This weekend at Legendary ConFusion I’m going to be on a panel in which we discuss recent science fiction and fantasy novels that we thought were good, along with some that are coming out soon that we’re looking forward to. So it’s basically a recommendation panel. The perfect time for me to write about what I think about recommending books.
The problem with book recommendations is that taste differs. The biggest mistake I see people making with their recommendations (or at least the one I notice most often) is that they assume because they liked a book, that means I’ll like the book, even when they know nothing (or very little) about what I like and dislike. Which is another way of assuming everyone will like the book.
Everyone will NEVER like every book. I know this all too well because I have what I’ll call a distinctive sense of taste. This doesn’t mean I think my taste is better than other people’s, or even particularly developed. It means that there are plenty of books–particularly adult science fiction and fantasy–that are extremely popular and that I either really didn’t like or can’t force myself to get through.
As it turns out, readers enjoy different things and are bothered by different things. I read primarily for character, although I also appreciate a good plot. (See my love for Agatha Christie. A lot of her characters are pretty cardboard, but the mysteries are so compelling to me that I don’t care.) If the characters are interesting to me, I don’t mind a slower pace and I’ll even overlook some sloppy plotting (aka a coincidence or two). I am bothered by characters who don’t seem real, by extremely dense prose, by large and gaping plot holes, and by most large infodumps. I can sometimes let fairly far-fetched world building go, especially in the high-concept stage of the world, as long as the world remains consistent and the characters are involved in a struggle that captures my imagination. But even I have my limits. (Love is a disease that everyone is cured from when they’re 18? Nope. Couldn’t believe it.)
I don’t mind dark fiction, and I don’t mind sad endings, but I’m less excited if the entire novel is just flat-out depressing to me. (I couldn’t finish Revolutionary Road for this reason.) There are certain fantastical tropes that I’m pretty tired of, including: werewolves, Fae anything, dragons, and portal quests. That being said, I still read novels with these elements, I’m just more picky about how they’re handled. For some reason I have more patience for vampires, witches and other magic users, and the politics associated with monarchies. There is a whole complicated system of subgenres that I’m more likely to enjoy or bounce off.
This is all to say, recommending novels blindly is like doing anything else blindly: your success rate is not going to be all that great. So when I recommend novels, I prefer to do it by describing what a novel is like and leaving it to my audience to decide if it fits into their taste. For example:
This novel is like this other novel you might have read or heard about, and this is how.
This novel is great if you don’t mind the silly central world building idea. If that kind of thing bothers you, though, give it a pass.
This novel is this particular sub-genre, or maybe these two sub-genres combined.
This novel is fast- or slow-paced.
This novel concerns itself with this fantasy or science fictional trope. (If I think it’s a fresh take on the trope, I’ll say that as well.)
This novel is on the literary side. (If questioned, I can then try to define how I think this expressed itself in the particular novel under discussion.)
This novel is all about the action. This novel is light and fun.
This novel really made me think. (And if I can say about what, all the better!)
It’s okay that we’re not all going to love exactly the same things, whether they be books, movies, or activities. And not all recommendations are going to be equally successful for all people. To me, a book recommendation is more like a blip on my radar. Now I know the book exists, and I can make my own decision as to whether to read it or not.
Ultimately, it’s up to us to try new things, educate our taste, and expand our horizons. No one else can do it for us. They can only offer ideas and possibilities of which directions to go exploring.
Can you describe your taste in novels?