I’m never more aware of the sunk cost fallacy than when I’m reading a book that just isn’t for me. Unless a book is really, truly, unreadably awful, I’ll probably see it through until the end once I’ve picked it up. It’s a behavior that baffles my husband, who doesn’t understand why I don’t give up something that I’m not 100% into so that I can move on to things that I’ll enjoy.
Part of it is my awareness that I do look through a more critical lens when it comes to storytelling, as anyone that’s ever tried to watch a movie or show with me in the room can attest. I know that I have a hard time turning the genre-savvy and craft-conscious part of my brain off even when I’m reading for pleasure, so I just don’t think it’s fair to judge whether or not a book is “good” by whether or not it hits some arbitrary number of checkmarks in my mental list of tropes, rules, and other literary odds and ends.
Part of it is also that, while every publication experience is unique, I also write. I know what goes into crafting a story, and while I’m not a novelist at this time, I’m familiar enough with the publishing process to know how long and grueling it can be. Every book probably has a celebration, even a small one, behind it, and I think that they deserve my attention as a reader for getting this far and doing all of the work that they did, including getting me to pick up the book in the first place.
This is why, in my 2018 book reviews, I’m going to strive to say “It’s not for me” instead of variations of “This is bad” or “I didn’t like it.”
As in all things, there are exceptions. If something about a novel is problematic, absolutely call attention to it (something that I also hope to become better about in the future). But for the books that just didn’t grab you or that feel done to death? Consider that it won’t be that way for everyone.
For instance, not too long ago I finished reading The Novice by Taran Matharu. It was a “three out of five stars” on Goodreads for me, which is my “I wanted to love it, but it just didn’t quite get there” rating. Matharu clearly has a lot of imagination and explored a number of ideas with regards to fantasy races and society that felt fresh to me, and his story of getting agent representation and a book deal in a non-traditional way is interesting and even inspiring, but I wouldn’t peg The Novice as one of my favorite books or even Matharu as a favorite author. A younger version of me would have probably adored the book and eagerly looked for more of Matharu’s work, but it wasn’t for adult me. It wasn’t bad; it was just for a different person.
Some of the lower ratings on Goodreads refer to the novel and its characters as a collection of clichés. The poor, good-hearted orphan that’s unjustifiably bullied discovers magical powers and friends. Elves are graceful, dwarves are industrious, and humans fall somewhere in the middle. His Dark Materials characters get shipped off to Hogwarts from Harry Potter, compete in The Hunger Games, and then get shipped off to the front lines of The Lord of the Rings. Some readers couldn’t even finish the book because it was too clichéd for them.
I see where these reviewers are coming from with regards to familiarity. I could see the influences pretty clearly (although Matharu says that His Dark Materials wasn’t part of the inspiration for The Novice), and part of why I didn’t fall in love with the novel is because it felt so familiar to me. What doesn’t seem to be considered, at least in the context of these reviews, is that it’s not going to be as familiar to someone who hasn’t read nearly as much as they have, and that it’s for that person.
The Novice is for the younger version of me that would have fantasized about getting my own magical pet and powers and going off to a school to learn how to use both alongside powerful, lifelong friends. It’s for the kid that doesn’t think they like books but picks this one up once they realize it’s like their favorite video game and then goes on to read more. It’s for the kid who’s probably a little too young to get nose-deep into Tolkien, but will probably end up there once they fall in love with the genre. It’s for readers that loved A Darker Shade of Magic (V.E. Schwab) and Eragon (Christopher Paolini), which are similarly fantastic and imaginative but can tick the “cliché” boxes of more critical readers. It’s for the marginalized kids who (especially in fantasy, it being historically quite white, male, and heteronormative) might not have seen someone who looks like them on a book jacket and because of it get inspired to tell stories of their own someday.
Nothing is for everyone, and this is especially true of books. Trying to write something that appeals to literally everyone is impossible—conventional wisdom says that you’re not even supposed to market a book that way, so how can you expect to write one like that? Unless there’s a genuine problem with the book or its message, if you don’t like it, ask yourself why rather than just calling it “bad”—and maybe read a review from a fan who loved it.