I got done reading Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and, giddy (loved it, loved it, loved it, so much love in it and so much life and beauty), went to grab the book next on my reading list, Natalie Young's Season to Taste which I found through an article, can't remember which now, but as I clicked on it on my Goodreads to-read list to mark it as currently-reading, I couldn't help but to see the overall rating of 2.54 stars, and right away I felt my stomach whoosh down to my bowels and think, "Oh, shit, will it be a waste of my time?" So I started fighting it, this feeling, this downer. "No, I thought, shut up shut up shut up, I don't care that the rating is low, it's the book about a woman killing her husband and cooking him and eating him, for Christ's sake, it's my kind of book!" But the damage was done. I started wondering why, and I couldn't help but glance at a few reviews, and with my spirits low I started reading it.
The book grabbed me on the third page—I thought the first 2 pages could be successfully chopped off—with the lines: "Jacob had been dead three days. Now he was in the freezer in sixteen bits. Lizzie would start cooking him this afternoon." BAM! Shivers, right? Yes, shivers. I read on. The killing and the severing of the parts and the bits about the cooking and the eating got me all riled up. "This is brilliantly sick," I thought, "God, I need to learn how to write crisply like that when I write Janna and have her chop off rapist's dicks and have them bleed to death," then at about page 50 I started getting bored, and then I started wondering why I was getting bored.
I love Natalie's writing: so direct, so to the point, so casual and specific when it comes to disgusting parts which made them even more disgusting and yet fascinating. Then why the hell am I getting bored? I started thinking about the ratings again. I set the book aside and went to look at reviews on Amazon. Mixed. But overall higher. I thought, "Interesting. I wonder if people simply can't take a woman writing about a woman killing her husband and, therefore, being a bad girl when there are plenty of celebrated books written by guys about bad guys doing God knows what idiocies, bloody or not bloody, so is this sexism in publishing?" That made my blood boil and I kept on reading, then I stopped again.
By way of disclaimer, before you read any further, this is a very scary post for me to write because it's my opinion. And I'm scared to death to voice my opinion. Firstly, as a child I was often shouted at and beaten for my opinions so I learned to hold them under key, secondly, precisely because I was hurt growing up, I have developed this extra sensitivity to other people's hurts and it seemed to me that by publicly telling people I didn't like this book or that book would hurt the writer and I don't want to hurt the writer, I want to help the writer, so if I didn't like a book, I would quietly set it aside and delete it from my reading list and move on to the next one, but then people would ask me how I liked it (because I was stupid enough to post a selfie of me withe book on Instagram or because they saw me start reading it on Goodreads), and so because I can't lie, I would tell them the truth ad feel bad.
Then I read this article by Stephen King in The New York Times, in which he bluntly calls Philip Roth's novel Our Gang "pretty awful." And I thought, "Is it okay for me to voice my opinion then? It wouldn't hurt people, would it? I guess it might upset them, but it won't hurt them. Opinions are okay." In my sheep wisdom (I had to turn into a sheep to survive) I have confused upsetting someone (it's okay) with deliberately hurting someone (it's not okay) and am slowly untangling the two, so thank you for being patient with me.
But back to the topic.
I started analyzing why exactly I couldn't keep reading Season to Taste and how I came across it in the first place and how I pick out books to read. I also thought about how I tell you that awards don't matter and yet I revel in Pulitzer winning books like in literary treasures. One of you asked me at the Inkitt AMA, "Let's be honest, 50 Shades of Grey is not an exceptional piece of literature, and yet it is so popular. Is it published for money, or to encourage people to read, or to improve the quality of published work....what do you think?" and I answered, "I think it's fantastic that it's popular because there is a need for such a book in our society. It shows you where we hurt, and we hurt because we suppress our sexuality. I personally think it's awesome that instead of watching porn people read Fifty Shades of Grey. If it makes them happy, then be it! If a book is not entertaining, why read it? I don't want to read something that bores me to tears just because some purists call it literature. Do you?" Hmm. Am I a hypocrite? Then I thought about Stephen King's article and how he called some novels literary and some not, and I started thinking, "What the hell do I know? I don't know shit."
And yet, I do have an opinion.
Perhaps it's not an opinion of a seasoned writer who can claim to understand the meaning the word "literary" and has to look up its etymology in hopes of understanding what the hell it means, but I do have an opinion still, dammit. Is it wrong to have one? No. I see opinions spilled all over the Internet left and right. Granted, hardly any of them are worth reading. But I'm a writer, right? So I have to make my opinions worth reading. Then I thought, "Okay. I need to get used to this shit. Like right now, something is making me type this up, some emotion. What is it? It's the disappointment at how low review ratings have turned me off from a book and how I can't shake it off and enjoy it." But can I escape reviews? Impossible.
So how do I choose which books to read in the first place? Opinion. Either someone I trust told me to read a book, or the collective opinion is such that I must read a book, like it winning a Pulitzer prize, or an author I love mentioned a book in their book, and so I want to read it.
