Saturday, January 17, 2015

When a critically acclaimed book isn't that good

Last year, a young adult novel called Anatomy of a Misfit came out, and everyone was talking about it. It was all over book blogs, it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and in general, people were very excited about it and talked about what an amazing book it was. One of my co-workers read the book and greatly disliked it. Still, I wanted to read it, since it was so highly spoken of, and because my co-worker and I sometimes have different reading tastes. I was expecting to love Anatomy of a Misfit; however, I was very disappointed by it.

When I finished reading it, I wanted to know if anyone else felt the same way I did, so I started reading Goodreads reviews of the book. Many people mentioned the following:

  • All the characters are stereotypes.
  • The language is offensive (for multiple reasons, including swearing).
  • The narrator was unlikable.
  • The book was not well-written.
  • The book tried to make a point, but missed the mark.
I found myself agreeing with what the negative reviews were saying, because the thoughts expressed in those reviews were exactly the thoughts I had while reading. Since so many people loved the book, though, I thought I'd also read some positive reviews, and one in particular stood out to me because of this: "This is not a book for everybody. This is not a book you will enjoy if slurs and slut-shaming ruin a book for you. To love this book, you need to be the type who can read a book about people as they are and not as you want them to be."

It's an interesting point, and I think a good one. There is much to be said about unlikable characters: they exist, and that's not always a bad thing. Some of my favorite books have unlikable characters, and I do enjoy reading books about people as they are: flawed and messy.

But what happens when a book shows characters as they are, not as we want them to be, and it's not a good depiction of people? For me, there's a difference between having a character who is unlikable, who is flawed to the point where I can't stand them, and having a character who is unlikable because that character is a stereotype. It's something I've been thinking about ever since I read Anatomy of a Misfit and the Goodreads reviews of it. It's important to have characters who are unlikable as much as it's important to have characters who are likable, but I think what's most important is having characters who are realistic and that readers can relate to. For me, this is where Anatomy of a Misfit misses the mark. Instead of having authentic characters, the characters were caricatures of themselves.

What I struggle with now is how to understand how and why this book has resonated with so many people. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to figure it out--all the five star ratings it's getting baffle me. As a librarian, though, I think it's important for me to at least try to figure it out, because something about this book appeals to a lot of people, and knowing why will help me be a better librarian, and, perhaps, a better reader.

Have any of you experienced a similar situation? If so, let me know in the comments!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This happens to me a lot! But the most stand out example to me was The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Admittedly, it wasn't a typical book I would pick. But I found the characters all so typically unlikeable, and to have so many. After about 60 pages I checked the online reviews to see if it got any better and to see if other people felt the same and they did. That's when I decided I didn't need to like everything she writes and that's ok.