Between a Reader and a Writer: What Happens When You Don’t Enjoy a Book

Kathie: I want to thank you so much for doing this post with me. I really feel like we’re part of an amazing, supportive kitlit community, but I wanted to find a way to discuss some topics with candor that I really think will help others who might have these questions, but are afraid to talk about them.

Jarrett: Thank you for proposing it and for inviting me to be a part of it. I love the idea behind it, and agree that it could be really beneficial — for us, and for the community at large. Let’s get to it!

Kathie: You and I frequently discuss how not every book is meant for every reader. We encourage kids to read what they love, and abandon books when they don’t enjoy them. Both of us do that on a regular basis.

Jarrett: Yes — and I think that’s an important thing for kids to not only intellectually understand, but also have the confidence to practice. Something I’ve been thinking about more and more lately is the fact that many (if not most) kids aren’t always going to have other “book people” in their lives to thoughtfully, caringly point them in the direction of their next book (or even physically put that book in their hands!). The goal of so much of education is independence. How is a kid supposed to be able to navigate a bookstore or library if we haven’t encouraged them to develop their reading identity, to embrace and spend time reading what they love and to not to feel badly if something isn’t right for them? Forcing or otherwise compelling kids to read books they have no interest in or actively dislike can permanently turn them off from reading. What should be a joyful, productive experience gets tainted by boredom, frustration, and even shame.

Kathie: That’s an excellent point. Many middle and high school kids are turned off reading because they are forced to read books that don’t speak to them, and then analyze them to death. I’d really like to see them encouraged to independently choose books, and to do writing projects based more on themes than on a certain book. I also think they need to be introduced to more of the wonderful YA books that are out there right now, with their timely content, than just the classics. But that’s a whole different topic for another time.

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Kathie’s fondest book-related memory from her childhood is curling up in a chair with her mom reading alternate pages of Anne of Green Gables.
She runs the children’s department in a rural public library in Manitoba, Canada, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Awards (MYRCA) Committee, and is passionate about sharing her love for middle grade literature.
Find her on Twitter @kmcmac74 and on Instagram  @the_neverending_stack.

Jarrett: Yes! That’s such an exciting idea. Imagine how much more productive and beneficial it would be if a student were allowed to write a report on a book of their choosing. I know that might not always be practical in a classroom setting. But maybe there’s a happy medium. Maybe instead of assigning a single book, an educator could present, say, a dozen choices, and let students decide which one to dive deeply into. I am sympathetic to the pressures and constraints educators face, and know that many large-scale changes need to be made so they can have the freedom to be more creative in their assignments. It’s one of the reasons I’m so appreciative and in awe of those educators who, despite these pressures and constraints, strive to make every day in the classroom enjoyably, excitingly productive.

And yeah — let’s definitely save that “classics” discussion for another one of these chats! I think it’d be a good one!

Kathie: I also want to say that there are many reasons that a reader might not like a book, and sometimes they have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of writing. For example, I read an eARC of a novel in verse by an author I love, but there are often many issues with the formatting in eARCs. This greatly affected the flow and negatively impacted my experience with the book, but had nothing to do with the writing in any way. The reader’s mood can also affect whether or not they enjoyed a book. I set aside a book I abandoned this summer when I just couldn’t get it to it, but I loved it when I picked it up again this fall. So many factors affect how a reader feels about a book.

Jarrett: And think about all the things that could get in the way of a kid’s enjoyment of a book! Childhood and adolescence are marked by periods of such rapid development, and that development is so often accompanied by emotional turmoil. It can be like riding a roller coaster! Concentrating on a book can be a monumental task when you’re riding that roller coaster. (Which, by the way, is all the more reason we should have kids reading books that actually interest them — it’ll increase the chances they put in the effort to concentrate on them!) As adults, we have much more practice and skill when it comes to setting aside whatever else is going on in our lives or heads and focusing on a book, and even then we can’t always do it!

Kathie: As a reviewer, authors often know that I have an ARC of their book, and I’m never sure how to respond when I haven’t enjoyed their book. I usually stay silent, but I still want to support the author. What are some ways that reviewers can support the person, but not that particular book? (Do you retweet or share their news?)

Jarrett: I think this also comes down to the difference between intellectually understanding something and actually, in practice, being okay with it. We all know that not every book is for every reader, and I think we all know that’s a good thing. But obviously, when feelings get involved, when it’s your book that you’ve spent years working on, it can be difficult to remember that.

I think the key here is to distinguish between a book that isn’t for you and a book that, more objectively, isn’t good. For instance, a book that perpetuates stereotypes — that’s something that you clearly don’t want to support in any manner. But how about a book that is, say, a little too science fiction-y for your personal taste? It might not be for you, but if you can imagine another reader — a science fiction fan — really enjoying it, then I think there are ways to promote and celebrate it. I do my best to read widely, to be as knowledgeable as possible about the books already out there, and to stay aware of what’s coming soon. If I’m at a school visit, it’s important to me to be able to recommend books for every kind of reader.

Lerner_author photo
Thanks to a pair of bookish parents and older siblings, Jarrett discovered the wonders and delights of reading and writing at an early age. He hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. His first-ever book project was a comic book about a family of ducks, titled “The Ducks.” Now he writes about farting robots, belching knights, and other very serious matters. You can find his first book, EngiNerds, wherever books are sold. That book’s sequel, Revenge of the EngiNerds, hits shelves February 19, 2019.
Find him online at www.jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter @Jarrett_Lerner.

