What if you read one of the “best ever” books in your favorite genre, and you don’t like it? Does it make you a bad person? Perhaps there is that small, dim voice whispering that you are a crass peon who has no aesthetic sense. That could be true, of course, but it likely is not. Even within a narrow genre, there are plot lines, characters, or writing styles that do not appeal to everyone. The same reader who loves Isaac Asimov’s straightforward prose in the Foundation Trilogy may find Frank Herbert’s Dune deathly dreary.
But enough about me. Ahem.
There are a number of factors that affect how we readers respond to books: plot, characterization, action / pacing, and that broad set of characteristics called style (word usage, sentence structure, tone, imagery, point of view, conciseness, etc.). However, there is one other important element that influences the final product as much as any of these, and it is one that is often overlooked. That is the author’s personality.
Personality affects choices, and those combinations of choices determine the work’s outcome. For instance, does the writer tend toward preachiness? Is there a message behind the work, and if so, do the writer’s words stroke the reader gently, or attempt to bludgeon him into submission? Will I, as reader, lose sight of the story because the message is the story?
My reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is the book that prompted these thoughts. I’d never read Le Guin, and some very favorable reviews, as well as Hugo and Nebula awards led me to her benchmark work. The thing is – and let me caveat this by saying I haven’t finished – I don’t like the book. Now I know enough about the story that I’m certain the exciting part is to come, but still.
Boring so far.
Using Goodreads’ rating guidelines, I’d have to give the work 2 stars. It is not a two-star book, to be fair. It is well written. Her use of language is excellent, combining easy-to-read verbiage with enough flair to incorporate the select, precision use of vocabulary that identifies a master. In addition, her ability to paint visual descriptions and give the reader a strong sense of the setting is very good. So why the two stars? Well, in Goodreads’ world view, 2 stars means “It’s okay,” and 3 stars says, “I liked it.”
Well, I don’t like it.
Thing is, it’s a wonderful book; it’s just so deadly boring. The realization of which brings me back to style.
The plot line is simple and interesting: an envoy, representing an 83-member interplanetary council of planets, of which Earth is one, arrives on “Winter” (an ice-age planet whose residents don’t even know of air travel, much less space travel) and tries to convince them to join the council of planets. Winter is inhabited by hermaphrodites, who, most of the time, are completely asexual. During their brief “kemmer” phase (akin to estrus) they find mates and choose their gender, for that period only. It is a world of politics, gamesmanship, and strife, but one that does not even have a word for war. Sounds pretty good, no? It did to me too.
However, Ms. Le Guin, who wrote the book in 1969, focuses on what I’ll call “thinker’s Sci Fi.” All of the action in the first half of the book happens in the various narrators’ minds. The story lays out intrigues, philosophies, etc. What it does not lay out are any particularly interesting events. Looking at my factors above, pacing (on an action/inaction scale) falls far along the inaction side.
Now, yes, I love action Sci Fi, but I also love books that make me think. So what did I do wrong in picking this one? It comes down to not thinking about what is important to me in reading – what my reading style is. The bottom line? If I don’t like the characters, I won’t care about anything else in the book. Secondly, if the writer’s style of prose is cool indifference – of which Ms. Le Guin shows tons – I will be coolly indifferent to the story. There’s nothing wrong with being less emotional, not at all. However, I used to work as an analyst, among other things. I was logical all day long. When I read, I am specifically looking for emotion, for connection with characters, for writing that is imbibed with humor – in a word, fun.
This book is “interesting” in the way that Capt. Kirk is “facinating” to Spock. What it is not is fun. But guess what? That’s my fault, not hers. Had I investigated more, I would have seen that reviews laid this out precisely. In its release, it was a masterful intellectual exercise. Now, perhaps, it is a bit dated. Though touted as a “feminist” breakthrough, from my 21st-century feminist viewpoint, the ideas just seem like common sense.
Le Guin’s prose is taut, and as chilly as Winter’s climate. Perhaps it should be, in order to accurately paint the world in which the story takes place. But the male lead is as cool as his Winter hosts, and even less likable. For those relishing a purely intellectual journey, this book is great. For Bill, wanting to connect, I just want someone to hurry up and have sex so we can melt a layer of frost from the story. Winter is long, though the book is short.
So what’s the lesson? When spending my (not unlimited) book budget, I need to think about what’s important to me. I would have still bought this one, because it’s on my “legends of Sci Fi list,” but it would have been nearer the bottom. I would have recognized the author’s style is similar to the detachment of an Asimov, and though she uses themes I use to a remarkable degree, her style is vastly different than my writing and reading styles. Perhaps I would have been wise enough to list my preferences: balanced action/reaction; strong, likable lead; bits of humor; excellent word usage; precise grammar, etc.
Then, I would have gone into the book with the proper expectation, and made the experience much better. After all, a book is very much influenced by the reader too. Had I been looking at it as a “head book” and not a “heart book” I would have been lifted by the bits of heart she infused, and not starved by the long, cold Winter I endured before I realized my error.
Sorry, Ms. Le Guin, my fault – great book; stupid reader. However, I still don’t like it.
I finished the book, and there was no exciting part. Bored to the end.
Bill Jones, Jr.