THE SUBJECTIVITY OF READING: HOW DO YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS FARE ON AMAZON?
I noticed recently that one of my favorite books, Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, averages only 3.7 stars with 82 Amazon reviewers. Not a terrible rating, but surprisingly low to me since I love the book. Amazon features this sentence, quoted from one of the reviews: “The main character was dull and not very likeable, but that may have been the point.” Amazon adds, “10 reviewers made similar comments.”
Ah, but aren’t most of us dull to anyone except to ourselves and to those who have a real stake in our lives? Even the latter have trouble maintaining their interest in us. I think of the joke, “I’m sorry, dear, I wasn’t listening. Would you repeat everything you’ve said since we were married?” (And lots of luck on listening the second time around.)
As to likeability, how many people do you know who are very likeable. Sure, you’re friends with a lot of people, and you love your family and your relatives, but you have a complaint or two about them, right? Taking this reasoning a dangerous notch further, I’ll suggest that most people who know you, dear reader,—-even those who love you—-might not say under oath that you’re very likable. “Well, I like Gary Garth McCann, yes, but at times he can be a little grouchy, and, no, I wouldn’t want to share a cabin with him on a thirty-day cruise. I suppose being on the same boat wouldn’t be so bad”—this said doubtfully—“but really, you know, he’s just a friend. I’m used to having dinner with him now and then, and in small doses he’s quite pleasant. Well, usually pleasant.”
I suspect most of us think of ourselves as more likable—-more maintenance-free, to other people’s minds—-than other people find us. So, hey, writing a dull, not very likable protagonist probably was Anita Brookner’s point, if that’s how you see the protagonist in Hotel Du Lac. I see her as you or me and, if you don’t, I suggest you take a closer look in the psychological mirror. Anita Brookner wanted to write a real woman, not some Hollywood version of what today’s world wants a woman to be. She wrote a woman that earned Hotel Du Lac a Booker Prize because—I’m going out on a limb with a guess here—her protagonist, in an entertaining novel, accurately reflects the real world.
Off the top of my head I came up with ten other books that are among my favorites and checked to see how they fared at the hands of Amazon reviewers. Four of the titles I pulled out of my “favorites” hat received a rating of better than 4.5 stars, including two books I’ve reviewed here: Gary Craig Powell’s Stoning the Devil and Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus. I was especially pleased to read a sentiment about Purple Jesus that could have come from my own heart and pen: “Damn me if this isn’t a fine book, a powerfully good yarn that makes you want to thrust pages under someone’s nose and say, ‘Read this!’” (Garrison Somers, Editor-in-Chief, The Blotter Magazine, Durham, NC).
Among the other favorites I pulled out of my hat, James Purdy’s The Nephew, a book I’m about to read for the fourth time, got five stars but had only two reviewers. 21 Amazon reviewers gave Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart 4.6 stars, and 73 reviewers gave Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man 4.5 stars. A modern classic, A Single Man—-a day in the life of a 1950s gay Cal State professor—-is possibly my all-time favorite novel, if I had to pick only one.
Richard Russo’s The Straight Man, my favorite of Russo’s books and definitely among the handful of my all-time favorite books, averaged 4.4 stars from 369 reviewers. This was the most reviewed book on my list, and I suspect the more reviewers, the harder to keep the average up. The second on my list in terms of number of reviewers, at 89, also averaged 4.4 stars: James N. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women averaged 4.3 stars with 73 reviewers.
Two books on my list shared the fate of Hotel Du Lac with less than 4 stars. One, Joe College, averaged 3.8 with 73 reviewers. A reviewer commented that “By most accounts, this is his weakest novel.” If this comment has any basis in reality, it emphasizes for me how idiosyncratic my own taste is. I think Joe College is so superior to Perrotta’s other books, which I also like, that I would put Joe College in a class by itself.
The book on my list that fared least well, Jane Smiley’s Good Faith—probably my favorite of Smiley’s novels—averaged 3.3 stars with 59 reviewers. One unhappy reviewer wrote, “The characters were not likable…flat adult characters who slept around and acted like teenagers. I got sick of it and put it down.” The “flat” part is simply wrong, and as to adults sleeping around like teenagers, say, that sounds like a good book to me—and it was. Smiley writes first-person male with virtuosity, including the protagonist on cocaine describing his erection. And in the story there’s a real estate investment party where the humor and the vitality of the scene lie in the fact that our fortyish protagonist is seduced into behaving like a randy kid. Hurray for him and hurray for the woman who brought out the teenager in him!
(The photograph of Anita Brookner is reblogged from It’s the 1p3 What Do You WISH You Looked Like Thread.)