Kathie: Yes! I frequently recommend books at the library that I don’t personally enjoy, but that I know a certain reader will like. I can appreciate a good book even if I’m not the right reader for it.

Jarrett: Exactly. And not every book review has to be about loving or being moved by or connecting deeply with a book. A review can say, more simply, “This book is (a), (b), and (c), and it would be great for fans of (x), (y), and (z).” That is a hugely valuable review. I’d even argue that it might be more valuable than a review that focuses more on the reviewer’s personal love for a book.

And as you mentioned, there are ways to support a person and what they have to offer readers, even if you don’t personally love their books. In my mind, retweets and shares don’t imply the latter. If a person is doing good work, you can give them a boost without, say, telling everyone to run out and get their book.

Kathie: That’s very helpful, thanks for the perspective. Now, can we talk about the fact that a 3 star review is NOT a bad review?

Jarrett: Hahaha, you really want to open this can of worms with an AUTHOR?!

Kathie: Yes! If there’s one thing as a reviewer I’d like an author to understand, it’s that a ⅗ rating still means I liked the book. I don’t publicly discuss any book less than 3 stars, and I don’t even give it a Goodreads rating, but a 3 is still a positive review in the eyes of many reviewers I know.

Jarrett: I get it! And I agree! My own reviewing has changed substantially in the past few years. I think I review less personally these days. I used to focus much more on what a book did for me, and now I tend to focus on what a book can do for other readers — in particular, obviously, the kids the books are (or should be) intended for. Because of that, I tend to give lots and lots of 5-star reviews — because I believe that the book, in the right reader’s hands, could be their everything. I tend to share my personal reactions for social media. If I’m going wild about a book on Twitter and/or Instagram, then you’ll know it resonated with me in a more personal, subjective way.

It’s a strange and exciting time we live in, where, thanks to things like Goodreads and Twitter and Instagram, we can see what everyone’s reading and what they think of it and how many stars they gave it. This, combined with the fact that the kid lit community is, for the most part, overwhelmingly warm and supportive and positive, makes any review that isn’t a 5-star rave seem sort of negative. Things are complicated further when there’s so much interaction between book creators and book consumers. I also sort of think the 5-star system detracts from some of reviews’ nuance. Those stars, however many they are, can become the focus, when really it should be a reader’s thoughts and reflections and recommendations that should be.

I also think that authors shouldn’t be reading their reviews. And if they can’t help it — and I understand that! — they should do their best not to obsess over it. It’s not productive, and there’s nothing they can do about it. And, I mean, they signed up for this! We all know that once we put a book out there in the world, it ceases to become only ours. It’s just as much our readers’ book.

Maybe to help add some of the nuance back to the 5-star system, we can share what these ratings mean to us?

Kathie: Sure! Here is the rating system that I use:

5 stars: This book is absolutely amazing, I loved it!

4 stars: This was a really great read

3 stars: I liked this book

2 stars: This book was OK

1 star: This book was pretty awful

I carefully curate my TBR pile, so many of the books I read I’ve chosen because I know I’ll like them. I give a lot of 4 and 5 stars ratings; it seems like I enjoy everything I read, but that’s not the case. I only publicly share anything above 3 stars, so you’re only seeing the positive side of my reading life. It’s not a realistic look at what I read, and many reviewers are like that. Like we said earlier, I abandon books on a regular basis. I have a 60 page rule, and if you haven’t hooked me by that point, I’m usually on to the next book.

Jarrett: Do you get nervous when you post a review that isn’t 5-stars and/or a rave? Has worry about an author’s potential reaction ever kept you from sharing?

Kathie: Yes, it absolutely makes me uncomfortable, especially if it’s a book I’ve been really excited to read and I only gave it 4 stars. I do worry about author reactions, which is why I only focus on the positive aspects of the book, and don’t write an actual objective review. I realize I’m much more comfortable as a book cheerleader than a book reviewer because of the many connections I have with authors through the Village. I would rather support authors than analyze their books, so I’m still developing a role that works for me.

Jarrett: This is all so fascinating, and I’m so grateful that you, and other people like you, put so much care and thought into the sharing of books with others. As an author, I’m always so grateful that someone has even chosen to spend a chunk of their time reading my book. Anything they do beyond that is like icing on an already-awesome cake — even if all they do is say what the book is about and that it wasn’t for them. I try to keep that in mind when I happen to see a review that isn’t so great.

The only reviews that authors really have a right to be upset about, in my opinion, are those negative ones from people who clearly (at times even admittedly) haven’t read the book. I’ve seen some 1 star reviews that say, “What a stupid title,” or, “This looks bad.” THAT is a bummer. But if someone has taken the time to read your book and put in the effort to give some honest feedback — that’s awesome.

And speaking of awesome — “only” 4 stars, Kathie?! 4 stars is GREAT! That means you thought a book was “a really great read!” I hope any authors out there who might initially get upset about anything less than 5 stars on a review might reflect on all of what you’ve shared here. Thank you for sharing it all.

Kathie: Good point, and THANK YOU! I’m so glad we did this post, it was really thought-provoking and helped me see things from a different perspective. I look forward to doing this again with you soon!

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