more than the first part.

    Connecting with the characters in some way is very important for me too, because it influences whether the story captivates me or not.

  13. Wonderful post Janna!

    Another trope that can always count on some disbelievers is the instant-love between two protags...

    Guilty! Although after numerous discussions with various wise people online I'll a little more open to the insta-love trope :) A little more willing to let the author convince me. But, like you said, I need to connect to the characters :)

    This post makes me think of Heidi Cullinan's Special Delivery. That book definitely challenged me. It worked for me...because the author convinced me that the characters' relationship, as it was, worked. (I'm now a huge Heidi Cullinan fangal and looking forward to reading all her books, including Double Blind :)

    And I love the photo :)

  14. @orannia: Thank you, orannia! Love your new avi btw. :)

    Heidi Cullinan's Special Delivery is such a great example indeed! And I think you'll love Double Blind as well. I thought it was even better than SD. She's one of those authors that can make anything work, if you ask me!

    Glad you like the photo! Me too. :D

  15. Great post Janna. I mostly agree with Tam on this. (she explained it so well!)

    I also believe that this genre falls into a category of its own. Most books don't have the layers of depth the book of the Dutch author has. They tell a story straight up without any hidden meaning or allegory or deeper themes. Though, yes there are the occassional ones.

    However I do agree that some readers rate a book based on their feelings about it, rather than look at it from a more objective pov. And yes, I do do so myself too. Especially with book that contain explicit, long rape scenes.

    there are quite a few authors out there that "don't know what they're talking about" when they write about BDSM scenes and relationships and "definitely don't live the lifestyle themselves" (not my words). The stories that they write can not always count on the 'realistic' vote. And sometimes I can't help but wonder how these readers can possibly know... but alas

    In truth there really are some author who write about something they don't know anything about.

    Take horses for instances. There are a few books with horsey things in them that are completely incorrect and that bothers me, cause it's such an easy thing to research.

  16. Great post Janna!

    I too try to keep an open mind, and I have read a few books that I didn't think would float my boat. I was pleasantly surprised in some cases (for example m/m - huge like there now!), but in other cases, it didn't do it for me.

    As a book reviewer, I feel that it is important to be honest with my opinion. If I didn't like a scene or aspect of the book, I state specifically why. I am one of the reviewers that Lis refers to in her comments - I review based on my feelings for a book and that *may* extend to the topic in the book. But again, I try to be specific i.e. "The book was well-written and had x, y, and z that I liked, but because of the overall them of a, b, and c, I didn't enjoy the book very much." So that I am clear it is my own personal feelings and not that it was a bad book.

    Anyhow, thanks for the great discussion!


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