What’s in a #review? What do readers actually expect from a book? (I don’t have an answer, it’s only a philosophical question).

Hi all:

As I know is the case with many of you, I’m a writer. Before I was a writer, I was a reader and I’ll remain a reader (hopefully I’ll remain a writer too, but perhaps I will stop publishing at some point. No matter). If you write reviews (I do), I imagine you might have all been surprised at times when checking other people’s reviews on books you’d read because they were the complete opposite to yours. Of course, personal taste and subjectivity come into it. I, for instance, am not a big lover of lengthy descriptions (although I can admire them if very well written, particularly if the genre calls for it), and I do not like a lot of background story (but sometimes it works). The best books for me, are those that can make me enjoy things that perhaps I wouldn’t choose, and also those that leave me wondering if I should call myself a writer at all because I’d never be able to write that way.

Sometimes expectations might play a big part in how we appreciate (or not) a book. I could not resist but share some one-star reviews of The Great Gatsby (I personally love it, but don’t worry if you don’t) to illustrate the point. First, I thought I’d share the ending, and the original cover, that is gorgeous.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. 

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Here two one-star reviews (I’ve removed the identity of the reviewers, although I don’t know them because it’s irrelevant).

on March 11, 2015
1.5 stars

The Great Gatsby – I don’t get it. That is basically my review. I don’t get why this is such a classic, why people seem to love it so much, really I just don’t get it. It is just a bunch of rich people in the 20’s having parties and their nonsensical conversations. Throw in the fact that everyone cheats on each other and you have The Great Gatsby. There is very little actual plot and it is just this random hodge podge of conversations. I found it very hard to pay attention to what I was reading. I kept having to go back and re-read as I found I just read a few pages and could not tell you what happened. Then I would re-read it and think oh, well nothing really happened so no worries. Then I also would also go back and re-read parts as I was always feeling like I was missing something. It was just a strange read for me. Little character development, little plot development, really little plot and yet it is a classic. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I do think it will be way better than the book. I mean it has to have a more developed storyline than the book does right? We shall see.

The book starts off with our narrator Nick moving in next door to Gatsby. He also has a married cousin, Daisy, who lives nearby. The first 3/4 of the book I feel like nothing really happened. I kept thinking why am I reading this? Why do people love this book so much? Then we get to the last bit and a few things happened, but I didn’t really care. I didn’t care about any of the characters as they were all so over the top ridiculous rich people that it was just hard to connect with. That and you didn’t really get to know them at all so they are just random people.

Before I read this I remember hearing it is this great love story. That to me is the most head scratching thing of all. I don’t see how this is a love story. The characters were just cheating on each other which even if they would have been developed more so I connected with them, even if there would have been more of a story here, that wouldn’t be a great love story for me. A very strange read and I just don’t understand what so many people see in this book that makes it such a classic. Oh well, I guess I don’t have to get it. It is just not for me.

 December 28, 2015
I leave this review fully aware that I’m going to catch flak for it. How dare I belittle a classic novel, after all, one beloved by generations of readers. Well, simply because a book is a “classic” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to appeal to all tastes, nor that it’s a masterfully written novel. It simply means that it was popular or meaningful enough to endure, or that it’s worked its way into school curriculum. And while I never had to read “The Great Gatsby” for school, I did watch the film version and found it lacking. But I was still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and give it a shot — the movie was obviously trying to ape “Moulin Rouge,” and perhaps the book would provide a better experience.

I don’t understand why this book is a classic. It is unpleasant, full of unsympathetic characters, and all-around overrated.

“The Great Gatsby” is narrated by Nick, a young man from the Midwest who moves to New York City during the Roaring Twenties and finds himself drawn to his mysterious, charismatic neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is fabulously wealthy, and constantly throws wild, lavish parties at his home. Nick becomes obsessed with Gatsby, trying to unravel his past (and finding countless contradictory stories about said past from various acquaintances), and soon becomes swept up in Gatsby’s mad quest to achieve his ultimate goal… to win the heart of the woman he fell in love with as a young soldier so many years ago. But in trying to capture his elusive prize, Gatsby will set off a chain of events that will destroy lives… the only question is whose, and who will escape in the aftermath.

I know, the above description makes the book sound intriguing. But in all actuality, the book is incredibly dull. Nothing of import happens until a third of the way through, and the book is larded with pointless conversations that ultimately go nowhere. I ended up skimming large parts simply because they consisted of nothing but characters aimlessly gasbagging about things that ended up having no influence on the plot. This book could easily be condensed into a novella or even a short story without losing anything plotworthy.

