This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately, as I started writing reviews for this blog and started branching out a bit more with my book choices because of my reading challenges. I enjoy reading other people’s reviews of books, even when I don’t agree with their opinions. It really interests me to see what other people thought of books I’ve read, or books I’m thinking of reading.
In the past, I tried to avoid reading too many reviews of a book before I started because I didn’t want them to colour my opinion. Recently, I’ve been tempted sometimes to look at the reviews on GoodReads while I’m partway through the book, especially when it is a book I’m not enjoying much. In those cases, I tend to scour the reviews to try and figure out what I’m missing.
Just a couple of hours ago, I finished reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a book that has been very highly praised in a variety of sources. After reading others’ reviews, I was left wondering if I read the same book as everyone else. All of the things that they praised were things I felt the book was missing — the pacing, the emotional impact, etc. I think the same can be said for a lot of classics as well as literary fiction. Many of my Goodreads groups have intense discussions about how we rate the books we read, and whether more emphasis should be placed on the technical quality or on your subjective enjoyment.
In the case of classics and literary fiction, there often seems to be a trend toward inflating the ratings because the books are “supposed” to be good. This can leave you in quite the bind sometimes when you don’t actually *enjoy* reading a book that you feel like you are supposed to enjoy. In the case of classics, most people assume that they are considered a classic for a reason, and anyone who didn’t like it just didn’t “get it.” For literary fiction, it often seems that people want to rate them highly because they are so heavily praised by critics. In both cases, it seems there can sometimes be a bias toward rating a book higher to put forward a certain image of yourself, usually as someone who is more intellectual or more well-read.
However, I think your enjoyment of a book should have equal, if not more, weight compared to the technical quality. In fact, many rating systems actually prompt readers to rate books based on their subjective opinion. GoodReads, for example, uses a 5 star system, with each star representing how much you liked the book. It becomes a bit more complicated when you try to break down what makes a book enjoyable. Each of us has different standards for what makes a book good. For me, I’m most interested in compelling characters and a plot that keeps my interest and attention throughout. If a book has these two elements, I tend to consider it well-written, even if it is necessarily the most technically proficient writing.
To end off, I’d like to open it up to everyone else: Has anyone ever struggled with rating a book because you feel like you’re supposed to like it? What’s the one most important element you look for to consider a book good?