Please review the story you got, not the story you wanted

Recently, on YouTube, I watched a video by a popular book vlogger ranking the books they had read so far in 2023. One particular moment struck me; they talked about how they hadn’t liked a book because the protagonist had recently gotten out of prison and there wasn’t any thoughtful consideration about the criminal justice system. The book was, to their mind, ‘no critical thinking, just vibes’.

This is not the only time that I’ve seen comments like this – not just from this particular reviewer, but from reviewers in general. I see comments like ‘the characters don’t have agency’, ‘none of the characters are likeable’, or ‘the author doesn’t talk about a specific issue which I think is super relevant to the story’.

I’m not going to share the video here because I feel like that would make this about the reviewer, and I’m mainly interested without the act of reviewing in itself and how we use it.

That is, I’m interested in how the act of reviewing has become an exercise in imagining what the text in front of you could have been rather than a discussion of what it actually is.

I’ve talked before, in the context of academic writing, about how I don’t like it when reviewers critique what’s not on the page. This makes the review less about the text itself and more about the reviewer’s relationship with the text, what their expectations were, and how the author failed to meet them.* In short, we could be talking about what the book actually does and thus give those reading our reviews a more complete understanding of what they’re going to get.

If we try to structure the sentences in our reviews so that they address what the author did, rather than what the author didn’t do, then we’d be able to come to the act of reviewing with a lot more nuance and intention.

For example, let’s look at the ‘characters don’t have agency’ idea, because that’s one I see a lot. It implies a failure on the author’s part to create characters who affect the plot in meaningful ways.

You see this a lot in critiques of fairy tales and children’s books. The characters lack agency. They need to be rescued – either by a fairy godmother or a prince. Cinderella never tried to get away from her stepmother. Etcetera.

Now, frankly, sometimes having an affect on the plot isn’t the point of a character. But if you look at what these stories do rather than what they don’t do, you get to see what the story is actually about. Instead of saying ‘Cinderella lacks agency and the plot just happens around her’, you could say ‘Cinderella reacts to the narrative as it happens’, because that’s what the story actually does.

Which isn’t actually much of a critique, if you think about it. It’s just a fact that the character reacts to the plot rather than driving it. That’s what happens in plot-driven stories.

Keep in mind that Cinderella is not just any character; she a victim of abuse. She’s been gaslighted and manipulated into a role that was never meant to be hers. She tries to make the best of it but her power over her situation is limited by the laws of the land and her legal guardian’s influence. She can’t act until the fairy godmother arrives because that is a fact of the world that the story is set in.**

A critique like this might be relevant if, say, the character’s personality or circumstances make it so that they ought to have some agency but can’t seem to act on it. ‘The characters lack agency’, which is a statement about what the author didn’t do, could become: ‘in situations where the characters should have agency, they choose not to exercise it, and this is demonstrably out of character’. A little wordy, but it gets to the heart of the matter: something in the text made the reviewer believe that the characters ought to have more control over their situation than they do.

For example, consider Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones and her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. I always found that difficult to understand not just because it didn’t make sense for Littlefinger to give her up – especially to someone with a known reputation for being a dickhead – but because Sansa herself had developed quite a nice little mastermind streak that was critically underused in that story arc. She’d learned political intrigue at the feet of Cersei, Tyrion and Littlefinger, and we’d seen her exercise it a few times to get what she wanted (helping Littlefinger cover up her aunt’s murder, for example). She’d even been offered a knight to defend her (something that she’d known from previous experience is absolutely critical for a lady of her status and can often mean the difference between getting raped in an alley or getting carried to safety) but she turned Brienne down! She turned her down and then she allowed herself to be married off to a man worse than all of her previous betrotheds combined. That is not justified by the character’s development. It is not that Sansa ‘lacked’ agency that I have a problem with; it’s that she had it, but never used it.

Similarly, ‘none of the characters are likeable’, is not a statement of what the author actually did. A statement of what the author did could be ‘the characters did things that I didn’t like’, which might be a valid opinion but it’s a reflection of your tastes and not a relevant critique of an author’s ability to write characters. This would also be the case if the characters make choices you don’t agree with, but are justified as in-line with the character’s motivations and personality.

If you think a little bit about why you’re reacting against what the author is doing, then you might be able to unpack certain biases that you’re carrying into the text. Or you might get to the heart of why the story isn’t working for you, specifically.

Instead of ‘the stakes aren’t high enough’, we could say ‘the stakes are low’, which might be a good thing, depending on the book’s genre. ‘The world building is not complex enough’ could be ‘the world building was simple’ – this is a very minor distinction, because ‘not complex’ and ‘simple’ are pretty much synonyms. But one is a value judgement (not complex enough, it ought to have been more complex, the author has failed to create a complex world!) while the other is a fact. Which, again, might be a good thing depending on the book’s genre. Hell, if it’s just a cute little romcom set in a contemporary city, how much world building do you really need?

If a story leaves some themes or ideas unexplored, it could be that they simply aren’t interesting to the author. It could be that they didn’t have time to dive in and give those themes the respect and space that they deserve. Maybe, instead of arguing for prison reform, the author is more interested in how a prisoner returns to the world. Either way, did the book really promise that level of critical depth? Or is the reviewer simply stating their preference for it? Is the author obligated to appeal to these preferences?

If you look at it from the perspective of ‘what did the author fail to do’, then you’re making a lot of assumptions about what the author planned to do and what you are owed as a reviewer.

I just think reacting to things that aren’t even a part of the text kind of misses the point. It takes up word count and time that could be better served engaging with the story as it is, rather than the story that the reviewer believes it could have been. It helps us, as reviewers, to avoid holding the text to a standard that it never promised to meet.

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  ðŸ™‚

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*Respectfully, the author probably wasn’t trying to meet one reviewer’s expectations. In a lot of cases, the author’s book isn’t even theirs – it’s an amalgam of half-a-dozen editors whose job it is to produce books that are as saleable as possible, and the author’s job is to appease them in the hopes of actually getting their book published.

** And doesn’t that reflect how some real-world victims of abuse are unable to break the cycle until an intervention or change in trajectory gives them the chance? We wouldn’t call them ‘weak’ and ‘waiting for a prince’, would we? We’d better not, because that’s disgusting.


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