Monday, July 11, 2011

The Reading Rules - A She Reads Guest Post by Ariel Allison

Today's post is from Ariel Allison, co-founder and director of our sister blog She Reads.

I play a game with my children every time we sit down to read. I call it “The Reading Rules” because my four boisterous children need to be reminded what is(and is not) civilized behavior while reading a story.

Consider this recent episode:

Me: Boys, what are the reading rules?

Boy #1 (eight-years-old): No talking while you read.

Boy #2 (six-years-old): No asking questions til’ you’re done.

Boy #3 (four-years-old): No hitting.

Boy #4 (two-years-old): I pooped.

This, as you can imagine, sent the conversation straight down the toilet (pun intended). Spasms of giggles. One child plugged his nose and ran around the couch. Another flailed on the floor. But now they were inspired. And hyper.

Boy #1: And no picking our nose.

Boy #2: And no eating our boogers.

Boy #3: Boogers taste yucky.

Me: Please don’t tell me how you know that.

Boys 3 and 4 had, by this point, twisted off to the point of unmanageable and were sent to bed. It took an additional five minutes to corral the attention of the older two back to the task at hand: learning which of the four houses the Sorting Hat assigned Harry Potter. Even at this age, they are sensitive enough to plot that they rooted for Gryffindor. And of course, by the time we reached the end of the chapter, they were not disappointed.

What does this have to do with a literary blog you say? As a novelist, avid reader, co-director of She Reads, a national book club, and a contributor to Novel Matters, I wanted to suggest that my children are not the only uncivilized readers out there. Many of us could use a few Reading Rules as well. Here a few:

Rule #1: No Judging A Book Unless You’ve Read It

I confess I’ve done this. I’ve formed an opinion about a book based solely on reviews and how my fellow writers/readers panned it, even though I hadn’t so much as held the book in my hands. This rule can be tricky considering my role at She Reads. I have the opportunity to read dozens of books every month. And the truth is that I often find myself in the position where I do not care to finish them. But if I’m being honest, that does not put me in a position to judge the entire book – only the portion I’ve read. I could name more than one novel that began better than it ended. Or vice versa. Recently I was so irritated by the first line of a novel that I snapped it shut and haven’t picked it up again. By doing so, I disqualified myself from all intelligent conversation about that novel. So the rule that I apply to unread or unfinished books is to say, “I’ve not read the novel,” or “What I read didn’t interest me.” And I leave it at that.Any other judgment is unfair to the author and the book.

Rule #2: Think Before You Review

This rule could also be stated “think before you request.” With programs such as Amazon Vine and mass blog tours, readers are now in a position to acquire books they would normally never purchase. Not a bad thing, but it’s easy to request a novel when there is no personal cost, only to toss it aside later or give it the dreaded one star rating because it fell outside the bounds ofpersonal taste. I could give you a list of novels and authors and genres that I go out of my way to avoid. I know not to read those books for review. To do so would be unfair. See Rule #1.

Rule #3: If You Don’t Like A Book Tell Us Why

There are few things less trustworthy than a book reader/reviewer who loves or hates every book. I’ve found some blog tour participants to be guilty of this and I would wager it has to do with workload. Much easier to slap up the book cover and a few sugar/acid coated thoughts about the novel. Yet honest critique is invaluable to an author. I believe that most authors go into publication already aware of the weak points in their novel. Thoughtful critique that mentions her thin narrative or contrived dialogue can help her hone those skills on the next book. To read that it was “awful” or “useless” or a “waste of time” (all popular review phrases) does little to help her understand or apply critique. Nor does it help to see a glowing but bland review. If we’re going to publically critique the work of another let’s be honest. And fair.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with any of these rules? What others ruleswould you add to the list? For the advancement of civilized reading, please do share!


Meg Moseley said...

I loved your description of reading aloud to your boisterous boys!

Your rules are excellent. I would add for reviewers: Don't give plot spoilers, please. A review shouldn't be a blow-by-blow narrative of the plot.

Nicole said...

Excellent rules on both counts. Cute boys too.

I especially like your rule about criticizing books that you haven't read. Good one. Christian Fiction is usually the general target of those who've read very little of it. Also expressing why you don't like or like a novel should be specific and reasonable. Not mean-spirited and/or fluff filled.

Good post.

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

All good rules and ones I try to follow. If I really don't like a book and have read it, then I just don't review it.

I also try hard to not give spoilers. I HATE reveiws that do. I can think of no reason to give away part of the story. Join a bookclub and blab there not before someone reads it.

I might add, don't challenge other opinions of books. If someone hated or loved a book you loved or hated that is their opinion and there are very much intitled to it. Let you opinion stand, if it is what you believe there is not reason to knock someone else down.

I do have a suggestion for authors, don't ask a reveiwist to change their review afterwards. I had it happen and it really doesn't win any fans.

Sara said...

I do think that it is possible to give an honest and useful review of a book without necessarily slogging through every paragraph of text. One of the things I learned as an lit major was how to combine reading and skimming--and then write a paper on it! I can tell within a chapter whether and author's prose is clean or sloppy, insightful or not. I can usually tell pretty quickly whether they simply dismiss ideas that they disagree with or whether they take the time and respect to deal with them intelligently. Whether their characters are three dimensionally people who are actually living and growing through their stories or cardboard cut-outs. From a thoughtful reader, sometimes "this book wasn't worth my time to finish" is exactly what needs to be said.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Thanks, Meg. I will raise little boys who love to read, or die trying. I do think that sometimes a spoiler can be appropriate in a review. But I appreciate when they give a spoiler alert up front so I'll know.

Nicole: Christian Fiction does seem to be much reviled in parts of literary society. I think every book should be given a fair shake before judgment, regardless of its genre.

Chris: reading is so subjective. My closest friends and I argue about books we've loved and hated. It shouldn't surprise me that the same would be true of strangers. So yes, lets respect the opinions of others and have a lively debate!

Sara: my hall closet is filled with books I've abandoned and plan to donate. I too know within pages whether or not there is enough Story to keep me engaged. And since there are so many great books in the world I don't see the point in slogging through ones I don't enjoy. But because I also happen to be an author, I try to treat my fellow writers with respect (that goes a long way in this industry). I've found that it is easier to critique than create. I do agree that sometimes an author needs to (kindly) hear that her book didn't hold the interest of readers.

Anonymous said...

Great rules! I'm just gearing up to start a book/movie/experience review blog. This was very helpful.

I'd say another good rule is to not get personal. I've seen far too many reviews that resorted to name-calling and insults. Very immature. Very unhelpful.

Tammy said...

I have also noticed that when choosing what to read when I get the 'not often enough' break, I have to know what I'm looking for. Do I want escape? Challenge? Spirtitual growth? Advice? Reading what you're in the mood for at any given time changes your opinion of what you're reading. If I need to escape, but pick up Jane Eyre, I'm sure to be disappointed. Knowing my mood before I start prevents disappointment.