On Subjective Reading

Saturday 4 January 2014 by

Books, The Book Thief, Reading, Counting the Stars, Helen Dunmore, The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Marcus Zusak, The Mermaid and the Drunks, Junk, The Silver Sword, The Day of the Triffids, The Hobbit

Call me controversial, but I’m not a great fan of Harry Potter.

Now bear with me on this. The purpose of this post is to explain a little bit about subjective reading. After all, reading is probably one of the more subjective pastimes you’re going to do in your lifetime. I was recently told I was wrong for liking the Wheel of Time books because they were “rip-offs” of Tolkien, and this annoyed me.

Let’s put it like this – the colour red that I see could be a completely different colour red to the one you see. Think of your imagination; do you think in pictures, sound or smell? What does bread taste like; I bet it tastes different to how it tastes for me.

Reading is the same. Reading is a complete occupation of your imagination – you are given a world to create with your own imagination, and it’s totally unique to you. This is why some people love certain books and some people hate them; because they have experienced completely different worlds.

So let’s get back to Harry Potter.

The first time I picked up The Philosopher’s Stone, shortly after its paperback publication, I had to put it down again because the first page, quite frankly, was rubbish. But then the hype began, and I thought I’d give it a go – if that many people love it, then surely it was okay. Admittedly, books one, two and three weren’t too bad. They were never astounding, but they were entertaining reads and the whole family read them eagerly. But by The Prisoner of Azkaban the damage had been done. Harry Potter was a phenomena, an obsession, and J.K Rowling was the next genius author.

And this is where it fell down. Rowling fell in to the familiar trap of trying to be too “writerly”. Rowling herself is a good enough writer – she wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t, for a start. But she became fixated on writing something impressive, with all the writer-like flourishes. Editors became too afraid to edit such an impressive series, at risk of upsetting the fan base. And the books became unwieldy slabs of metaphor, simile and overwrought sentences to complicate a storyline that didn’t need it.

And so it was that Harry Potter – whose popularity was perhaps out of proportion with its quality (but then who am I to say what’s high quality when 50 Shades of Grey, the Twilight saga and a football manager’s biography top the charts) – fell in to the same category as the other “tried too hard” books.

The Cuckoo's Calling, Reading, J.K Rowling, Robert Galbraith, Crime fiction

The point was further made when Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling was revealed to be Rowling, and critics and fans alike fell over themselves to say how brilliant it was, when – if you read the reviews prior to the leak – it is just a very average crime novel, and would have remained so if it wasn’t revealed to be written by Rowling. (For a much better summary of the Rowling/Galbraith debate, take a listen to John Crace’s Digested Read podcast)

I’m a writer myself, and I fall in to the writerly traps all too frequently – which is where good beta readers and vicious self-editing comes in handy. But that doesn’t mean I forgive books that suffer from it. Try-too-hard novels set my teeth on edge because I so desperately wanted them to do well and they have let themselves down in the attempt to make themselves a higher form of literature. The greatest literature is not deliberately made, but created. You’re lucky if you end up being a Literary Great, and if you are, you are in a very elite club. I can only count the true “Greats” on my fingers, out of the hundreds of authors I can think of off the top of my head.

But then, Harry Potter fans will (no doubt) strongly disagree with this. As will fans of The Catcher in the Rye, 50 Shades of Grey, or any other novel that I really don’t like. (And yes, I’ve read most of them before I made up my mind – the only one I couldn’t bring myself to read was 50 Shades). Which is where I come back to my point about subjective reading. I can never argue with anyone who does love a book I don’t, because who am I to tell them what they imagined? Equally, they can disagree with me about the quality of a book I enjoyed, but they can’t tell me I’m wrong.

Where I struggle is twofold.

People who “never read” pick up Harry Potter. They love it, and never read another book, or they hate it, and never pick up another book. It frustrates me that Harry Potter is their window into literature. If you love it, read more! Just because other books aren’t Harry Potter, doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant – they are victim of your imagination, and if you created an amazing HP, why not an amazing story elsewhere? If you hate it, why not try something else? Just because HP didn’t fit with your imagination, doesn’t mean the other worlds waiting for you won’t. How about some literary novels, a crime thriller, or even a romance? There is so much else out there that doesn’t include magic and monsters.

Subjective reading means that the possibilities are endless. But it also means that some people stop when they find a story they don’t want to top, or a story that they didn’t like, and therefore tar all stories with the same disappointment.

My second struggle stems from when I’m told I’m wrong. I KNOW the Wheel of Time books smack of Tolkien. Read any kind of high fantasy that came out after LOTR, and you will see references all over the place. It doesn’t make them rubbish, and it doesn’t make them brilliant – it makes them whatever you decide they are. But it’s never wrong.

I’m always reading books I don’t enjoy. In November’s Bookclub, I enjoyed The Teleportation Accident and Carole hated it. Neither opinion is wrong. But equally, Carole’s opinion will not stop me from recommending it to people I think will enjoy it. But you will never know until you read.

Reading IS subjective. It’s whatever colour red you decide red is. But it is NEVER wrong.

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