As a reader, I approach stories differently than a friend -- let's call him Bob -- approaches them. I might know a few facts about the author, or a little about the basic plot, but if the story sounds interesting, I'll settle in for the ride, see where it takes me. After all, the adventure is the point. Bob, on the other hand, wants to know everything up front. He wants to know the end in the beginning. If he goes into a story with a certain expectation of the plot or the outcome, but the story doesn't deliver it quite the way he wants, it's a bad story.
My mom is a voracious reader, but -- despite her critical skills at work in finances -- she doesn't analyze stories much. If they catch her interest and are written halfway decently, she'll read them till the end. Over the years, there have been stories so poorly executed or so cumbersomely written that she never finished them, but those are rare. She has said many times that she's not a good judge of writing, not a literary analyst; she just knows what she likes.
My brother and his wife, whom visitors to this blog already know as Bubba and Bubba's Wife, are somewhat the same: Tell them a good story, tell it well, and they'll go along for the ride, regardless of genre. They have their preferences, but they'll go outside them if the story warrants.
In the writers group, some folks declare a story good or not depending on its genre. There are some genres that just aren't acceptable or that they claim are too difficult to understand (science fiction, for instance), and some such as mysteries or everyday drama that -- regardless of execution -- are considered good.
Of the varying reader approaches to stories listed above, I've noticed similarities between them and the book reviews in the blog tour in which I participate. Reviewers list what they perceive as strengths and weaknesses in stories, but while they may agree on a few points, they may also vary greatly from one another.
A similar disparity can be found in many movie reviews: One viewer says the film dragged, another says he was kept on the edge of his seat. One says the characters weren't developed enough, another finds them compelling and multidimensional. One feels the story was full of plot holes, yet another thinks the story held together well, airtight.
So, then, what are weaknesses in any given story, or merely preferences on the part of the audience?
One's opinion of a book often depends on what one expects or wants from it. Some folks prefer a predictable formula, because they want to know ahead of time how the story ends. It makes them feel safe. Surprises are uncomfortable. Other folks want to enter the fictional world blind, learning it as they go. While they might make guesses as to the outcome, they enjoy the challenge of making connections and overcoming obstacles alongside the characters. There's a catharsis in that approach.
Monsters in a romance novel might be unexpected, but that doesn't mean they don't belong -- depends on the romance, I reckon. Spaceships in a Western, pixies in a horror tale, ghosts showing up in a children's story -- they don't belong only if the author hasn't done his or her job. I certainly wasn't expecting Nephilim to show up in a recent suspense novel I read -- and, if the book had a weakness, I would say it was the sketchy set-up for their presence -- but I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Other reviewers disagreed about their part in the tale, and still others were uncertain as to the too science fiction-y-ness of their red-laser eyes, but the world of the novel opened the reader to the possibility of such creatures. The author did her job.
As for a book being dull or exciting, intriguing or confusing, profound or pointless, while much may depend on the author's skill, much also relies on audience perception. One writer I know thinks science fiction is the domain of teenagers and immature men who refuse to leave their mothers' basements; therefore, anything I try to share in that genre is not received, no matter how polished and exciting it might be. That's not a weakness in the genre, just a preference in the reader.
I must confess, much fantasy and science fiction nowdays does seem to dwell on tawdry or juvenile themes. Still, there are plenty of upstanding grownups in this world who happen to like solid, well-told, and fairly clean fiction.
-- to be continued --