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A few days ago, someone posted to the AAR Listserv a comment that a book she had attempted to read was a wall-banger. Now, one of the reasons I so wanted to administer this list when Prodigy offered me the opportunity was to have a truly open and honest forum primarily for readers that I felt was unavailable on the other romance listservs. So I watched this post with interest to see what followed.
Over the next day or so, about thirty posts on that thread were made, by about 25 or so of the 175 list subscribers. First and foremost, I was pleased and proud of the list – no flame wars were started, no one yelled or had a tantrum. But something quite extraordinary did occur. Just the thought of a book being called a wall-banger created two fairly distinct camps with two fairly distinct ideas.
Read on and see how the discussion progressed, then see where you stand on this topic.
From Marilyn Grall, author of a medieval romance soon to be released by New Concepts Publishing (email@example.com):
I might be inviting flames here, but I simply have to say a word about “wall bangers.” As a writer, when I see that term, I simply shudder. Writers pour their heart, soul and sweat into their books, and the idea that someone would figuratively throw a book at the wall without finishing it is simply awful to me. How can you truly judge a book without reading it — not skimming — but reading it thoroughly? I have never yet put down a book I have started reading until the very last page, and even then I can always find something I learned from it, something I enjoyed. If I didn’t particularly like the book, I might not buy another from that author, but at least I feel I’ve given her work the respect it deserves.
Point in fact. I have just finished reading Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm. This was a wonderful, highly emotional book with a very unusual premise. The idea of a hero suffering a stroke and becoming impaired might well put off a “wall banger” reader, and yet if you didn’t work your way through the painful parts of the book to its ultimate victorious conclusion, you would have missed a wonderful experience.
Another example is Outlander. To be perfectly honest, I learned more about the flora and fawna of Scotland in that book than I ever wanted to know. I had to literally force myself to sit down and read it for the first 300 pages or so. But then, once the story caught my full attention, I stayed up late nights finishing the book, simply because Jamie and Claire were so appealing to me. I simply loved the dialogue. It was very refreshing. Also in all honesty, I’ll probably not read the sequels. I didn’t like Outlander quite enough to read another several 900 page books. The point is that it could have been a “wall banger,” and then I would have missed out on meeting Jamie and Claire.
From Laurie Likes Books:
Marilyn, your writing about the first three hundred pages of Outlander reminds of the discussion on this list a few weeks back between another reader and myself about one of Judith McNaught’s contemporaries. She said that I should re-try the book, skipping the first third, roughly.
Obviously writers see things differently than readers do, but, just as I have walked out on movies I knew I wouldn’t like after sitting through a portion, I know there are books I won’t like after reading them partially. To say otherwise would not be honest. I try to prevent that altogether in the choices I make about which books to buy and read in the first place. But not all books prove to be as good as they sound. I have rarely read a book that got that much better after a dismal start. I have to finish the books I don’t like,because it is my “business” to review them, but gritting my teeth along the way is not something I prefer to do.
I too forced myself through a great deal of Outlander. I believe I wasn’t fully engaged until around page 600 or so, though. Did I finish that book? Yes. Have I read the sequels yet? No – I tell everyone I’m saving them for my old age. There are still plenty of books out there that will engage me from page one and I prefer to read them.
I too respect authors for their hard work, but an “A” for effort does not necessarily mean an “A” for content.
From Alexandra Sascha Wagner (firstname.lastname@example.org):
I hope you won’t consider this a flame, but I think as readers we have the right to think of a book whatever we choose, and as this is a forum for readers to discuss books, I think it is perfectly legit for us to state which reaction we had to a certain book, even if this means stating that our reaction was extreme dislike/disgust.
I have yet to throw a book against the wall, and I have finished all books I own eventually, but I have found myself getting really negative feelings about a number of books (going so far as to push them away from me like I would brush away a — to me — disgusting spider).
As a writer you have to be prepared for critisism, be it constructive (which it should be) or be it not so constructive. What I mean is that if somebody states of your or some other writer’s book that it made them so angry that they virtually threw it against a wall, then you have to accept that. You can never please everybody and in most cases, the readers who send these comments in, give their reasons as well and in most cases very eloquently and detailed, too.