Where do I go from here? And what about my books? How do they get discovered (or not)?
Traditionally published authors have a leg up by creating an opinion that can make an initial sale, like editorial reviews, reviews on the book jacket, articles (like the one in which I read about Season to Taste), ads, and more. I'm not familiar enough with the industry to know all the marketing tricks, but as a reader this is what I see. I have started reading Gone Girl after hearing about it on every corner. Couldn't finish it. Guessed the plot on page 60 or so and set it aside. Same with Girl on the Train. Couldn't get into it and was upset because I heard the book was great. And now Season to Taste. Why did I read it? I trusted the article, and that was a big mistake. I don't know the person who wrote the article. Our tastes could be similar, or could be completely different.
Then I started analyzing why such a well-written book didn't grab me. Ah! Bingo! I didn't care for the main character, and time and time again it's what I see mattering most to me as a reader. According to Aristotle's storytelling formula, the reader must feel pity, then fear, then catharsis. I tried really hard, but I felt no pity for Lizzy in Season to Taste, but I gave the book a try based on an article. See, without this article I wouldn't have found out about it.
That is why I still hardly ever read any self-published books unless I know writers personally and know that their writing is exactly what I enjoy reading, but with me being a recluse and hardly going anywhere I hardly know anyone, and so I come back full circle and keep looking for articles and for prize winners and classics (a classic is another term up for debate). This makes me think about us, indies. We self-published writers don't have access to much of the same fanfare like articles or editorial reviews or what have you unless you know which strings to pull. I don't and at the moment I have no time to investigate it. Then how do people discover us?
Through other people.
How did you discover me? Why do you read my books? Not one of you have ever told me that you have given my book a try based on a review. But many of you told me that you read my books because so-and-so told you to do it, and a few of you said you picked them up because someone wrote a blog post about my book, so a review in a sense, but a more personal one.
This is making me scratch my head and wonder how powerful (or not) books reviews are and what they do. Perhaps there needs to be a critical mass of them to matter? I don't know, I have yet to learn that.
Paradoxically, although the overall review ratings do have an effect on me as a reader, I find it that I rely on opinions of people whom I trust more than on reviews. If I trust someone's reading taste and they tell me they liked a particular book, I will pick it up without even looking at the reviews. That someone is either a very close person who has the same reading taste as me (like my daughter Anna or my editor) or it's a writer whose work I love and in their book (in the introduction or in the acknowledgement part) they mention a book, or they tweet about it or write about it somewhere where I follow them. Their favorable opinion overrides everything else. (Lesson learned: don't trust articles by written writers whom I don't know).
It's like a chain. Anna suggested to me a book by Chuck Palahniuk and I got hooked and read most of his books. Then Chuck Palahniuk said that Lidia Yuknavitch is amazing, so I went to see her at a reading and read her The Small Backs of Children, and now I'm a fan. Then Neil Gaiman mentioned somewhere (can't remember where) Cruddy by Lynda Barry, so I will read it. It sounds amazing. And one of you mentioned to me Clive Barker, so I read Books of Blood and was blown away. Then on the bus I saw a girl read The Ritual by Adam Nevill, and although I don't know her, we talked about the book and she gave me enough of her love about it that I am starting to read it today. And I'm leading a writing community on Ello where I finally get to read indie writing daily and will hopefully pick up a book or two based on what I read after having formed an opinion.
You see what all these reading choices are based on? People's opinions.
Then I thought, "Wait a moment, I'm reading a shitload of books, and here I am depriving you guys of my opinion? You often ask me for book suggestions, and I'm not giving it to you because I'm afraid? Fuck that."
So I decided to write this post despite the fear.
It's time I brave the waters. I need to learn how to do this because I'll be asked for my opinion more and more often in the future as I make my way up the mountain (because I'll get to the top, you watch me), and I need to stop being afraid. Besides, I'm not being honest by not showing you that secret side of me that sometimes strongly dislikes some things, books including. Well then, I will try not to hide anymore. I often see passions flying on other writers' blogs and look, they're alive.
Guess what I just figured out?
IT'S OKAY TO HAVE A BLOODY OPINION.
If you guys want me to tell more about what I read, I will. You asked my opinion about 1984, I wrote about it. Why did you ask? Was it because you wanted to hear a unique perspective of a Russian reading it? Well, I can give you more, if you want. Today one of you asked me on Goodreads to analyze The Old Man and the Sea. Want me to? I will. It taught me a lot about writing. And just because I know you want to ask, I tried reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and couldn't. Couldn't get past the first page.
Thank you so much for suggesting books to me based on my writing, so many of them I have discovered thanks to you, like Books of Blood. So, what about you? Do book reviews influence your reading choices? Yes? No? What do you think? And what have you read lately that blew your socks off?
Go on. SHARE YOUR OPINION.