On Reviewing: Leave a Little to the Imagination

Today is the last day of Armchair BEA, and we end off with a topic of choice. I’ve been meaning to discuss a phenomenon among book reviewers that bothers me a bit. I’m not going to say it is wrong, but I am going to suggest we might need a change of perspective.

spoonfed reading

I’ve noticed that often, negative reviews are given to books and then reasons given are that there were “too many loose ends” or that “the story didn’t make sense”.

For example, I recently read Riot by Sarah Mussi. The premise of this novel is mandatory sterilisation for young people without a guaranteed future, against which (obviously) the youth riot. A few reviewers are really upset that the reason for the Law wasn’t explained thoroughly. I think it would have been overkill – we already know that the world is overpopulated. We already know that governments have in the past come up with silly irrational laws to “solve problems” when really it serves their own needs or belief systems. How much more of an explanation for a wacked-out law do we need? Riot is not a story about the methodology of a government in trying to curb population growth. It is a story of the youth’s response to this law, and what happens when rioting gets out of control.

Some more examples of annoying expecting-to-be-spoon-fed-ness:

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis: “Why was there no back story about how the water disappeared?!”

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: “But where does the House come from? What are the rules? It’s not realistic!” (No shit. It’s a sci-fi novel.)

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly: this book has a lot of musical references. And a lot of reviewers complain that there are too many musical references that they didn’t understand. I don’t get it: don’t we read, at least to some extent, to broaden our horizons? I didn’t understand many of the musical references either (it’s been too long since I did classical music training). But when I worried that not getting it might hinder my enjoyment of the book, I Googled the musicians. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Railsea by China Mieville: This book has the weirdest setting, a sea of railways, and most of the story occurs on trains. It’s fabulous and so different, but the complaint I read most often was [ad lib], “I feel like I’ve been dumped in a scary unknown world and I want more backstory.” Thing is, the main character is discovering the scary unknown world for the first time. As the reader, you are joining him in his discovery.

Look, I’m all for letting everyone read and review what they want and how they want to, and to have their own opinions about books. I swear. It’s just… Authors are not our mothers. ‘kay?

World-building is great. But part of the reason I love reading more than I love movies is because I get to use my own imagination. That’s why we don’t want to know the exact height of male characters and why I don’t care to know whether a female character is skinny or plump.

This is the same reason I don’t read novellas. I see there is a novella about Divergent’s Four as an initiate, and no, I don’t want to read it. Why? Because I like imagining what he was like as a scared transfer myself. I like imagining how he survived his fear landscapes. Maybe you don’t feel that way, and that’s okay.

I don’t want Mieville to spell out how the world became overrun by railways. The truth is, if you read carefully, he does drop hints about it throughout the novel. He just doesn’t share it all upfront. I don’t want to know how the world lost its water in Not a Drop to Drink, because I can guess how it happened by extrapolating from current events.

It doesn’t matter where the House in Shining Girls comes from. Make up a story for yourself. It’s not really central to the plot. The freakin’ crazy serial killer and his shining girls are. And the crossing lines of time.  The House is a device.

And I actually LIKED YouTubing the various musical pieces from Revolution.

Currently, I am reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. The beginning is deliciously confusing. The reader is chucked into the plot as if he belongs there: no explanation – here are the characters. Get to know them. Figure it out. And as you persevere, you get hints of what happened. It is basically a skillful trick by the author to ensure you ARE PAYING DAMN ATTENTION. “No skim-reading here, yo!”

This isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the blurb: in the book, there is a plague, and it kills you before you’re a proper adult. And I still don’t know what the plague is. Maybe I won’t by the end of the book either. So what? I’ve decided for my own purposes that it’s a slow-replicating HI-virus, mostly because the tell-tale rash, “posies” looks and sounds like Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

So I guess what I’m saying is: some books you can sit back and soak up. Some books the author feeds you the world they want you to see.

But some books require some focus and some imagination. That’s not a flaw. Maybe it’s not the easiest way of reading, but I highly recommend trying it.

Tell me about a time an author threw you in the deep end, and it turned out to be a good thing?

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30 thoughts on “On Reviewing: Leave a Little to the Imagination”

  1. If you read any website about writing where the author actually knows what they’re talking about (rare gems in the ocean of bad writing advice) you’ll see warnings against infodumping. Nothing kills a story as quickly as dumping a load of backstory. Sure, not doing it leaves loose ends, but that’s the point. I’m reading Zoo City at the moment and the main reason I keep going is to find out what on earth the Undertow is (and why it’s written with a capital letter). I really hope it does get revealed at some point, but for now the curiosity keeps me reading. If Lauren Beukes had gone and explained it all in the first few pages I might have decided nah, sounds stupid, not for me. I might still decide it’s stupid, but I won’t know till the end, so she wins either way. I’ll read the entire book.

    But you know what, that’s the society we live in today. People want everything handed to them. I saw this very clearly during my time teaching high school kids. Looking something up or figuring out a problem on their own is simply too much effort. Teacher will give us the answer tomorrow anyway, so why must we try? I’m concerned that this trend is becoming more common among reading folk. I’ve always seen reading as a sign that a person is able to think for him- or herself. Apparently that is no longer the case.