I can better tolerate pointless content in a book if said content is written well. But Gatsby’s prose is bland at best, awkward at worst, and never truly captured me. It’s not terrible writing — I’ve certainly read worse, especially in modern novels — but neither is it very good, let alone great. (I’m told there’s some controversy over whether F. Scott Fitzgerald really wrote this book, and some attribute it to his wife Zelda, but regardless of who wrote it, the writing is nothing to write home about.)

The characters are unlikable as well. Gatsby is a sad excuse of a human being, not caring who he hurts in his quest to win his true love, even descending to drug-dealing and homewrecking. The girl of his dreams isn’t much better, and comes across as painfully shallow. Her husband, and the closest thing this book has to an antagonist, isn’t much better than Gatsby himself — he’s also racist, but then, this book was written in the ’20s, and some uncomfortable elements of older novels are simply products of their time. The narrator, Nick, is the closest thing to a decent human being the book has, and even then he comes across as a wet blanket, letting himself be walked on and not bothering to get involved when events take a turn for the worse. Some might argue that the unlikable characters are the point of this book, that it was meant to show the shallowness and corruption of the day, but a cast of unlikable characters will make your book VERY unpleasant.

Finally, without spoiling too much… the ending of the book renders the entire rest of the story pointless. The characters have gained nothing, learned nothing, and in the end the moral of the story seems to be “isn’t this world a terrible place?” I don’t demand a happy ending from everything I read, but this book isn’t so much a sad ending as it is a nihilistic one. It’s as if the author set out to write an unpleasant and cynical book simply to make his story “meaningful” or “deep.”

I don’t understand why “The Great Gatsby” is considered such a classic. It’s unpleasant and miserable to read, without a single sympathetic character in the cast and without any sort of meaningful resolution. All I can say is that I’m glad I was never forced to read this in school.

**********************************************************************
Perhaps this post is also an unpleasant and miserable read, and please, don’t feel forced to read it. But thanks if you do. And if you have any thoughts, please feel free to share them too.
Olga Núñez Miret
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15 thoughts on “What’s in a #review? What do readers actually expect from a book? (I don’t have an answer, it’s only a philosophical question).”

    1. True, and I agree beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but even in things I don’t like I can find skill or art although they are not to my taste. To give one star to something it would need to be truly awful (or deeply offensive and dangerous). Perhaps criteria are that different.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. In this case, I think the reviews are mostly about the fact that the book is a classic. Not that the author is going to change his style on reading the review as he’s been dead for ages, so I think they are mostly about getting the point across, but yes, I don’t think I’d give somebody a one star unless it was a fraud or something that I thought was dangerous.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lucinda. I do love the book, and I guess it’s down to what one likes. I do like action, but I also like getting to understand characters. And I do have a particular appreciation for books with narrators.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Olga. I enjoyed this post. You bring out one of my favorite “points” about books. Once (in another place) I was talking to a coworker and started describing how much I liked a particular author and series. Then I said how I loved the author’s sense of humor. My coworker became a little intense saying “What a horrible book! All the heroes are such despicable people!”
    I was surprised, but I grinned and told him “That’s what makes it so funny.” It was his turn to look surprised. “I’m sorry. I should read it again.”
    But I told him not to apologize, that’s what’s so wonderful about books. They are different for everyone. Huge hugs.

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    1. Indeed. But such visceral reactions over a book makes me think that, as we’ve discussed before, the review is more about the person writing it than about the book. Yes, I’ve had people really upset because there was adultery in one of my books. Sometimes I wonder if people go around with their eyes shut… or perhaps they live in a thoroughly different world.

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  2. Different strokes for different folks, I say. Yes, reading is subjective but also illuminating. I love character study in novels. I felt sad for all the people in The Great Gatsby. Nobody was happy, you see. 😀
    Fabulous post, Olga. ❤ ❤

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  3. Isn’t that amazing? I just love it that we all have such different tastes. There have been books in my past that I tried so hard to like because everyone else did, and I just couldn’t get there. 🙂 Then, plenty the other way around as well. A fun post, Olga.

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    1. So true! Sometimes I’ve hated things that I later came to love, although the other way is also true. But it’s a good reminder that perhaps we need to take reviews with more than a pinch of salt. Be well!

      Liked by 1 person

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