Obviously, a writer never wants to hear critisism, but wouldn’t you rather know about the very extremely negative reaction someone or a number of someones had instead of blithely thinking everybody enjoyed your writing? And another thing, as a writer you are something of a exhibitionist. With publishing you decide to put that much of yourself out there for thousands to read. Nobody forced you to do that, you did it voluntarily. And most of us will be very grateful to you for putting into words the stories we can only spin in our minds.
I reserve the right to know after one page, one chapter, half of the book or almost at the end of a book, if this is a book I want to read any longer or if I don’t want to, and honestly, I don’t have the luxury of time to finish a book which doesn’t do anything to me or which might even make me want to wash myself. . . (except if I don’t have anything else to read). A bit of a contradiction, I know, but I never claimed to be consistent.)
I like to learn things from the book I read too, but I read for enjoyment (I am not in school any longer, fortunately, so I don’t have to read something, if I don’t want to) and if I don’t enjoy myself I don’t remember a thing.
If you want to read through a book you really hate, for whatever reason, I respect that, but I won’t let you criticise me (appealing to my “better nature”) for choosing not to, in case I will decide to do so in the future.
Hey, that was a great experience for you, but you would never have known what you missed, and in the time you spend on a book of which a third didn’t do much for you, you could have read a real pearl, a keeper! I respect your opinion and admire you for your dedication, but I wanted to point out that you have to tolerate other readers’ viewpoints, too.
From Cindy Aliff (email@example.com):
Yes, maybe but at the same time, us readers are paying almost 7 bucks a book. It’s very disturbing for us to spend that kind of money especially on an author or a book that we are eagerly waiting for and have it be so awful or impossible to read that we can’t finish it and thus becomes a “wallbanger”. I, myself have never not finished a book.
If the book is truly dismal, I begin my speed reading/skimming routine.
Then I tell everyone I know not to waste their money or time.
From Karen Wheless (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Lately I’ve been learning to not finish books. I have a couple of hundred books waiting to be read, and I don’t want to spend my precious time on a book that doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a writer, but the only thing I’m interested in in a book is “do I care what happens to these characters?” If the author hasn’t made me care in 50 pages, then she probably won’t in 250.
I’ve never actually thrown one against a wall, though! Precious credit at the used bookstore. I find that if I slog through to the last page, I end up in a very negative mood about books in general, especially about buying books. The last time I forced myself to finish a book that I disliked, I didn’t buy another new book for two months. Every time I passed the bookstore, I thought about the money and time I’d wasted. On the positive side, I probably do enjoy eight or nine out of every ten books I read.
Donna Wingfield (email@example.com):
I don’t throw literally throw books against the wall, either, but if I’m not getting any enjoyment at all from a book, I don’t waste my time finishing. There are other books waiting to be found and enjoyed. I finish 95 to 98% of the books I begin, but the reason could be that I’m getting smarter about choosing what I read. This listserv helps; so do recommendations from readers with similar tastes, and the reviews at The Romance Reader. I almost always find an enjoyable read if I check one of these sources.
From Marilyn Grall (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Thanks for the feedback on my “wall bangers” message. I’m not going to change my opinion, but any negative opinions bounced back to me can only help me toughen up and grow as a person, and as a writer.
From Inez Saxton (ISAXTON@mail.batesww.com):
I have an entirely different definition for Wall Bangers. . . It doesn’t involve throwing the book. Instead I bang my thick head against the wall hoping against hope to understand what in creatiion is going on. Example of a wall banger, Faulkner’s Light in August.
I realize that not everyone has my peculiar tendency (or curse) to finish a book, no matter how awful, no matter how long it takes. But if I dislike a book that intensely I say, having read it, I wish I could unread it. An example of a book that I wish I could unread would be Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer.
From author Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod (email@example.com):
What I meant was that I felt “wallbanger” as a term for a disappointing read hit me as a term I wouldn’t use, since one reader’s keeper is another’s “wallbanger”, so to speak.
Outlander is one book many people I respect raved over. I, on the other hand, slogged through it for 75 pages at the outside and set it back on my bookshelf. I couldn’t get into it at all, and I’ve never set out to try any others of Gabaldon’s other books.
