Dude, It’s All About the Prose.

This morning I got an email that really stood out (partly because the rest of my email this morning has been, “I know you don’t review paranormal romance, but I think you should review mine because it is special.”) Here’s what it said:

Dear Sarah,

I love your website, and I think your reviews are some of the best on the net. I’m writing this email to ask you an important question. Why do so many reviewers compare the books they are reviewing to other books that have already been published or books that are more popular? I get that it is an easy line to draw but it really makes these books that people work very hard on seem like they aren’t as good as the books they are being compared to. Each book is unique, so why do reviewers feel the need to repress the unique qualities and highlight the similar ones instead? It’s really off-putting.

I would appreciate your insight.

(Name redacted)

I guess this is my reply to that email. First, I have to say that I sincerely enjoy getting comments, observations, and concerns in my inbox. It’s really neat to know that people are not only reading my website and the crap I say on here, but they are also thinking about the things I say, and care enough to approach me with their thoughts. Very cool.

The truth is, reviewers (myself included) do compare the book we are reviewing to other books often, but I don’t think it is always (or very often) a comparison used to degrade the book they (we) are reviewing. The fact of the matter is, there are only so many stories out there, but there are an infinite number of ways to tell that same story. For example, there are two books I’ve reviewed this week that I’ve compared to other books or stories. Both books remind me a bit of the David and Goliath story (the small guy/group pitted against the huge insurmountable obstacle/person/organization) and one of them also reminded me of The Hunger Games. I don’t put these comparisons out there to say, “This book is derivative and old even though it’s new.” I put those comparisons there so new customers or interested parties, will know what type of book they will devote their time to.

In fact, just because a book might remind me of another book doesn’t mean that the book is bad. Often times I will read a book that reminds me of another book just because it reminds me of another book (Hey, Interwebians, someone want to suggest a book like Love Minus Eighty for me to read? I am really Jonesing for another social SciFi like that one). What makes a book unique isn’t only, or always, its story, but its also the way the story is told. Prose plays a huge part in whether a book is captivating even if it reminds me of fourteen other books. I’ve read more sunset and landscape descriptions than I can shake a stick at, but the descriptions that haunt me are the well written ones. Even well written sunset and landscape discussions can propel me further into the book itself. It will make me want to know more about such a beautifully written, well realized world, and the people that inhabit it.

So, dude, it’s all about the prose.

Between the blunt peaks of the Sperrin mountains where the sun always sets, and the stony, gorseridden heights of the Antrim plateau to the east, the wide river valley of the Bann opens out for twenty miles, encompassing two counties. It is dark with woods and intaglioed with fields of barley and potato, kale and turnip, and the rich rolling pastures and meadows with their attendant hedges. Villages are spattered over all, ┬áislands ┬áin the green mantle of the world. There is no towns worth speaking of, and the sprawl of housing estates will not infect the land for another twenty years. It is a last breathing space, a final look around at the soon-to-be-felled woods, the rush-choked bottom meadows, the fields with the wild flowers that have seeded for a thousand years and which knew the feet of the druids. – Paul Kearny, A Different Kingdom

 

Descriptions like that, no matter how mundane a thing they are describing, are what makes a book amazing, no matter how common the story might be. The whole world comes to life, and no only that, but I almost feel like I am right there. There’s a definite sense of time and place, and a feeling of impending change. Have I read books about alternative realities/planes of existence before? Yes, by the bucket loads. The concept is far from new. The reason I’ll remember this one, is because the whole book is written in such a way that I feel like I’m transported there, living there, breathing that air and feeling that earth beneath my feet. It’s more real than real. However, in my review, I will undoubtably compare A Different Kingdom to another book that it reminds me of, not to degrade or demean the unique qualities of this one, but because it gives readers an idea of what they are getting into.

In all reality, I’d probably rate a well written grocery list at five stars if it held my attention for long enough. Anything can be unique, captivating, and fantastic, if it is written well. This is why, when I read, I put such a huge amount of importance in the prose. Prose can make a book or break a book. Paul Kearney could have said, “The land was green with lots of trees, villages, and forests, but that was all about to change.” That’s not very memorable and it does nearly nothing for me. It doesn’t transport me, or fill me with wonder. It doesn’t make me think, “Even though this book reminds me of a lot of others, it’s still absolutely incredible and the quality of the writing is nothing short of stunningly artistic.” He’s not only telling his own story, but bringing readers into his vision.

