Wednesday, August 5, 2009


If you’ve ever had a friend recommend a book to you, one he or she has gushed over, and found when you tried to read it that it was endless, boring drivel, then welcome to the world of reality. Or perhaps you’ve been on the opposite side, giving a glowing account of a book that made an impact on you, only to find family and friends consider the same book to be ho hum. Fortunate and few are the authors who manage to appeal to a wide cross-section of readers.

People are different and their tastes vary, that’s why we have different genres of fiction. In fact, most people don’t find a single genre appealing throughout their entire life. As I trace my own fiction preferences, I started out being crazy about animal books: The Black Stallion, Old Yeller, The Yearling, My Friend Flicka, Lassie, Tiger! Tiger! From there I jumped to mythology and fairy tales, followed by the usual mystery and adventures of Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, The Hardy Boys, and Tarzan. I went through a Perry Mason phase, a Martian Chronicles phase, and a Louis L’Amour phase before falling in love with epic novels such as Exodus, The Big Fisherman, the Delderfields, The Far Pavilions, The Winthrop Woman, and Desiree. For years I loved romances, then moved on to romantic suspense and historical. I now enjoy a broad spectrum of genres, but continue to like books filled with action. Since I review LDS fiction for Meridian Magazine, I’m glad that LDS fiction now comes in so many different genres.

I find something I like in almost every LDS novel I read, though granted, I have to look pretty hard in some. Some books, I don’t care so much for, fail to appeal to me because of personal taste. They might be well-written for their particular genre, but they don’t appeal to me. Other times a book isn’t particularly well written, but the research and basic story are so interesting I like the book anyway.

Some readers enjoy a slow leisurely read while others crave action. Some enjoy stories based primarily on the characters and their thought processes and evolution. Still others are more interested in following a convoluted plot than concerning themselves with the twists and turns going on in the characters’ minds. Fantasy is popular now because it provides total escapism from this world’s problems. Romance is always popular because almost everyone falls in love at some time, or hopes to, and can relate to the emotions and crisis involved in finding a perfect mate. There are those who feel they are learning something as well as being entertained when they read historical novels. Others thrive on the challenge of outwitting the characters in a book (or the author) to solve a mystery.

I’ve served as a judge for quite a few writing contests and I write a review column for an internationally recognized online magazine which are the reasons, I assume, that I’m sometimes asked what makes one book good or successful and another not so good. I can only answer with my own personal criteria. First is something I call personal appeal. The subject matter or premise of the book must be appealing to the reader. Next is packaging. This means a cover that stirs a potential reader’s imagination. Then follows style and accuracy. The first page of a book needs to start where the real story begins, using words that intrigue or capture attention, copy errors must be at a minimum, and font and print size need to be right for the projected audience. The heart and meat of a novel are plot and characters. Readers who find they care nothing for the characters in a novel aren’t likely to finish the book and they won’t recommend it to their friends. If the plot is soft and predictable, the reader has no reason to continue turning pages. A book can be a good book if it accomplishes all this for one person. But unless it accomplishes all this for a large number of readers, most people won’t consider it a success.

Surprise! Surprise! There is no magic formula for writing a perfect super successful novel. Not even J. K. Rowling managed to appeal to everyone. Just as people and their individual tastes vary, so do the imaginations of readers and writers. Some writers’ imaginations are too extreme, too dull, or too repetitive for some readers even if other readers find them just right. Most writers can only aspire to appeal to a large enough group of readers with like imaginations to develop a profitable following.

If someone tells me a book is great, I’ll probably give it a try, but I’m not surprised when I don’t like it as much as they do. And if I sing the praises of a certain book, it’s fun if others agree, but I’m never surprised if it doesn’t strike the same chord in another book lover as it does for me. Sometimes two or more readers discover they like the same book and tell their friends, who like it too, that’s how a book becomes a best seller. So keep sharing with your friends the titles of books you like. You’ll agree on the merits of some and disagree on others, but that’s part of the fun of being able to read.


Valerie said...

Oh, Jennie. So true, so true. I worked with the League of Utah Writers state writing contest for a few years, and I remember at one awards ceremony the winner said that this was the third time he had submitted his story and the "judges finally got it right." Which is why writers keep writing and submitting--because there are so many different tastes and a lot of publishing is finding the write (oops--right) audience.

A second thought, in my last editing class, I had two widely divergent reactions to same book--in fact, it happened with two different readers on two different books. One reader was SO disappointed in the book, had expected so much more (The Knitting Club); the other LOVED it. One student loved "The Host"' the other was completely annoyed.

So when I suggest books, or take suggestions, I do try to keep that in mind.

PS. Just finished listening to "If You Could See Me Now" on CD--lovely Irish accents, charming story about imaginary friends who help children and in this case, the adult as well. Now I'd like to know if it's as cute as I thought it was.

Gale Sears said...

Dear Jennie,
So insightful. I find the same thing happens with movies. I'll love something (Enchanted April) and a friend will see it and think I'm crazy. I'm sure that's why it's a good thing there are lots of styles and topics of books. Hopefully there are different books to delight different tastes.