So I was chatting with a friend the other day about Ancillary Mercy, which I enjoyed, although not as much as the first two, while my friend … didn’t. At all. (Edited to add: Apparently I have totally mischaracterized her views. She said at the time it was a bad idea to have the conversation within Twitter's 140-character limit, and she was right. Sorry about that.) Which started me thinking about several books I’ve read, or tried to, recently that I strongly disliked. It’s one thing to dislike a book because it is poorly written, but it’s another to dislike a book that you believe is well-written. Or one that everyone else seems to agree is well-written.
I tried reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind as part of a quest to be more conversant with the swords and sorcery subgenre, but I gave up nearly halfway through. Unlike the first Shannara book, which I thought had bad plot, bad characterization, mediocre world building, and clunky sentences, I have no real criticisms of The Name of the Wind. The opening plot - evil spider things have come to a remote valley! - interested me. But then the next several hundred pages were backstory. I was like, “All I needed to know was that this dude was a wizard retiring as an innkeeper. Get back to the story.” Even when we got to the part where he goes off to magical college, which I am typically a sucker for, I didn’t care. He’s already established as hyper-talented; I wasn’t interested in more peacocking. But The Name of the Wind is a well-loved book; obviously many other people found the story compelling.
Then I read Andy Weir's The Martian, which I have not heard a single negative word about. Again, I felt it was well-written, but I didn’t like it. And the more I’ve thought about it, the less I like it. At times it felt like an engineering story problem (“Matt Damon has 500 potatoes, each capable of producing x kilojoules of energy… how does he get the three foxes across the lake?”). That wasn’t a significant problem for me as much as the utter lack of self-examination the book displayed. I would liked to have read a serious discussion about whether it was actually worth rescuing the protagonist. I would have liked to see his character grow, instead of merely displaying the Good Old-Fashioned American Resilience he already had. The entire book felt like an uncritical celebration of white male American can-do spirit, down to the “aw gee I’m just a nerd” self-pity too many geeks still hold onto. Look, dude, you’re an astronaut. I can’t believe you couldn’t pick up chicks in bars with that.
The third book I’m not going to name, in part because I didn’t get very far into it at all, so perhaps I didn’t give it a fair chance. (Although this may be similar to those “pseudononymous” case study journal articles that drive me batty, where the author gives you sufficient detail to easily figure out that “Hallowed University” is actually Harvard.) This book is a sequel to a book I enjoyed but found hard to follow at times - both feature a multitude of viewpoint characters and a lot of action. Having reread book one a few months back, I thought I was up to speed, but instead I struggled to remember who was who and what was going on. The author didn’t leave a lot of breadcrumbs for the reader to pick up. I also found I didn’t care. I wanted to know the ending (do the good guys win?) but I didn’t care about how we got there. And one viewpoint character in particular I felt the author had utter contempt for, making the characterization of said character ring false. But this book is also acclaimed (if not as widely read as The Martian). Maybe I’m just impatient, or too intellectually lazy to follow the multiple narrative threads?
It's odd to find oneself at variance with the general opinion - not in the sense that "well everyone loves Dan Brown," when, despite his popularity, many intellectuals don't. But when writers and critics I trust (not to mention friends) say that The Martian or whatever is good and totally compelling, and I can only find myself agreeing in small part, I wonder what it is that I'm missing. Or if I'm too cynical. Or if my sensawunda has been surgically removed while I slept.