Let us now praise not-so-famous books

David Montgomery’s recent spate of posts on over-praising reviews are well worth reading, as they touch on a particular issue that I’ve been grappling with more of late:

A large percentage of those books aren’t very good. I’m sure

somebody likes them, but for whatever reason, they’re not to my taste.

This leaves me, or any reviewer, in the unenviable position of wading

through stacks of dross in the hopes of finding something interesting

to read, and hopefully worthy of being reviewed.

After a while, the cumulative effect of so many disappointing books

starts to add up. It can get discouraging. But then lightning strikes

and a gem is found amidst the sand. When that happens, the reviewer

seizes on the book like a prospector at his first sign of color.

“Eureka!” he cries, and dashes off to write a glowing review. After

having read so many books that weren’t fresh, or weren’t interesting,

or weren’t well-written, when the reviewer finds one that is, the book

looks all the better by comparison.

Thus, books will often receive kudos that they don’t necessarily

deserve based on their own merits. This is one of the reasons it is so

important for reviewers to maintain their own standards for quality,

and to make them as objective as they can — in what is always, and

must be, a subjective field.

I’d like to think that after several years of reviewing I have a good handle on what books are “good” and what are not. But then there’s the mushy middle – books that will appeal to some, perhaps a great deal of people, but just don’t do it for me. They are competently written, might even have a hint of spark…but it’s soon extinguished and all that remains is a feeling best described by the sound “meh.” These are the books I read on the subway and find myself zoning out on and forget about soon after I finish the last page. These are the ones that prove most disappointing, at times, because it’s one thing to read a ridiculously awful book or one with many areas of disagreement. But a book with little to offer but “yeah…I guess that was okay” is even worse because it won’t translate into a proper review at all.

Part of this feeling is personal, in the tradeoff between reading for “work” and reading strictly for pleasure. Which is probably why many more of the right hand sidebar picks are outside crime fiction, because in order to keep my sanity, I’ve upped my literary fiction reading and am wading more into memoirs, serious non-fiction and especially YA. Because then, after a break, I can return to the genre I love most with a fresher approach and – hopefully – truly judge the book on its merits and not on some preconceived expectation.

The good news, at least for 2007, is that I’ve read some very good, sometimes excellent, crime novels, and no doubt there will be many more to come. My criteria for anointing something as “good” or “excellent”, while hopefully following my own internal consistency, will also depend on the individual qualities of the book. But unlike this guy, I’d rather my pieces not be about me so much – except when it is…