I’ve been meaning to upload this post for a while but I didn’t have the words quite how I wanted them to be. But, I’ve decided this is as good as it’s going to get so let’s get on with it. Actually, before we start: this isn’t a review mostly because I haven’t had the time to read anything in the past week. Hopefully, I’ll be able to finish a couple of books this week and over Thanksgiving Break so I can have some reviews set up for the next few weeks *crosses fingers*. But, that’s neither here nor there so onwards to the chat.
So about a month and a half ago, I reviewed The Darlings by Cristina Alger and the opening line to the review was “I feel bad for not liking this book because it is actually really good. But I can’t really say that it captured my attention.”
I felt compelled to include it because my review of the book was quite negative despite the fact that it was a good novel. More importantly, I didn’t want my personal feelings of the book to overshadow how good the novel truly was.
Now you may be saying that reviews are inherently going to be clouded by personal feelings. If that’s not what you’re saying then just imagine this scenario along with me.
I agree, every review is just a well thought out statement on how you feel. That’s the point, to give my personal opinion. But, and this is a big one, the negative reviews I leave are usually in relation to stylistic choices that the author made, like point of view or a character that was portrayed one way when I felt that they would have been better a different way, or even having too much exposition and not enough dialogue. They are rarely related to literary issues like having completely flat characters or having a plot where there is no real rising action. I rarely feel the need to look at a book through the “scholar” or “student” lens.
For example, in my review of Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis I mentioned that the target fan base was extremely specific. Tregillis made the decision to focus heavily on theoretical physics. And that bothered me on the “that’s not my favorite thing to read” type of level. I never felt like the characters themselves were underdeveloped. I never felt like the main characters didn’t have multiple sides to them or multiple personality traits that made them seem realistic.
The Darlings on the other hand had characters who were underdeveloped and unrealistic. And this is a literary fault. Main characters should be multi-faceted unless you’re an incredible writer who can skew some of the rules while strictly following others. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any because it simply isn’t done. Stylistic choices, like not having any dialogue or having a myriad of characters, have guidelines which you are welcome to completely ignore on the basis of having either a truly incredible plot or having a phenomenal set of characters that your readers care about. Bending or ignoring these rules is okay and it has been done and done well.
And yet, despite the complete lack of rule following on Alger’s part, I said “it is actually really good”. And I believe that stems from the stylistic choices that Alger made. Her writing style lent itself to being a good novel. But because she ignored the fundamentals of story-telling, she created a novel that wasn’t as amazing as it was intended to be.
All in all, what I’m trying to get at is this. If a book ignores the conventions of literature yet does all of the rest of the writing within the stylistic guidelines, the novel will fall flat. However, a novel that breaks the conventional style guidelines while maintaining the rules that make literature, the novel has an excellent chance of being a success.
What do you think?
Are there certain literary conventions, like the ones you learn in school, that you feel can’t be broken? Do you experience this feeling of liking the potential of a book but disliking the actual story in front of you?