I wouldn’t call Outlander a wall-banger simply because I know the book had two strikes against it for me before I started reading: it’s first person, which I absolutely loathe, and it’s a time travel, a paranormal type I’ve been predisposed to disliking since reading A Knight in Shining Armor. I’d simply say to anyone who asked me that Outlander didn’t do much for me and tell them my own prejudices that affected my opinion. I might add that from previous conversations, I’ve gotten the idea that people either like or hate it, without many taking a middle ground.
Just one example of a good book I might be tempted to call a wall-banger, if that word were in my vocabulary!
From Elizabeth (Ear1264@aol.com):
I will only use this term when there is a book which I have found not just disappointing, but often maddening. There have been only a few of these books in all my reading years. I rarely will go into a detailed explanation because few people want to hear it. In the past year there has been only one book which I categorized as a wall banger and frankly, it offended me. When the book was discussed, I explained my reasons for my strong dislike.
I realize that each book is someone’s blood, sweat and tears but not every book will be liked or even palatable to all readers. . . this is the one forum where we are at least able to have a frank discussion about books.
I don’t know how to phrase my question diplomatically, so I will just ask and hope no one is offended:
Writers and Authors – Would you rather not hear any negative opinions about your books? I thought that ya’ll would rather hear what’s really being said as opposed to hearing people gush? Do you prefer silence to honest criticism? Just wondering. . . .
From Marilyn Grall (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Honesty is better . . . sometimes painful, but better.
From horror author, romance reader, and hopeful romance author Douglas Clegg aka Andrew Harper (XLTX22C@prodigy.com):
I’d rather hear an honest opinion, however, as with any honest opinion, I expect the critic to back up what they mean. Also, for you, or any reader, to not enjoy a work of fiction is not an invitation to tell all that you feel is wrong with it to its creator — do you call up Spielberg and tell him what you didn’t like about his movie version of The Color Purple? Nope, we tell our friends and associates, realizing that the story someone writes is their story, and our own feelings about it might uniquely be our own. So, if someone is willing to tell me (or any writer) what didn’t work about my novel, I hope this person is responsible enough to explain what it is she expected from my novel that I promised somewhere in there, but did not deliver. A writer can write a book that I don’t like, but if the writer fulfilled his own intentions in that book, my only complaint is my taste as opposed to his or hers.
Let me give you an example of a writer whose work I love, but with whom I have a nagging complaint: Anne Rice. In two of her novels she promises early on something that I know she won’t be able to deliver, and she doesn’t: in The Vampire Lestat and in Queen of the Damned, she promises that the journey the hero will go on will be a quest for ultimate truth in the cosmos regarding creation, damnation, redemption, the whole nine yards. Now I know Anne Rice can’t deliver on this, because she, like you and me, has no secret knowledge of this (as far as I know!) So I get to the end of each of these novels and while I love the character and the prose and the general wonderfulness of her talent, I’m a little shot down having waited to see how she will deliver on this promise. And she doesn’t. Happily, her new novel Servant of the Bones does not make this promise with the reader, and I was impressed with it. Just an example — I chose Rice because I love her books despite this issue I have with those books.
In my encounters with the reading public which has read my own fiction, occasionally I encounter someone who wishes the novel I’d written were a different novel, which is the one they wanted to buy (but it did not exist). That’s the only “honest opinion” that drives me bananas — and I usually just suggest that this person write his or her own novel with the story he or she really wanted to read instead of the one I wrote.
I am assuming, Elizabeth, that you are not talking the kinds of negative opinions that kill creativity — I’m assuming you’re talking about constructive criticism.
From Deborah Barber (email@example.com):
If a book bores me, I seldom finish it. I have been known to put a book down for a bit and pick it up and finish reading it. That I chalk up to my mood. However, if I’m bored with it, it’s not worth continuing as far as I’m concerned. If offends me, bores me, or whatever, it will sit there until the cows come home and grow dust before I’ll finish it.
From Juno (firstname.lastname@example.org):
All I can say is that you probably haven’t read some of the duds I’ve had the misfortune to read. Usually (probably 85% of the time) I will finish the book, but if I am disgusted or offended. . . or bored, I soon reach a breaking point. That may be 50 pages or 150 pages into the book. At that point, I don’t care what I may learn from the book if I continue reading it. If I am no longer enjoying it, I will find another book that I do enjoy.
