I spend a good amount of time on Goodreads. I’ve built up a solid group of friends whose reviews I see first beneath a book, and they generally give me a good idea of whether that book is worth my time.
But sometimes I venture lower, to the reviews from people I don’t know. Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll view only the one star reviews for a book I loved. But usually, it’s out of simple curiosity. I want different perspectives. I want to know what good things people see in a book I thought was terrible. I want to be reminded that a book I love isn’t for everyone, and I want to see why. Most of these reviews actually have good points and help to broaden my own perspective.
Inevitably, though, I’ll read a review that will irritate me. And I don’t mean the one star reviews of books I loved. I can get over that. I mean the ones that get the facts wrong, or dismiss a book because its characters are unlikeable. You know the kind. Lately, three specific things have jumped out at me, three things that I wish people would stop doing when they write their reviews.
In case you’re unaware, “tstl” means “too stupid to live” and is used in reference to characters whose actions seem, well, stupid. It’s all well and good to call out a stupid action that stems not from character, but from the need to further the plot, but this “tstl” designation is not relegated to those instances. It’s used to describe protagonists – overwhelmingly girls – who do things the reader, personally, would not have done, things that have negative consequences.
There are so many problems with this. Firstly, you as the reader are not the character. We place a lot of importance on characters being “relatable” to us, perhaps too much. But the author’s job is not to create a character that would act the same way you would in a particular situation. Her actions don’t have to be relatable. In fact, they should be strange to us sometimes, because humans are strange and don’t act sensibly. They don’t act in the ways we would all the time. That’s why we have conflict, and conflict is why we have stories.
Secondly, teenagers do stupid things. I’m a smart person and I did tons of stupid shit as a teenager. Be honest: so did you. Heck, a lot of them were probably over someone you had a crush on. You probably still do stupid things as an adult. A character behaving in a way that is stupid does not make a book bad, nor does it make that character inherently stupid. It just means the book is about a human being.
2. “Selfish” characters
In multiple reviews of Mary E. Pearson’s The Kiss of Deception, Lia is called out for being selfish. She’s the princess of a kingdom and her parents are about to marry her off to a prince from another kingdom whom she has never met. She decides she’d rather not, and she runs away.
Let’s just set aside the fact that teens (and grown ups) often do things that are selfish, just like they often do things that are stupid. There is a larger problem at work here, and it’s one I see as very gendered. In a lot of our social discourse, women and girls are expected to sacrifice for others, and the lack of sacrifice is framed as selfishness. Women who choose not to have children or who uproot their families for a lucrative job are often called selfish. Girls who turn down a date with a “nice” guy they’re not attracted to are often called selfish. Women and girls who want to choose the way they live their lives are called selfish over and over again.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that Lia – one of my favorite fictional characters this year – was subjected to this as well, but it did. I read so many fantasy novels when I myself was a teenager that featured girls escaping unwanted arranged marriages. There wasn’t even a question in my mind of the girl’s selfishness or selflessness. Why would she marry someone she didn’t love? Of course she’d want to escape! I was so floored reading these reviews from all these readers who apparently expected Lia to marry someone she had never met, sleep with him, have babies, and so on, to facilitate a political treaty. She’s selfish because she doesn’t want her entire life, literally her entire existence, to be one giant sacrifice? Because she dares to choose her own life? Would you choose this for yourself or your daughter? What are we teaching our kids when we say that Lia’s actions are selfish? That girls should be meek and accept their parents’ directives, even if they know it will make them unhappy? That the only life worth living is the one where all your own wants and desires are subservient to someone else’s?
So no, Lia’s decision to flee this marriage, one that she knows is predicated on a lie (she can’t do what her parents say she can do, remember!) is not selfish. It’s normal. It’s brave. It’s feminist. It’s what draws so many teen girls to fantasy fiction – girls standing up and saying to others, through their words or actions, that their lives belong to them. What’s selfish is the continued demand that girls continually give away pieces of themselves to make others happy. Lia refuses to do this. It’s not easy for her to do. It’s hard. It’s painful. It takes immense courage. But it’s empowering to say “no.” It’s empowering to realize that you can demand the right to your own decisions, especially for teenagers. That you can demand the right to own your life and you don’t have to apologize for it.
3. “I have never read a successful book about _______.”
Fill in the blank with whatever topic you like, and you will probably have a sentence I object to. In this case, it was time travel, but it could easily be shapeshifters or romance or anything else under the sun. There are successful books about every topic. The fact that you haven’t read a successful one is due to one of two factors: 1. You haven’t read very many of them; or 2. You just plain don’t like that topic. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to assume that most of the time, it’s the second reason.
I say this as a huge fan of time travel who didn’t care for this particular book that was being reviewed. I have read lots of successful time travel books. They probably wouldn’t work for someone who doesn’t like paradoxes and plots that can make your head hurt. They probably wouldn’t work for someone who wants their science fiction to be completely plausible, because time travel is inherently implausible. (If time travel existed, wouldn’t we have time travelers in our midst right now?) That’s the fun of it. It’s likely that someone who doesn’t think any time travel books she’s read are successful can’t get past these things, and that’s fine. You don’t have to like books about time travel. That doesn’t mean they’re not successful; it just means they’re not for you.
Are there any other trends in book reviews that bug you (or enrage you)? Let me know in the comments, and please weigh in on the ones I’ve pointed out here. I’d like to know I’m not alone.