Monday, February 3, 2014

Relative Hype

Have you ever read a book that didn’t live up to your expectations? Or exceeded them? Sure, you have. If you’ve read a book and especially if you read lots of books, you’ve read some that either fell short of or vastly outreached your predicted enjoyment.

While many factors contribute to expected investment (history of liking this particular author, impressions from the cover or description), today I’m focusing on word-of-mouth; in other words, what you’ve heard about the book from other people pre-reading; in other words, hype. Perhaps more than any other factor, what we hear about a book very much affects our own perception.

Obviously, many of our reading decisions rely on hype, but I’m not talking about how word-of-mouth (whether positive or negative) affects your decision to read a book but how it affects your interpretation of the book once you actually do read it. As a reviewer, it’s no surprise that I analyze why I feel the way I do about a story. If I think a character didn’t feel real, that reaction isn’t enough; I want to dig deeper for what felt off about them. So hype is one of many factors I keep in mind when a book rates either much better or much worse than I anticipated.

Most avid readers have encountered overhype: when someone tells you a book is absolutely positively the most incredibly amazing and life-changing story you will ever read in your entire lifetime. Huh, that’s a lot to live up to, unsuspecting book. In fact, I’m much less likely to enjoy a story that’s been sold to me with such inflated worship. I find myself on alert for signs of “what’s so great” and less able to simply read the story without my reviewer brain clicking away. For that matter, my reviewer brain already feels set to a higher criticism level. Everything I heard has raised the bar of my expectations for this book and it better reach that bar. So it’s no big surprise that most often when people gush over books to this extreme degree, I don’t enjoy them as much as I might have. The extremely popular A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series by George R.R. Martin jumps to mind. Don’t get me wrong: I love those books…but I wouldn’t say I adore those books and numerous people told me they are the best thing I will ever read. Of course, judgments like that come down to taste. That series has too much gore and rape than my stomach can handle and while they’re engrossing stories I never fully invest in the characters. (Probably in large part due to countless warnings that many of them die. This definitely falls in the hype affecting perception discussion. All those warnings might have discouraged me from letting any characters into my heart too much.) Another example of overhype in my experience would be SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman. On my scale of book enjoyment, I liked it, but it didn’t earn love or adoration labels despite all the claims of its brilliance. I found the story good, but not remarkable.

The reverse also happens, though less often: when someone tells you a book is the worst thing in the world, whether boring, offensive, predictable, or terribly written. Whenever I hear a lot of negative about a book…well, first of all I’m not likely to read it. However, if I do read that book I suspect I’m actually more forgiving; I’ve set my reviewer brain to a lower criticism level. I’m sure a great part of this tendency comes from being a writer myself. I understand that criticism is part of any process where you present your work for evaluation, but I also know how much work goes into a book. I try to be gentle and tactful in phrasing the negatives in my reviews (though still honest) and this is even more true when I see a book being, as I can’t help seeing it, picked on. It’s not common for books to be bashed to the extreme I’m describing, at least not without equal or heartier portions of praise attracting all that attention, but I do have milder examples of books being better than people made them sound. I’ve heard Eva Ibbotson’s young adult works trashed for their Mary Sue, perfect, and adored-by-all heroines. When I started reading her works, though, I wanted to defend them from such accusations. To a degree, said accusations are true, but seriously flawed heroines aren’t what make those books great and they are, in my opinion, great reads. They’re sweet and satisfying happily-ever-after historical romances starring smart, determined, considerate young women who always try to do the right thing and frequently put others before themselves. As with anything, these books aren’t for everyone, especially readers who specifically want notably flawed protagonists and grittier tales with more shades of grey regarding right and wrong, good and evil. I feel similarly about LIAR by Justine Larbalestier - wanting to put the major criticisms I hear down to taste. LIAR stars an unreliable narrator: the story continually changes as she admits lies…or tells us new ones depending on your interpretation. There’s no “and here’s the real story” at the end. It’s up to the reader to believe whatever they want. Needless to say, this drives some people crazy. I, too, closed the book with many lingering questions, but I think that’s the whole point of an unreliable narrator!

Of course, it’s always a pleasant discovery when books do live up to all the hype surrounding them. I didn’t think SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson could possibly be worthy of all the admiration I’ve heard, but it is. Same with A GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson. And honestly that one had me with the very first scene: because the story begins where most traditional tales end - marriage to a charming prince.

As I mentioned, the main reason I fixate on how hype affects my perception of a book is because I’m a reviewer. I always try to keep relative hype in mind when considering my reaction to a book and writing my final review. This is also why, both as a reviewer and a reader, I like to know as little about a book as possible before reading it. I love getting advance copies of books before they’re even published not so much for the exclusive “I have it and you don’t” brag factor but what that further implies: I have it and you can’t tell me anything about it yet. Once I decide I’m going to read a book I shut out as much feedback as possible: I don’t read reviews, I avoid conversations about it, and I even ignore any blurbs on the back or inside cover if I haven’t read them already. I know I want to read that book…and that’s all I need to know.

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