That sort of thing matters.

Prose are so important to me, that I tend to judge my email queries based on them, as well. An author who sends me a letter like this isn’t likely to get my time, or any attention.

Bookworm

Great website can you review my attached book plz

(name redacted)

Note: Yes, this was a real email I received.

Letters like that tell me a lot about the book you are trying to get me to read. This letter automatically makes me think that I’ll be devoting my time to a book full of mundane writing, bad spellings, and poor grammar choices. Bad writing, and a lack of attention to powerful prose, will probably just make the similarities between your book, and the books I’ve read that it reminds me of, more grating and hard to deal with. On the flip side, prose can make your book artistic so the similar elements to (insert thing you’ve read before here) feel catchy, unique, and absorbing, You’ll be able to tell which way I am using the comparison in my reviews.

Basically this rambling diatribe boils down to the fact that yes, reviewers compare books a lot, but it’s not always (or often) for bad reasons. Any book I can think of will be similar to another book I’ve read before. That’s what comes of reading about 150-200 books a year. It’s not the story itself that will always wow me. Often it’s the prose that pull me in first. Telling a good story is a craft that can be hard to perfect. One similar element I notice between all the authors whose books I tend to read is that each of them make words their tool and manipulate that tool to put forth something incredible for readers to devour, regardless of similarities to other works (which often go unnoticed under a truly skilled wordsmith’s ministrations). When it is obvious that authors knows how to wrap and warp words for their benefit, I know I have something special on my hands.

12 Responses

  • Sarah,

    This is a great post. It reminded me of a book I recently read, Jenny Pox. While the prose didn’t necessarily blow me away with this one, the storytelling and cast were awesome. I was halfway through the book before I realized it fell into the “popular boy likes unpopular girl” trope. It’s definitely possible to be similar to another book but unique at the same time.

    Rainy

  • eeek. I compare books I enjoy to other books all the time. But that’s it: I’m comparing a book I ENJOY to another book I ENJOYED. I mean it as a compliment. Maybe they are both epic fantasies, maybe they are both thrillers. sometimes the books have nothing in common except how they made me feel. I once freaked an author out because I compared their high fantasy quest story to The Neverending Story. I fell into both stories, I saw myself in both stories, I went on a quest with someone in both stories. it made complete sense to me.

    and yes, prose is where it’s all at. the prose is the brushstrokes, when you step back you see the whole image. another bit of phrasing that may only make sense to me!

    Someone needs to do that: write a compelling grocery list.

  • I know the “If you like _____, then you’ll like ______” thread is a really popular one on just about every forum/reddit/etc., not to mention anyone asking for new books to read always wants to know based on what they’ve already read. It just seems like a given that you compare to other works. You can’t help but think of another book when you’re reading your current book. Something will pop out and you can’t help it. I agree it’s not to degrade the current book, it’s to say this similar or as similar as it gets.

    Sometimes there’s even the rare book that’s not like others and I’m sure it will still get compared to other books because there will be something that’s similar. I guess I’m saying it’s not only inevitable but probably helpful to most people.

  • One of the core my core principles as a reviewer is to not compare books. But, I do not do sofor the reasons described above. I don’t think it degrades a book in anyway. I dislike comparing because it makes the assumption the reader has read both books. I think that is a tall order for casual readers, even in a small genre like SFF. So, I try to review each book on its own terms. It also presents a unique challenge to manage in each review that I have grown to enjoy tackling. The only time I will compare books is when reviewing books in a series as a means of creating context.

    All that said, yes I really enjoy good prose as well!

    • There’s no way it makes the assumption the reader has read both books. It says, if you happened to read this book (or even the author), and liked it, you’ll probably like this one too. I appreciate this kind of review because I am very careful about the books I pick up, but if I haven’t read either book and happen to like one of them, I already have another recommendation.

      • If I am using the comparison to critique a book as part of the review, yes it assumes the reader has read both else the critique fails. This is the sense in which I am using the word comparison. If I am comparing books in order to make a recommendation (e.g. If you like X, then you will like Y), then yes, your point is accurate and I agree. I do not typically make recommendations as I think there are other better resources and blogs doing so.

        • I guess I’m looking at it from Sarah’s post where she’s just comparing a book, not using the comparison to critique a book as part of the review. I do understand where you’re coming from and in that instance you would be assuming the reader has read the book.