  2. Such good points!! I like a balance between the author trusting my imagination and giving me enough to go on where I feel secure in whatever I imagine (if that makes sense). The ending of solo/down Lauryn Allison could be considered “loose ends” and definitely threw me for a loop, but it was just perfect. It had to end that way! Enjoyed this post. 🙂

  3. I like balance myself. If there is too much information up front, I feel like they have told me what is going to happen and it makes the book drag.

    I am a big fan of “show, don’t tell” both as an editor and a reader. If I wanted the author to tell me everything that was going to happen and what color the shutters on the house were, I would watch a movie instead.

    Lisa @Just Another Rabid Reader

  4. My first Salmon Rushdie novel – Midnight’s Children – was a sink or swim experience – fortunately I swam & it is one of my favourite books. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a little more of the sinking feeling – actually, out of my depth is more accurate. I’d like to read him again now that I’m older. I also read my first Coeztee last year (Childhood of Jesus) – I still have no idea what it was about, but I loved it and definitely want to read it again! It even made me want to read Don Quixote – which had never been a goal until last year 🙂

    1. I’ve never read Salmon Rushdie, it’s always seemed a little intimidating! But I’ll give it a try since you loved it 🙂
      I also haven’t read Marques but I’ve been wanting to read him – but you’re not the first person who had some problems with it.
      I love JM Coetzee but I haven’t read Childhood of Jesus.

  5. “I feel like I’ve been dumped in a scary unknown world and I want more backstory.” No no to backstory…in most fantasy that is exactly what must happen to the hero. Actually in a lot of books-fantasy or not. The hero steps into a new world and we go there with them. If backstory is there it will pull you right of the the book. I agree that everyone can review and comment as they like, but you also bring up some great points for debate on writers letting the readers _read_ with their own imagination not the authors pushed on them. In other words…what King said!

    1. Thanks! That’s exactly how I feel. When I’m exploring a new setting with the main character, I feel like I’m seeing it from their point of view rather than from an all-knowing being’s.

  6. I am with you on wanting draw picture of the book in my head myself. i think there is something sacred about that process in regards to reading that you don’t get from anything else. I personally think that sometimes I think books that revoke negative reaction by the readers might be actually good, because if it was not good why would people want more details or show any frustrations about the story?

  7. I’m so glad you posted about this topic today. Every author receives bad reviews once in awhile. Some authors, like myself, always read every review. I can always tell when someone had really read my book or not. An author shouldn’t have to stand over you and explain everything about the book. I want my readers to form the images in their head. There’s a fine balance between providing too much information and not providing enough.

  8. You bring up some very good points. I agree that sometimes it’s fun to draw your own conclusions about backstories and world building and such. It let’s you compare with others who have also read the book, and see the differences in your inferences. But it’s also a balance because I hate feeling too lost at the beginning of a book… if the story isn’t compelling enough and I’m too confused I might not continue reading a book that doesn’t give me some sort of foundation to stand on.

  9. The moniker in writing is “show, don’t tell”. And that creates grey area where some authors are way too vague. There is a fine line between giving the reader room to breathe and being lazy. I HATE plot holes and I can spot them a mile away. I hate unfinished details that don’t go anywhere. If you are going to tell me anything, only tell me what is important. Don’t waste my time with words used to add to page count. That is what I see the most of immature writers.

    1. Definitely a good point. Plot holes are definitely annoying, and I think it’s quite hard for authors to make that jump from being too vague to successfully making a reader think. It’s an art!

  10. Interesting post. I definitely come down on the side of imagination. To me, that is the magic of reading. Also, the author may have chosen to leave certain things open or to offer clues but leave room for the author to think and expand the story. There may be fewer readers today who want to do the work.

    1. There may well be! I suppose that having diversity in this regard does make reading more appealing. I can think that non-readers might not always be in the mood for reading being a challenge and I can understand that. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Ah, yes. I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m with you 😀 This is exactly why I don’t mind ambiguous endings. (A lot of readers flip out over those) Does life EVER turn out with a tidy bow on it? Nope. I like the realism of a untidy ending.

    Great post, thanks!

    1. Haha, can you give an example of an ambiguous ending please? I can’t think of any right now. I agree with the realism of an untidy ending. Once in a while my mind really needs a pretty ending, but generally I enjoy the messy ones. Thanks!

  12. Yeah, I like trying to figure things out, most of the time anyway. I’m also a lover of ambiguous endings. Some people hate them, but I like imagining my own conclusions

  13. Totally agree in particular about your example of the novella about Four as an initiate. It’s much more fun to imagine that stuff yourself. I just need the author to prompt me with their world-building; my imagination can do the rest.

  14. Oh gosh, YES. YES THIS IS THE BEST POST EVER. I love loose ends and unfinished thoughts in books. I like open endings too. And details? Blah. I NEVER remember the details, so it doesn’t bother me when a book doesn’t include them. Not a Drop to Drink was 100% awesome. I DID have problems with Riot, but mostly because I didn’t understand how the society could’ve ended up like that in just…um…4 years from now. If the book hadn’t of had a date it was just “dystopian” I would’ve felt it more realistic. It was the timing that got me. Anyways, loooove this post.
    Thanks for stopping by @ Notebook Sisters!

    1. That’s a pretty good point about Riot. I kind of glazed over the fact that it’s four years from now and just let it be. But it probably would have been better to make it twenty or more years from now because some of that technology also seemed a bit advanced.

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