Have you ever stopped watching a television program because you found it predictable, implausible, offensive, silly, . . . or just plain dull? If so, why should reading a book be any different? There are too many worthwhile books out there to waste your time on the duds.
From author Alice Duncan (email@example.com):
When one criticizes anything, I think it’s important to remember that likes and dislikes are often solely a matter of taste. I’m not talking great, big grammatical glitches here — I’ve wanted to heave a few books myself, that would otherwise have been fine reads, because nobody, from the author, through the editor, to the copy editor, seemed to be aware that the English language, no matter how much it’s changed over the years, still adheres to several grammatical rules. Or at least it should, IMVHO. I guess the classical example is the misuse of lay and lie, but there are scads of others.
Okay, after craft we come to taste. Not everybody likes the same stuff. This was dramatically demonstrated to me after the publication of my second book, Texas Lonesome. My first book, One Bright Morning, was a sometimes-emotional drama. TL’s a frolic. In other words, the tone and substance of the two books are completely different. Most people liked OBM better. A few absolutely adored TL. Folks who demand meat with their dessert felt let down by TL. I, on the other hand, am wildly fond of P.G. Wodehouse, comedy-of-manners Regencies, and old-time melodramas (you know, where you hiss at the villain and swoon with the heroine).
For my money, it’s legitimate to prefer one book over another, but it’s never legit to trash the work or the author — unless s/he’s gone completely beyond the pale and rewritten history or grammar or morality or something. We authors are supposed to develop elephant hides to ward off slings and arrows, but I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to do that. For one thing, I’m too blasted old to grow new skin, and for another, doggone it, I like fluff! And as long as I write it well, who’s to say it’s “wrong”? (Mind you, I may not write it well, but that’s another matter, and open to as many slings and arrows as people want to shoot).
From Paula Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Very well put Alice! I am not published, but will be! :)) But, I have always attempted to give a book some credit, afterall, the writer obviously did something that I have been unable to do. :)
I will never forget the first crit that I ever received on my work. . . it was horrible! I cried, screamed and swore that I would never write again. Then I realized that the person that gave me that crit was 1) very correct, it had problems and 2) just one person out of many.
I have alot of respect for readers and writers. No matter what reaction that you have for a book, it was a reaction. When a novel fails to get that. . . something is most definately wrong.
From Maudeen (MAUDEENW@aol.com):
What one person dislikes, may be the exact same reason why another person may love a particular book. For instance, I have seen several reviews in RT saying something like “the story is bogged down with historical details” and then the book is given a “2” or a “3.” I like a bit of history (or even more) with my reading. So this might be exactly the reason I might pick it up even though it wasn’t the reviewer’s cup of tea.
Also, Laurie, Cathy, etc. at The Romance Reader, first of all I must say I love the web site and I know you pride yourself on “honest” reviews. But I must say I have read some that aren’t only mean spirited and overly critical of the author, but also towards any reader who might have read (and enjoyed) the book. One review mentioned “some poor fool actually paid money to buy this book in hardback” or something very similar to that. In this manner the reviewer is not only criticizing the book, but any reader who might have purchased the book (and pity them if they actually enjoyed it!).
In a way I admire The Romance Reader’s mission (LLB: at the time of this exchange, I was still affiliated with TRR) to do “honest” reviews but sometimes the reviewers seem to lose sight of the fact that reviews are so subjective. Even when given a “1”, there must be something positive about the book (I mean it did get published didn’t it?). Please let us not lose sight that people have feelings and that even while being honest in a review, one also must admit that the might appeal to a particular type of reader.
From Jean Mason (email@example.com):
I have been reading the thread regarding criticizing novels with considerable interest. Perhaps because I am now doing a bit of reviewing, I think I understand the dilemma the reviewer faces. On the one hand, you want to be fair to the author; on the other, you know that people “out there” are going to be making decisions as to how they use their valuable time and money.
I have come to understand that reviewing novels is a different kettle of fish from my previous reviewing experiences. When I was evaluating historical monographs (or those thousands of student papers I have read over the decades), I had some pretty clear and stringent expectations. It was pretty cut and dried.
