I used to review books. That is to say, I used to do it regularly. Back when SF Age of late lamented memory was still around, I even got paid for doing them. As a kid who grew up as a voracious reader that’s the sort of gig you wonder who you have to bribe or murder to get. I mean, paid to read books? Does it get any better than that? Yet by the time SF Age was coming to the end of its run, I was pretty much burned out on the whole idea. Not because I was forced to read books I wasn’t interested in. The esteemed editor, Scott Edelman, would always ask first and if the book didn’t interest me, I didn’t have to take the assignment. I can only think of one such case when I actually did turn one down, but it was always an option, and the books usually had something going for them that piqued my interest. I read a lot of good books in that time.
No, I burned out because the job eventually got too hard. Seriously. I can hear you scoffing now. On what Bizarro World is reading a chore? Well, this one, when you’re no longer reading as a reader does, simply because you like reading. Now you’re reading as someone with responsibilities to other readers. You have to report the book accurately, state clearly what you liked and did not like about it so that a potential reader can compare your reactions to their own tastes and make an informed judgment about whether they should or should not give the book a try. It was a responsibility I always took very seriously.
There’s a catch to it, of course. In order to do your job, you have to understand what you liked or did not like about the book, and why. Sometimes that’s easy, sure. Characters so wooden that only a termite or a lumberjack can relate? Clumsy prose? Good pacing, nice tension? Inventive worldbuilding? All fodder for a review, if a bit like a checklist, but useful. Sometimes, though, the more obvious metrics are simply useless or worse, misleading, and I found that, the longer I kept at reviewing and the better (IMO) I got at it, the less I was able to understand my own reactions or report them in any meaningful way. It got so bad after a while that for over ten years I read almost no fiction whatsoever. I was reading, yes, but I was reading biographies, histories, popular science, just about anything but fiction. I called it “research” and sometimes it actually was, but in truth I was reading those things because that’s all I wanted to read. I was writing fiction, but I wasn’t reading much of it except, by necessity, my own. Try wrapping your head around that, because I’m still having trouble. Love of stories was what got me started in writing in the first place, but somewhere along the way I lost the joy, even the capacity, of reading other writers’ work.
There was one exception. I was involved in a writer’s group for several years, and I read a great number of stories in draft, but I wasn’t reading them the way a reader would. I was reading them as a writer/editor would, and that’s a separate thing altogether. This, to me, is also very different thing also from reading as a reviewer. Taking a story apart line by line is not going to help a potential reader. But it’s the sort of thing that helps a potential writer a great deal. I finally realized that there were people who could read both ways, writers who were also fantastic reviewers. But I wasn’t one of them. I could read as a writer would, or as a reviewer would, but I couldn’t do both, and by this time reading fiction for pleasure wasn’t even an option. I regretted the loss but figured it was a natural progression in the transition from reader to writer, and I know it’s true for a lot of writers in the sf/f field, some of whom never, ever read fiction for pleasure, like the butcher who knows too much of how sausages are made to ever want to eat one again.
So I wasn’t alone, but strangely enough, that didn’t help. The problem was that I just couldn’t accept this state of affairs. It wasn’t even my regret over what I’d lost, it was fury at what I was missing. There were big things happening in the field around this time. Some of the finest short story writers this field has ever produced were coming online and hitting their stride. Others who had appeared to move on were back with fresh creative energy. And for the most part, I was missing out! I read just enough to realize how badly I was missing out, and I simply could not stand the thought. Reversing the damage wasn’t simple. I had to learn how to read fiction for pleasure as if I’d never done it before, but it’s finally working. Starting this blog even gave me an excuse to try reviewing now and then, with the understanding that I would only talk about books that excited me, that I loved and wanted to talk about. A potential reader could find something useful there or not, either way it wasn’t my job. Or as a friend of mine is wont to say in situations of the sort—“I’m not in charge of that.” So far it’s working.
Which is a very convoluted and roundabout way of getting back to the alleged subject of this blog post—the Not a Review of a Book I Will Not Name. The reason I will not name this book or author is simple—it’s not their fault. It’s mine. This book was published a couple of years ago (see how behind I am?), written by an author who is establishing himself as one of the field’s stars. The book was published to great fanfare and stellar reviews. It sounded interesting. Even though I was getting back into reading fiction I hadn’t read much actual science fiction recently, which this unarguably was, and I lean more toward the fantasy end of the spectrum. Even so, science fiction was my first love and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I’d even manage a blog post about it. Which I am, but not in the way I’d hoped.
I couldn’t finish the book. Not only could I not finish it, I didn’t manage sixty pages. I know. Hardly seems fair, does it? Surely I should have given it more of a chance? No. I said I didn’t make sixty pages, but the truth is I realized by page ten that I was wasting my time, and only kept going for a while out of sheer stubborness. Yet there was absolutely nothing wrong with the book. The prose wasn’t Shakespeare but it was more than adequate to the task. The situation was interesting, the pacing was fine, the narrative intriguing. So what was the problem? Me. I never accepted the book’s heroine as a real, living person. I wanted to, and there was nothing wrong with the author’s chracterization of her, but for reasons I think I grasp but will not speculate on here, I simply did not believe her, and thus I did not believe the book, and my suspension of disbelief never even got out of the garage. I know beyond any doubt that this is not a problem most readers would or did have, but knowing that does not help me. I put the book down. I doubt I will pick it up again.
There was a time I’d have considered that a problem. Now I just look at the next book on the TBR (to be read) pile and go on. It’s not only more fun this way, it’s more possible this way. I resolve to hold on to my joy of reading this time around. Even if it leaves more books than it once did on the wayside, victims to the failures of me as a reader. But you know what? I’m okay with that. I’d even go so far as to say it’s cheap at twice the price.
I must say that I find myself trying to figure out what book it is (and I’m pretty sure I know which book you mean, though that’s really only a guess).
Anyway believe me I totally get — from the inside — that reviewing just gets harder after you do it a long time, and not because the books get worse.
You’re probably making a very good guess, but we’ll leave it at that. 🙂