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March 30, 2011

A perfect book

I don’t know that I have ever read a perfect book. Sure, some books have had me under their spells: I remember the experience of finishing Elizabeth Hay’s Late Night’s on Air, and writing my review of it immediately after, pouring out my amazement at the wonder of the book. Others called the book overrated; I reread the book a few years later, and got a better sense of their arguments, though I still loved the book. But no, it wasn’t perfect, even if it had convinced me it was (but surely, that it did is a mark of success?).

I am thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how to talk about books. What they mean to the people who write them and release them out into the world, and what they mean to readers who devour them, and critics who dissect them. What is it to read a book properly? What is necessary, for anybody, to experience a book?

I recently had a writer tell me that she never trusts a review unless it contains a hint of criticism, and my obligatory, nurturing response should have been something along the lines of, “That’s ridiculous! Don’t let the haters win! You are an endless ray of shining light, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” The writer isn’t full of crap, however, and neither am I, so I had to admit that she had a point. The reader who sees your inevitable flaws while appreciating the book as a whole is probably a better reader than one who sings praises only. And I’ll admit that there are reviews in which I sing praises only, but for me it only means that the goodness so overrides the problems that the latter isn’t worth speaking about. (Or that the book managed to convince me it was perfect, even if only for a little while).

Is finding what’s wrong with a book a necessary part of reading it? For me it is, though I’m not sure if that was always the case. I think that blogging about books has made me look more critically at the books I read, which means that I have to examine how the books work. And figuring out how a book works requires an understanding of the ways it doesn’t. And here my mechanistic metaphor breaks down, because no book is ever just one book to its readers, of course. How a book works for me will be very different from how it works for another reader (and from how it will work for me the next time I read it, even). But anyway, sometimes that’s why reading a book too critically spoils the fun, because it breaks the spell that a really good book casts. Sometimes I think that a really good critic has to take into account the spell casting as much as the construction of the book itself. Sometimes I think that a book’s construction is also as subjective as the spell is.

It surprises me that any writer might imagine he’s written a perfect book. Not only because I’ve never read a perfect book, but also because I’ve never written anything that I have ever considered perfect. (And whether this is a mark upon my writing is a perfectly respectable rebuttal to my point, but let’s save it for another day.) I know there are writers for whom it is said that every single word is considered, deliberate, though that kind of criticism is as wishy-washy as any, really. I know that I don’t read books like this very often though, and that when I do, they were usually written sixty years ago. (Perhaps the book closest to perfect that I’ve read lately is Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, but if you really pressed me, I could come up with something ever-s0-slightly wrong with it, but then I’d really rather you didn’t).

A book is never a finished product. (But then I also think that a book is never a product.) When a reader begins to read a book, it starts a brand new process, not just of merely unpacking what the author created, but also of the reader creating her own experience of the book through reading it. I suppose that act of creation is as subjective as every other subjective thing I’ve already written about here, but for me, finding the weakness in the book’s construction is a fundamental part of understanding the book entire. It doesn’t mean that the author left something unfinished, or even that he necessarily did anything wrong (although sometimes it does. God knows, sometimes it really, really does…), and one reader’s weakness is another reader’s strength (as we have discovered at every single meeting of The Vicious Book Club).

So I wonder what really constitutes a positive review. If I love a book, and write effusively about why this is so, but note that a character was  not well drawn, or that a point in plotting was implausible, what does the writer take away from that? I know what other readers take away from it, of course, and they’re basically who I’m writing for, but when the writer reads my review (and no doubt, no one will read it with as much care as the writer will), will they understand how I can love a book and critique it at once? Or, even, will they understand that I am allowed not to like their book? And really, I’m even allowed not to “get” the book, if that’s the problem. That sometimes the not getting is a reading experience as worth exploring as any.

The reviewer doesn’t always get off so easily, of course. There are so many ways a reviewer can go wrong– my personal unfavourite is the reviewer who uses a review of a book about a dead baby on the prairie to further her personal vendetta against books about dead babies on prairies. Or the reviewer who hates Margaret Drabble reviewing Margaret Drabble’s new novel and getting the protagonist’s name wrong. Etc. etc. The reviewer doesn’t and shouldn’t have total license.

But neither does an author have license to determine just how a book gets read. The best books, however imperfect, will be perfectly able to take it.

6 thoughts on “A perfect book”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    I don’t think a book is supposed to be perfect, in the same way that a painting can’t be perfect, or a play, or a dance, or any of those things that are expressions of our humanity. It’s the same way you can get 100% in math but not in English (and wasn’t that so annoying at the time?). Perfection in art is impossible, perhaps because of its subjectivity but I think it’s because art is an extension of our imperfect selves. Plus, a book is written over days and months of a lifetime, during which time the author probably goes through a breakup, has a baby, loses a parent, goes to Paris for the first time, or at the very least goes on a bad date or has some other human experience that impacts the writing, maybe leading to some inconsistencies. To seek perfection is to miss the point. You won’t find it, and you aren’t supposed to. If you can relax into that delicious, warm escape when you read it, if you get sad as you reach the end because you just want to read it forever and if you are still thinking about a book weeks after you read it, then it’s perfect.

    1. Kerry says:

      I guess I was more speaking to the writer’s pursuit of a perfect work than the reader’s. As a reader, I don’t seek perfection in a book necessarily (though I keep my standards high. I think it’s a reader’s duty), but it as interesting for me to understand how a book works as much as how it doesn’t. My point is that I don’t think the latter is unfair discussion for readers to have, I don’t think a reviewer is mean to highlight a book’s flaws, even when the book is good. Negative criticism is important in understanding how a book works as much as in understanding how it doesn’t.

  2. Panic says:

    Again, you’ve given me lots to consider.

    I think when I’m writing about fiction (and of course I wouldn’t put myself in the “reviewer” category, more like “reader who talks about it on the internets”) I very often omit the negatives, or even don’t really look for them. I just figure fiction is, and I deal with it. Unless something really exasperates me. It’s possible this is more laziness than anything. With non-fiction, I’m more merciless.

  3. steph says:

    Very thoughtful and searching post!

    “Neither does an author to determine just how a book gets read. But the best books, however imperfect, will be perfectly able to take it.” And the best authors, I add!

    I don’t write a review conscious of the fact an author might read it but I am always trying to be fair to that author, as well as the readers; it’s reconciling the two that is sometimes difficult. The best authors are the ones who later tell me, if there was something I picked on, that they go away taking what I wrote as a learning experience — not, I must be quick to add, that I’m trying to tell or teach an author what or how to write. Certainly not! It just means that they’re taking criticism well. A positive result to not necessarily a positive review. I don’t think a review need have no negative points to be a positive one. I think what makes it positive is your overall conclusion, whether or not you would recommend the book to anyone, whether or not the good outweighs the bad, even if it wasn’t so great that it negated the bad.

    The last book I reviewed felt perfect, although I acknowledge, as you say, that there is no perfect book, and that a book is never really finished. This one, though, Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill, gave off an air of perfection, and I admit I couldn’t find anything, not that I was looking for it but I am open to it, negative to say. And now I feel I can’t reread it to see if I feel any different, because I’d be going in purposely looking for something wrong with it, and I don’t want to find anything!

    I’ll have to read this post again when I have more time to really absorb and consider your points. Thanks for writing it!

  4. steph says:

    Yikes. That was too long. Sorry. And sorry for some of the poor grammar in there, too. No perfect comments, either! LOL!

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