It’s easy to talk about books that are either amazingly good or blatantly bad; we usually have no trouble articulating the points that we either love or loathe. But it’s often hard to find much of anything to say about a book that we think is just so-so, mediocre, ordinary—perhaps the nicest term is unremarkable.
The reason is that most of our reactions while reading occur intuitively or unconsciously—that is, they happen outside of our awareness. It takes something extraordinary—and that something can be either extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad—to snap us back to attention. But an ordinary book may never do this. As a result, when we’ve finished reading it, we don’t have much to say about it. For those of us who review most books we read, this reaction can be a problem.
One technique I’ve sometimes used to overcome such a situation is to contrast this ordinary book with a similar but extraordinary one. For example, I was once reading a novel that had eight or nine main characters; the structure of the novel comprised individual chapters told from each character’s point of view. I found this novel unremarkable because I couldn’t differentiate among the several characters. I contrasted this book to Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous The Poisonwood Bible, which features four main characters and chapters with the characters’ alternating points of view. After reading a bit of Poisonwood, any discerning reader can easily tell which character is narrating, even without the chapter headings. The contrast between Kingsolver’s book and the one I was reading allowed me to articulate why this other novel didn’t work: (1) it had too many main characters and (2) the author did not create an identifiable voice for each character—they all sounded alike.
In another example, I recently read a novel that used the narrative technique of a fragmented storyline; that is, the book did not present its plot chronologically, but, as is so popular these days, in seemingly random chunks, labeled by date, that jumped all around in time. I found this very confusing; at the beginning of each small section I had to calculate in my head the amount of time either before or after the pivotal event when this particular action was taking place. I contrasted this novel with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, both of which use the fragmented time technique. In those two books I found the technique effective because the interwoven, nonsequential events were an inherent part of each novel’s meaning; the inter-relation of seemingly random events was part of what drove the novel along, and I therefore had no trouble following and understanding the movement of the action. But in the novel I was currently reading the ordering of events really was random; it was as if the author had written each short section on a separate index card, shuffled the cards, then assembled them, in their shuffled disorder, into a manuscript. This was a technique used for its own sake rather than for an intrinsic, thematic purpose. For this reason the novel’s structure irritated me because it pointlessly made the action hard to follow.
The best fiction engages us emotionally, intellectually, and morally. When a novel fails to engage us, we may have trouble explaining exactly why. Mentally comparing this novel to a better one that uses a similar technique (such as narrative structure or point of view) or has a similar theme may help us pinpoint exactly why the book we’ve just finished is so unremarkable.