  • I try to avoid comparisons in my reviews except for when I’m doing the specific “recommended for fans of” section, which I don’t always do. But sometimes a book will strike me a certain way that have to draw a comparison, for good or bad. I was reminded of a specific example not ten minutes ago, actually, when I compared Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” to Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death.” Both amazing books, both written about characters in Africa, but the comparison was trying to draw is that both books blow you away and compell you to keep reading while being the very opposite of comfort reads, because they force you to confront situations that most people would rather turn away from.

    Of course, sometimes I’ll draw negative comparisons too, lately coming in the form of, “It feels like [Yet Another YA Dystopian Novel] is trying to be all these other successful YA dystopian novels and failing to achieve that goal.”(Really, I think I just need to stop reading that genre for a long long time…)

    It’s hard, though, to let a book stand on its own and avoid comparing it to other books because that book ISN’T alone on the shelves. That’s part of what I was talking about when I wrote “Reading in a Vacuum” (http://bibliotropic.net/2013/06/29/reading-in-a-vacuum-objective-versus-subjective-reviews, if anyone’s curious). What we read affects not only what else we read, but how we review. Our standards change over time, we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and while it would be nice to think that every single book can be reviewed on its merits and shortcomings alone, simply seeing those merits and shortcomings means we’re giving comparisons, if not specific ones, to things we’ve read before. Even to say that a book fell short of our expectations means that we had our expectations set by other books that we’ve read over the years.

    Erm, didn’t meant to take up so much space in your comment section, Sarah. Went off on a bit of a rant there! *sheepish*

    • Re: Bibliotropic

      I agree 100% w/ Bibliotropic’s point. I place the limitation on my reviews for two reasons. I only read 40-50 books a year that can be classified as SFF genre. I do not read to release schedules and thus read only a small portion of what is considered current and ‘on the shelf’. In that light, I do not feel I can make a good comparison between books.

      I also make the assumption, big assumption, that my blog’s readership fits with the context of an ‘average’ reader. As such, they probably read < 20 books per year. The only safe assumption I can make is that they have read all of the 'big' names and not much more. That would make for boring reviews if I constantly name checked the same group of books in comparisons. So I don't.

      So yes, books do exist on a shelf and will be compared to the books next to them. However, this is a highly individualized experience. I do not feel that I can be successful capturing or tapping that reader experience in my own reviews. So, instead I limit my reviews in the context of structure, characters, prose, etc and let readers bring their own experiences to provide the comparisons.

      To your point, this also means that my reviews do change over time since the standards of SFF regarding structures, characters, etc also change based on my own personalized reading history. Inspired by Bookworm Blues, I have started re-reviewing older review, particularly negative reviews, as a personal experiment to see that change.

      My reviews on my blog are structured to accept and work within my limitations and my blogs expected audience. If I changed that set of criteria, I perhaps would end up happily comparing books in my reviews. I know I do so on my social media presence.

      • Funny you should mention re-reviewing older material, since I’ve been tempted to do the same thing recently. Some books I read when I was new to reviewing I know now could have been reviewed better, and some books I read years ago wouldn’t hold the same fascination now that my reading tastes have grown and changed. I think it would be interesting to see just how much change has occurred in me and in how I review when I compare my opinions then and now. I’ve re-read and reviewed books that I used to love in high school, for example, and now I look at them and realise the only thing that makes some of them enjoyable is the gloss of nostalgia that my own experience applies to them. The books themselves aren’t objectively as good as I once thought.

        • I have re-read most of my reviews and I still agree with them. I have been clearly in the ‘stable’ adult phase of life for all of my review work so my POV hasn’t altered much in that span of time. But, the books I reviewed and issues I covered in my older reviews were not as diverse as they could be. I am working to improve both.

  • I have to comment on the prose selection you share, because it always amazes me how different people view the same writing.

    I am a descriptive minimalist. Trying to read description like that doesn’t draw me into the book-it makes my eyes glaze over. I’ll read a book with that kind of detail, and likely enjoy it, but I’ll skim over whole pages and paragraphs so i don’t lose interest. I think part of it is that I am not good at visualizing things from a description, so reams of visual detail either means I need to stop reading and make an effort to construct the image in my head, or I’m getting bombarded with useless (to me) data. Neither option is really appealing.

    It’s definitely all about the prose-but it’s also all about the reader!

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