So said Oscar Wilde during his trial in 1895. Of course, he’s right. A book is fiction, it’s not real. It’s no indication of the real life intent or lifestyle of either the reader or the author.
Except that it is.
It shouldn’t be, but it is. I’ve got a BA in literature, I’ve made a living from reading evidence of the author’s life in their works. Whenever anyone writes anything we look for authenticity behind their words.
I was reminded of this fact recently in a forum discussion about cheating in romance. The OP had stumbled across a 1* review which said “cheating – automatic 1*.” Seems a bit harsh, right? What that reviewer was saying, in effect, was that they didn’t care how good the book was, how well written, how deep and meaningful and ultimately worthy (or worthless) the book was, because of that single plot element it got an automatic 1*.
The authors in the thread all basically said the same thing – there were elements they disliked in books, and they may avoid reading those books if they know that element in is there, but there was nothing that would generate an automatic 1* review. The readers, however, seem to take it far more personally if there’s a plot point that they dislike. They argued that it was their right to leave a 1* review for any reason they wanted, however arbitrary that may seem. They are correct, of course. One man’s meat and all that. But worse, what alarmed me was that they often painted the author with the brush of the undesirable plot element. One wrote that they “lost all respect” for one author as a person because they wrote something that reader found distasteful. They couldn’t even bring themself to name the author in question.
Well since when did fiction become the measuring stick of an author’s own morality? No-one thinks Stephen King is an axe-wielding maniac, do they? No-one thinks Thomas Harris is a man-eating genius. Write romance and all of that changes. Write a cheater and you become a cheater. Write about rape or violence or incest or domestic abuse and people start looking at you funny.
I get that it’s always best to write what you know, that if you impart some of your own experience it can create a more realistic narrative. I wouldn’t attempt a full-on BDSM story because I’m not part of the lifestyle and I’d be sure to get it subtly wrong. My characters might get a little bit kinky from time to time, but you’re not going to find any subs or doms here. But then again BDSM is a specific lifestyle: cheating is a universal truth. Human relationships, in all of their multi-faceted glory, are universal truths. Everyone knows someone who has cheated or been cheated on, if it hasn’t happened to them personally. Anyone with an imagination (and if you’re a writer, you’d better have an imagination!) can recreate that scenario.
There’s only so many times you can write (or read!) the same narrative of two people meeting and swanning off into the sunset together. A good plot needs conflict, and what’s more conflicting than lies, deceit, forbidden desires and discovery, hurt, betrayal and ultimate forgiveness and redemption, or else irreparable breaks and starting over. Cheating, from a purely objective standpoint, is a great, great plot device.
Everyone is entitled to their individual likes and dislikes – that’s part of the wonderful condition of being human. Without variety the world would be a very dull place. And reviews are ultimately worthless. A single review only has the power that an individual ascribes to it. Now if a book gets 100 negatives reviews saying that the writing’s terrible, clearly the author has some work to do. But essentially a review is an opinion of a single individual. That’s the limit of its worth, its power and its validity.
For a book to be worthy of a 5* review, I tend to think that it has to be powerful and uncompromising. It needs a strong voice. If you don’t get or don’t like that voice, you’re going to be as equally turned off by it as others are turned on. Dichotomous reviews are often the hallmark of good writing – the readers have felt moved enough by it (one way or another) to interact with it. That’s a good thing. Honestly. It’s no surprise that the most successful books generally pan out somewhere around the 3.5* mark when all the reviews are taken as an average – some 1* some 5* and a lot in between, leaning towards more positive than negative.
The problem, however, with automatic negative reviews – not for poor writing, but for a controversial plot element, however well handled – is that it skews the entire perception of the book. A single review is meaningless, but once a book has lots of reviews readers start to look at the trend. Like I said, most books tend to end up around the 3-4* mark on average. See a book with fifty 5* reviews and nothing else and you don’t think, “wow, this must be a great book!” you think, “hmmm, shill reviews.” Something I still struggle to get newbies to understand when they’ve published their first baby and even a 4* review is a criticism too far.
As a reader the extreme reviews – 1* and 5* – are generally useless. They either spew so much bile that I can’t make head nor tail of what the story is about, or they gush endlessly but – again – tell me next to nothing about the book. There are exceptions to that, of course, but reading either “this is the best book ever written!” or “this is the worst book ever written!” is not constructive in helping me decide if it’s a book I’ll like. A balanced 2-4* review, with pros and cons, is far more instructive and helpful.
But if you see a trend of consistently low reviews, as a reader alarm bells start ringing. If I’m looking to spend £5 on a book I want to know that I’ll probably like it in advance. Am I going to pick the book with a 3.8* average over 100 reviews; or one with a 2.1* average?
And that’s the problem – low reviews because of an intrinsic dislike of a particular plot element alone leave potential readers with the impression that the book is bad, when it could simply be controversial. As an author, what are you going to do? Are you going to pour your blood, sweat and tears into a book, spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours lovingly crafting it, if you know that it’s going to be automatically slammed? Or are you going to stick to “safe”, easy and formulaic narratives because they’ll be rated higher – even if they’re not essentially any better or worse than the book you could have written?
Well, you’re going to pick the safe option, of course. You’ve got a career and a reputation to think about, and I don’t care what anyone says, a flood of low reviews somewhere like Goodreads isn’t exactly great publicity.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the bigger picture. If writers are conditioned into producing the same narrative over and over for fear of censure should they stray from that model, the future of literature looks bleak indeed.