“So what do you do,” this guy said, “when you discover someone you like—you really respected—loves terrible books?”
This was a gathering for university faculty, where some were friends, some colleagues, but a lot of us plus ones didn’t know anyone.
No one spoke, until his wife cracked, “I’ll bet he’s at home right now saying the same thing about you.”
After the laughter broke the uncomfortable moment, the guy said, “No really. Who can get through a page of Dan Brown’s leaden prose? His crap sense of history?”
The obvious answers came from all around, basically saying why argue with the millions Brown has earned in book and film revenues? No, but really, the public does have terrible taste, look at Love Story when we were young, made Dan Brown look like Shakespeare—what is bad prose—why can’t everyone see it—different kinds of readers looking for different kinds of things.
Pretty much everyone there was a reader, so the conversation waxed enthusiastic, no one completely agreeing with anyone else (except about Dan Brown’s prose) until it broke up into a bunch of separate conversations, but it got me thinking about how we recommend books to others.
These days, most of my recommendations come from either LiveJournal or Goodreads, with the occasional Real Life recco. I read a lot of reviews, both critical and from regular readers, finding that in most cases I give equal weight to both; I no longer accept assumed authority from literary critics, especially if I suss out assumptions that I don’t agree with.
Readers whose tastes seem to align with mine get read more closely, though it’s interesting how we can agree on this, this, and this, and then diverge wildly on that.
Then I thought about my own criteria for recommending books. This is something I’ve always done with enthusiasm, but when I was a teacher, I began thinking more about the hows and whys, especially in recommending books for students. What have they read? What have they liked? What level of difficulty have they demonstrated—are they visual readers or not?
Sometimes I had to take into consideration parental requirements: this set of parents won’t let their child read anything with magic, that set is against fiction altogether, feeling that reading time should be strictly limited to the sciences, maybe history; a third set wanted to wean their kid off books with violence (yeah, good luck with that, but I did find temporary success with Gordon Korman’s humor).
Recently I mentioned in a conversation in someone’s LiveJournal that I’ve been looking for epic fantasy that is not grimdark or rapey, and got some recommendations. One of these, Paladin, by Sally Slater, was so much fun that I turned around and recommended it to three readers who I knew wouldn’t mind somewhat airbrushed worldbuilding, a strong contemporary American voice in the other world, fast pacing, fun characters, a delightful heroine, and a vein of humor, with some horror in the monster fights.
And I was thrilled when all three liked it, and said they were recommending it to their friends. But I noticed that none of them picked up on my recco of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords, which I said had similar sort of worldbuilding, a similar American voice and humor, a horrific monster fight, but fewer female characters and a higher violence quotient.
I’ve seen comments that Regency romance readers are all alike, but wow, is that not true: there are those who only read Austen and writers of her period, loathe Georgette Heyer, and despise all her heirs writing now; there are those who love Heyer, can’t read period, prefer the Austen movies to her books; there are those who adore modern Regencies, don’t mind a big dose of contemporary language and the more sex the better, and the readers who toss the book as soon as clothes start coming off, because they want comedy of manners, and by the way, nobody who lived during Napoleon’s time would step outside without a hat, nor did they know the word “Okay.”
A few months ago I recommended something I thought was perfect for someone—but that reader soon came back with a resounding, Ugh, what made you think I’d like that?
In the discussion that followed, some interesting stuff came out about expectations going in, personal experience and emotional baggage, how books can read differently in different moods, as well as the usual suspects—prose, voice, characters, world, underlying assumptions, and tone.
The result of that discussion made me try vectors. For example, a couple weeks back, I was saying to a small group of longtime genre readers that if you liked Jo Walton’s Thessaly books and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles you should try Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. One took me up on that and just a day ago sent me an email with a resounding, yes, but another finger-waved me for comparing two authors who do utterly different things.
Sometimes it’s the tropes, or a combination of tropes, sometimes it’s the voice that makes me equate one book with another for a specific reader. Other times it’s similar settings, or plot arcs that I think they like. For a couple of friends, it’s chewy ideas.
One friend won’t read past the second page if she finds the prose clunky, even if everything else hits her checklist. Sometimes I end up qualifying: if you like the world building in this author, the humor in that one, the voice in this other book, and the prose of a fourth . . . that kind of picking and choosing is probably what the Amazon recommendation algorythms are based on: intersecting patterns.
But we don’t have computerized pattern-sorters in our minds. All we’ve got is experience.
How do you recommend books? Do you have a vector method? What are some of your successes?