But reading a novel is an emotive as well as an intellectual experience. There is no way the reviewer can achieve the same kind of objectivity or distance as when one is reviewing nonfiction. Indeed, the emotion of “enjoyment” is key to the appreciation of the novel. So there will always be a personal aspect to criticizing a work of fiction. It is important for the reviewer to make clear how personal preferences have shaped their evaluation. And I think most reviews I have read do this. But sometimes a book is so disappointing or so unattractive that a strong response is completely understandable.
Given this inevitable fact, I think the user of criticism must be as responsible as the reviewer. If you like an author or a genre, then by all means, read a review, but also take a look at the book and make your own decision. For example, Remember When by Judith McNaught was not treated well by some reviewers. I still went out and bought the book. Were the reviewers wrong? Not really; it certainly wasn’t vintage McNaught. Did I spend a few enjoyable hours reading an author whose work I generally respect? Yes, I did.
As for authors, well, I’ve been there. No one can be more vicious in their reviews than academics. Did I suffer? You bet I did; but I also recognized when the criticisms were justified and learned from them.
From Laurie Likes Books:
Since so many of the members of this listserv are authors as well as readers, there are clearly two different (at least) perspectives operating here. If this list were composed entire of readers, I believe some of the defensiveness on this issue would disappear entirely.
I operate solely as a reader. I am not an author, nor a wanna be. As such, and this is something that has been hashed out on all the listservs, my perspective varies distinctly from an author who is probably involved in peer critique groups where comments about one’s work is quite different than the sometimes brutal give-and-take that a group of “readers only” would provide.
To go back to some of the author comments, I have to disagree. As much as I respect anyone who takes pen to paper to write a novel (or fingers to a pc), I, as a reader, have a legitimate “right” to say a book is a wall-banger, is poorly written, was disappointing, etc. All of you who are now writers – think back to when you were simply readers. Or think back to the last movie you didn’t like or the tv show you channel-jumped because it was silly, stupid, awful, sexist, violent, racist, boring, whatever.
As a reader, and a lover of film and watcher of television, I have done all the above and it is my right to do so. I feel no guilt in calling a spade a spade, If I think a book is bad, I think it’s bad and I think it’s okay to say so, as long as I give my reasons. They may disagree w/someone else’s, but so what?
I went to see Zeus & Roxanne this weekend w/my dh and my 5-year-old and we all liked it. I’m sure it probably didn’t receive as rave reviews as did The Last Seduction, but I enjoyed it more and that’s my business. I enjoy hearing reviews of The Last Seduction but wonder if those reviewers are so jaded that they only can enjoy violence to the nth degree.
I realize I’m rambling a bit, so I’m going to sign off. What’s the bottom line for me? While I don’t think it would be polite for a reader to walk up to an author and say, “Your book stinks and so do you”, I think it’s okay for a reader to dislike a book and to talk about it. Maybe not to the author. Maybe to the author, but not in a rude manner.
As I said in a recent column, maybe some of our favorite romance authors have been disappointing us lately because no one is willing to call a spade a spade.
A Couple of Non-Listserv Authors Respond:
From Marsha Canham(firstname.lastname@example.org):
I have been published since ’82, and in that time have received a small mountain worth of letters from readers. While most of them have been supportive and complimentary, and I keep and remember them fondly, it is the odd critical one that tends to stand out in my mind. I read them and take them very seriously, and respect their opinions whether I agree with them or not, have to bite my tongue or not. You’re right. I was a reader once myself and remember what got me into this business in the first place–the nagging thought that I just might be able to do a better job than some of the duds I had read. Marsha
From Stobie Piel(email@example.com):
I love the discussion on how much you have to read before you decide if you hate a book. For me, it’s not much. If I find I topic I loathe, like abuse or rape, the book is gone & I don’t feel particularly moved to find something good about it. OTOH, I’ll assume some readers love storylines I can’t abide. If I don’t like the characters at the beginning, or I find the writing slow & boring, that won’t change half-way through the book, so I feel no obligation to read on. I’m surprised, though, to see that authors seem to think people should read on, regardless. I’ve found generally that readers are far more tolerant of books than writers. I know I’m far more tolerant of mysteries, for instance, than romances.
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