I Didn’t Like It

April 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Something has been on my mind a lot lately, and when I read this particular quote I sat straight up and wrote it down.  Douglas Wolk says, in his quite readable Reading Comics:

But any reason people don’t like something is a valid reason.

Is that true, do you think?

I wonder whether Wolk thinks the reverse is also true.  He suggests that criticism should be “brutal” and “harsh,” at least in the sense of maturing comics/graphic narrative as a medium.  On the other hand, he also admits to enjoying some stuff he considers less worthy of critical praise.  It suggests a sort of Quality Quadrant:

(I stole the quadrant diagram idea from Stephen Covey).

In the culinary world, I will provide my own examples.  Quadrant I: kale.  Quadrant II: zucchini. (Well, I’ll eat it but I sure don’t salivate over it). Quadrant III: Oreos.  Quadrant IV: marshmallows.  Now, in the literary world: I: The Brothers Karamazov. II: The Mill on the Floss.  III: self-help books. IV: genre fiction involving paramilitary organizations.

I read the quote claiming that any reason we don’t like something is valid to my husband.  He replied, facetiously, at his sardonic best, “I don’t like Jews.”  Clearly we can only apply this aesthetic standard to creative works!  (Although I guess Wolk did say “something” and not “someone.”)  It would be an absolute disaster in the political sphere, as in fact we have seen throughout world history.  It’s not very nice on the interpersonal level, either.

Anyway, in the literary world at least, I can think of a list of stupid reasons not to like something that I don’t think are valid at all.

  • I was put off by the cover art (over which the author has no say).
  • I wasn’t paying that much attention so I didn’t “get” some parts.
  • I was reading something else around that time and the styles didn’t play together well.
  • I heard something about the author’s personal life that bothered me.
  • I didn’t like another book by this author.  (Well, maybe…)
  • The audio version wasn’t well produced.
  • It won an award that I think should have gone to a different book.
  • It was recommended by someone I don’t like.
  • (Corollary: It was on Oprah).
  • I didn’t like the protagonist.  (Often we aren’t supposed to!)

We could probably go on from there, but I think I’ve made my point.  Saying “I didn’t like it” and being satisfied with that is just a bit… spoiled, don’t you think?  Just the other night I watched my friend’s kids eat only the noodles out of their soup, which is to be expected from preschoolers but not from adults.  On the other hand, I feel the same about people rejecting opera as I do about people not eating their vegetables, so I’m probably a big snob.

Ultimately, writing something off with a knee-jerk reaction only hurts ourselves.  When we refuse to make an attempt to appreciate something, we miss finding out it might have been our new favorite.  We limit our potential enjoyment and, what’s worse, we often spread it to others.


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  1. I seriously have to think about that one, but my gut reaction is no–any old reason is not a valid reason.

  2. I have to agree most of those “reasons” you list for not liking a book are not valid. Sometimes it’s hard for me to separate a distraction in my life from a poorly written book that couldn’t hold my attention of its own accord, but then I usually try to put it aside and come back to read it later…

  3. I like the quadrant, but I think each person would necessarily have their own layouts as to what is in each section of it. I wouldn’t think that anything could be dismissed with a simple ‘I don’t like it’, I think that seems somewhat spoiled as well. I want to know WHY you didn’t like it – maybe your reason will be something that I think I will love.

    • Yeah, the secret here is, who decides what’s worthy? 😉

      • Exactly!

  4. What a great post. I love the quadrant idea. That can be applied to so many things in life. I am always a bit troubled by people who can’t accept the notion of liking something unworthy. (I like a lot of unworthy stuff…)

    I am guilty sometimes of some of your bad reasons to not like something. I wouldn’t read the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for a long time because I hated the too cute title. In the end, I read the book and loved it.

    My biggest challenge is with people who don’t like a book because “it was sad”. This is similar to “I didn’t like the protagonist.”

    • Oh! I agree! If you never read a “sad” book, what’s left? Though I would tend to make an exception if the plot of a particular book hit too close to home at a point in time, like someone grieving not wanting to read about losing a close family member. (But I think reading helps as a catharsis at those times).

  5. eeek..gonna go hide my head in shame. I know that I’m guilty of several of those dumb reasons not to like a book. Just hope I haven’t made a huge number of them public on the old blob.

  6. I just read my comment again and realize it came off awkwardly. What I meant to say was, yeah, those are silly reasons to dislike a book. But I’m probably guilty of a few. I know if I listened to an audio book that wasn’t done well, or the voice annoyed me, it might put me off trying to read it! Even though it shouldn’t.

  7. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with not liking the main character being a bad reason to dislike a book, mostly because I think that often people mean that they couldn’t find anything sympathetic or relateable about the main character at all, and for many people that only works if the main character is deliciously evil, and then it is a ‘love to hate’ sort of thing.

    • I’m sticking to my guns. It seems people won’t like a main character unless they can identify with him or her, and if they can’t, that isn’t always the author’s fault. For instance, several people in my book group didn’t like The Road specifically because the characters didn’t have first names, so they weren’t able to identify with them. (!)

      Maybe it’s just me, but I find characters a lot more interesting when they’re flawed or weak or unreliable in some way. It’s just too easy to write a character who is smart and funny and brave and always finds personal growth in the end.

      • But I wonder in the case of your book club if it was less that they couldn’t identify them and more that they couldn’t get a feel for them without that identifying factor of first names. And I think that’s an okay reason to dislike a book, because you can’t get a feel for the author. It is just a personal reading preference to need to be able to understand the character at some deeper level, and that may or may not be the author’s fault, but it doesn’t change the fact that many people need to connect to a book through a character.

        I personally don’t need a totally likeable character, but there have been books I’ve hated (Zoe Heller’s “The Believers”) because it didn’t seem like any of the characters had any redeeming qualities whatsoever and I really could not have cared less about what happened to them. I couldn’t become invested in them in any way, so I couldn’t become invested in the story.

        I completely agree that flawed, unreliable, weak characters are much more interesting than ‘perfect’ characters. And really, aren’t flawed characters more relateable than perfect characters? None of us are perfect after all. That’s why I think the issue is characters people can relate to, more so than characters people simply like.

      • Er…that you can’t get a feel for the CHARACTERS.

  8. I just don’t see why the lack of a first name would make or break whether the reader identifies with a character. Personally I like it better! Sometimes if a character has the same name as someone I’ve met in real life, I find I have to keep fighting the tendency to imagine the character looks like or acts like that person. The other problem is when characters have similar names (like in Battle Royale) or several different names (like in Dr. Zhivago), and it makes it harder to keep track of them.

    I’m starting to think I should do a post on the topic of unlikeable characters – it looks like there’s a lot here to explore. Also, it looks like the comments function can only handle three in a row!

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