What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

I am currently reading ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian London’ by Neil McKenna and so far I am really enjoying it. As many of you will know I am fascinated by the Victorian period and will generally purchase or seek out any book that is set in that era either written at the time or the contemporary neo-Victorian novels. One of the things that I have noticed lately, though less with non-fiction like ‘Fanny and Stella’, is that I am much, much tougher on these books, particularly the latter and I have been meaning to chat on here about it for a while. Do you think we are tougher on the books that we assume we will love when we start them?

I noticed recently that with two really good books, ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones and ‘Tom-All-Alones’ by Lynn Shepherd, which I had picked up in part because they were set in the Victorian era and so the Victoriana magpie in me had simply had to have them both. Yet I think, in hindsight, I was tougher on them than if I had read anything by either author set in another period. So therefore what drew me to the books was what made me all the more critical of them.

I think this is partly because of my personal knowledge of, and fascination with, the time (the amount I studied to be a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, which involves tests and allsorts or did when I joined) and also because I read so many of them. It is natural that the more we read the tougher we are with what we do and don’t like isn’t it? Here I may as well say that I now compare more Victoriana novels to Jane Harris’ ‘Gillespie and I’ or something by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. I am not sure it is such a fair comparison with the latter two as they are classics of the time and two of the great writers of the time. Yet that does stick in my mind a tiny bit.

This doesn’t just happen with books on my favourite subjects or set in my favourite eras though, it can happen with hyped books or the latest book by our favourite authors. I find it harder to be so impartial with those books too. I know that I am always harder on books that have received a lot of hype from the press, bloggers, friends etc. I am also much more forgiving if the latest novel by my favourite author is not as great as I was expecting, just because it is my favourite author. Fickle aren’t I? Though aren’t we all to varying degrees? It is something I have been pondering so I thought I would throw it out there to all of you.

Do you find that you are harder on books when you love the subject, genre or author or do you find it is the other extreme? What are those subjects, genres, authors or even types of literature? Do you think the more we read the pickier we naturally get? Do you have books that you set as milestones for other books to be compared to and if so what are those books and why?

11 Comments

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11 responses to “What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

  1. richardcrompton

    Books can carry such a weight of expectations – so much so that when I give books to friends, I seldom tell them anything more than I enjoyed it.
    On your Victoriana note – if modern writers don’t want to be compared to the Victorian greats, they should not try to write in that style! It’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn, and the reader has a right to will ask: what makes this something more than a mere pastiche of 19th century work? A good example, I think, is Barnes’ Arthur and George, where he could have adopted an Victorian / Edwardian elaborate style but instead produced something fresh and contemporary, which allowed space for a modern psychological perspective on these two interesting characters which would have felt shoehorned in to more old-fashioned prose.

  2. Kateg

    As someone who works in the medical field, I am brutal about books which are set in medicine. If the details are wrong, I am very unforgiving. I think we are naturally harder on authors who write about something that we really know very well, because the assumption is there may be other elements of the book which may be wrong if we can spot glaring errors in the material we know very well. For this reason, I really tend to avoid both books and TV series set in the medical field so as not to be disappointed. One book that did not dissapoint was Cutting for Stone which was written by a physician and was very well-written

  3. Laura Caldwell

    I find myself comparing books that I read lately to the classics that I am also reading, especially to The House of Mirth that bowled me over. The non-classic needs to be something totally different from the classic, like a mystery, sci-fi, cosy read, or memoir, etc. That way I will not compare the writing abilities. I must say, though, the plots of the non-classics are usually better than the classics. I think that just reflects the changes between the time that the classic was written and the present. Boy could those classic writers use the English language beautifully. I find myself copying down their sentences and even paragraphs. I don’t do that with most of the “regular” books that I read. I agree with Richard above, don’t try to write in a style of a classic and you have a better chance not to be compared with it.

  4. For me, it’s a matter of the more I read, the pickier I get. The more I read, the more I learn (about different subjects, writing styles, good vs. bad writing, etc), and that gives me the ability to determine what’s really good and what’s mediocre, I think.

    I also think it might have something to do with age, but that would include maturity and how much I’ve read, so it probably really all goes back to my first idea.

  5. I think it’s when you’re exposed to something on a regular basis, you have more to compare against as well as having the knowledge to know when things are wrong. But then there are times when I can still see all the things wrong yet still really enjoy the book.

  6. I’ve just written a post along similar lines – I’ve recently finished Anna Raverat’s ‘Signs Of Life’ which was a book I was really excited about and was convinced it would blow me away. When it didn’t, I was really disappointed. But after a few days’ reflection I realised that it was still a pretty good book and it was my own overenthusiastic expectations that led to me judging it more harshly. I definitely think I’m harder on ‘hyped’ books.

    It’s interesting to read Kate’s comment above, as my experience is the opposite. As a doctor, I find I can often be more forgiving towards books containing medical themes because I feel it’s unfair to expect authors to provide a high level of technical detail in writing that’s aimed at a wider audience. I don’t mind letting the odd inaccuracy slide.

  7. I’m very hard on books that take place in Paris, more so than any other place I’ve lived. I think it’s because Paris is a setting people like to use even if they don’t know it very well. Then, inevitably, the little geographical and/or cultural inconsistencies throw me out of the story and I find myself wondering who edited the book. You can take the girl out of Paris, but you can’t take the editor out of the girl…

    I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven The DaVinci Code for having its lead character wake up at the Hotel Ritz (famously located on the Place Vendôme) in the opening chapter and then drive south past the Opera House and then through the Place Vendôme and the Tuileries to get to the crime scene at the Louvre. There are pages of description for a drive through Paris that is maybe a ten-minute walk. Maddening.

    And, really, there are so many other things to not forgive that book for.

  8. I know it’s not really fair, but I have a habit of being really tough on award winners. When there’s a great deal of hype, I expect fireworks. On the other hand, books that fly under the radar and surprise the hell out of me have a leg up, ‘cuz I had no expectations whatsoever. Not very balanced, I know, but there you have it. Sigh. Oh well.🙂

  9. All things considered, when the book is well written and holds my interest I don’t care if it has made the best seller list or taken awards…I really don’t like the way books are eliminated by consensus by a panel of experts for awards….I don’t know what the solution is but it bugs me that strategies and alliances are made to push a book through for the top award.
    Do you have a list of writers for reccomendation for someone like myself who loves the whole random, eclectic old and new ?…some of my favourites are Meryvn Peake, Gaskell, Bronte, Austen, Dickens, Sarah Waters, Daphne Du Maurier, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx etc..see…very random….love the old victorian mystery style but no gory stuff..
    ( Ha! Just kidding!) it would be impossible to make a list.
    I am wading through your blog pages…finding excellent ideas and suggestions. WOW!

  10. I’m not sure if I am more picky in old (ish) age but I’m certainly happy these days to discard a book that isn’t giving me much enjoyment! I so rarely read any book that has won, or been nominated for, a recent prize or is recently published and being “promoted” that I don’t have a different reaction to them. Sly Wit makes an interesting comment about the use (or misuse) of geography in books and it is interesting to speculate why one might do that these days when getting it right is so trivial to do.

  11. I am more forgiving of a book by a favourite author – I will at least read it through to the end, even if I then think it is not up to the usual standard. I am also sometimes more forgiving of debut novels, especially if the author then goes on to write really good books.

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