I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a book enjoyable to me, and why. Why did I like the books I did when I was younger, and why, as an older and more skeptical reader, do I have so much trouble finding something that I like? We can quibble about prose quality until the cows come home, but I’ve discovered that my preferences end up being heavily influenced by how congruous an author’s ideas about gender are with my own.
There’s the issue of relating to a protagonist of the opposite gender, too — and some people, myself included, seem to get more wrapped up in issues that are gender-related, i.e… Does this book involve motherhood? Is this book about a traditionally male-dominated role, such as being a warrior? How is marriage treated? How is beauty rewarded, or do the characters win everything on merit alone? Do they have a patrilineal or matrilineal inheritance or legacy?
Naturally, we’ll be more likely to enjoy books that reward our own ideas about what the paragon of each gender should be, and what one has to do to achieve that status. The less ideas of your own you have, less likely you are to be swayed by those concerns… And of course, children have had less time to develop them. They can also more easily learn ideas about gender from books and begin to incorporate those into their own points of view at large, consciously or unconsciously.
As an adult, I find that I am extremely more critical of a same-gendered protagonist than I am a protagonist of the opposite gender. And of course, much more critical of a protagonist in general than I am of say, a person I just met — because reading requires a great intimacy with a fictional person, if you think about it. Don’t we require more value-compatibility with the people with whom we are most intimate?
Relating to the same-gender critique issue, I also think there’s an issue of protagonist-jealousy. For example, if a character is described by the author as excessively beautiful or talented, particularly in an area that the reader himself or herself feels insecure about, they might be more prone to dislike the book. This is related to generally Mary Sue-ish characters, but in this case the bias comes less from flaws in the construction of the story and more in the inherent qualities of both the character and the reader.
In fact, I think one of Smeyer’s most successful achievements in Bella Swan (undoubtedly a Mary Sue herself), was tagging on token “negative” qualities that could placate the would-be protagonist jealousy of her readers… “Paleness.” “Clumsiness.” Etc.
Anyway, I like thinking about myself as both a writer and a reader, because I hope it will lead me to just enjoy both of those things more… Instead of being so intensely critical of books that it’s not enjoyable to read them, or being so intensely critical (and stringent in my ideas about gender) of my own writing that it’s painful to write. Until next time!