Through my ages-long leave of absence where I spent time wandering the hinterlands and exploring the far reaches of the world and absolutely did not hang out in my spare time recovering from walking pneumonia in my pajamas reading, I came across the book Caraval. I’ll probably review it at a later date, but what actually drew me to it was an NPR article that was somewhat on the fence because of supposed structural problems. I don’t know if it was the wording or the fact that the synopsis of the book was awesome, but I put it on hold from the library and also went scanning reader reviews.
And blinked. And shook my phone to make sure it wasn’t interpreting an alternate universe and blinked again.
Granted, I have my own opinion of the book, but what really fascinated me was that a lot of people had complaints that really are more telling about where we are as readers as a whole than they were about the book. I’ve seen a few articles lately, as well, about older audiences re-determining what YA subject matter should be, and to me, that’s just so weird, guys. Like seriously? Since when do a bunch of adults get to say what books meant for teenagers should be slanted toward so that they’re more palatable for adults? Why not just read adult books that have the subject matter you’re after?
Confused, I started making a list of general reader complaints when I saw them. To be fair, this isn’t let’s MST3K people’s reviews. These are big generalizations that kept coming up in multiple reviews, social media posts, and discussions. While everyone is allowed their opinion, I’m kind of shocked that some of these exist. So, of course, I decided to blog about them for my own entertainment and maybe we’ll get a conversation going. So the following will be the complaint and my response/take on it.
In no particular order:
This is dark! – Dark plot elements don’t just exist in obvious horror titles. Bad things happen. Portraying that in fiction isn’t a bad thing. In YA lit it’s there for multiple reasons. Pretty sure I survived every problem lit novel ever (The Outsiders, Pig Man, Crosses, etc) whose sole intent was to BE dark and show that life could suck. In a fantasy novel, there’s usually a villain and bad things happen. Usually, the protagonist overcomes it. Some people may not find it all that dark and enjoy it. It’ll be okay, I swear.
This character is unlikeable! – This is one that particularly irks me. Not everyone you meet in life is someone you will like. That doesn’t mean that their whole life is pointless. You don’t know what they’re going through or what’s going on with them. In stories, often a character that starts unlikeable can grow, or if they don’t, it could be a chance for you to take a look into a viewpoint that you might disagree with and maybe find some empathy. Reading isn’t about only finding the stuff you personally agree or align with. That doesn’t make the character ‘bad’ or the book ‘bad’.
This character isn’t romantic/chosen one enough/feminist/strong enough/manly enough/vulnerable enough/relatable in the exact way I think it should be! – Tough, that ain’t the type of character the author is writing. Sometimes opportunities are missed and that really sucks. But they’re the ones that got the contract to write the book, so they’re going to put out the story that’s in their head.
This genre isn’t exactly what I think it should be! (see all the adults wanting more adult plot lines in YA lit) – There are lots of genres out there, a lot of titles out there. Sometimes it takes randomly grabbing titles to find something new that you like. Sometimes you have to dig, but re-structuring a whole entire genre away from the people it’s intended for ain’t cool. You can have your own subgenre (like psychological horror vs splatterpunk), but deliberately trying to focus on only the one aspect of the genre you like and making the whole thing all about that niche isn’t really a great answer. You deprive a lot of people who might like YA fiction that doesn’t involve romance or mysteries that are more cozy than thriller or really visceral horror from the stuff they actually want to read.
The person I like isn’t in it enough! I want to know more about this person! – Too bad! (turns the sarcasm down five notches) Okay, look, I get sometimes we all want to know more about people – that’s kind of why and how fanfic keeps existing. The fact is, though, that readers and fans aren’t shareholders into the creative property. Yeah, some may be able to push for certain plotlines (which I don’t agree with), but at the end of the day it ain’t your baby. I’m sorry. Maybe try writing what you want to see just for fun, for yourself. Or go looking to see if there are titles with the types of characters that you want to know more about. If it’s a series, maybe the character you like will be in the next installment more. Them’s the breaks sometimes.
I don’t know the backstory for (insert random piece of furniture/place/item of clothing)! – I’d laugh this one off but I’ve had this argument with editors before. This typically shows up in books where there’s a lot of worldbuilding and magic. All I can say is, sometimes magic is magic. A magic bridge or staircase doesn’t need an origin story. Not every enchanted item is a former servant like in Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes things just exist because they need to for the overall plot. Sometimes the author just thinks they’re cool. And that’s perfectly okay.
My overall point is that yeah, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but at the end of the day, you don’t get to control how certain plots develop. I’m sorry, that can suck. I’ve been disappointed by books before. People who suffer movies with me generally know they’re going to have to listen to my critique of plot elements at some point (though I’ve gotten more docile in my old age). I get that as fans and readers, we really want to pick into everything from our point of view…but sometimes we forget that the writer/creator may have had a reason for why they did things the way they did. Maybe it’s practical. Maybe an editor made them change it. Maybe it’s their first novel and they’re still learning.
Maybe, again, that’s just how they saw the story and never expected people to latch onto certain things (do you really think I thought everyone who read it would latch onto a manifestation of evil trapped as a bird out of every freakin’ thing in Olde School? I’d love to say I saw that coming, but my money for long shot fan favorite was on Ippick the troll and I definitely lost that bet).
My point isn’t for readers to shut up – if those are points you feel are worth contributing to a review, fine, but if those aspects are also either part of the genre or obviously very intentional on the part of the reader, instead of complaining that they exist or aren’t the way you like it, why not go into specifics? Like ‘I really thought it was going to be this type of story, but I also liked this part, or this part surprised me.’ ‘I was disappointed that this character wasn’t in it more because I really admired this about them, but I also latched onto this person.’ ‘This book was darker than I thought, but I still finished it because it was really interesting.’ I’m not saying every negative has to be turned into a positive, but actual details or issues help instead of complaints on things that you can’t change.
And seriously, you can’t. I don’t know very many authors who scan all their reviews and take detailed notes on things like this. They may try to fix pacing or other technical issues, but change a whole genre piece around? Nah.
So how about you readers and writers out there? Do issues like this make or break a book experience for you? Do you get annoyed if a book isn’t exactly how you think it should be or do you still enjoy it? Writers, do you listen to complaints about things that really can’t be changed?