Jul 27 2017 2:00pm

The Language of Praise and How We Talk About the Books We Love

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We all love to gush over the books we love, right?

We have our squeeing, our fangirl meltdowns, our all-caps commentary, fights over book boyfriends, and all of that love to express.

But actual reviews are hard to write, yes? I know I have a really hard time explaining why I loved a book. I have mad respect for reviewers and book bloggers who find ways to express exactly what about a book made them stay up until the wee hours reading, or what exactly gave them the pleasure/pain of a solid book hangover.

Praising something we love takes a great deal of skill and concerted effort. I was thinking about this recently, after seeing a panel at a convention.

This panel was the brainchild of some passionate readers who wanted to talk about long-term relationships in fantasy series. I went because, hello! This is one of my favorite things. The slow-building romance and exploration of a relationship that deepens over time is totally my crack. An author who does it well gives me a series I can look forward to, along with a love story that doesn’t end with the “I love you” moment. I want my HEA as much as any romance reader, but I want to be a part of the ongoing relationship, to find out what’s out there beyond that sunset they ride off into.

We don’t value the language of praise.

Oops, I waxed a little enthusiastic there, didn’t I? A post for another time: what we love about series with long-term relationships!

Anyway, at this panel, the readers discussed about five different series they read over about six months in preparation for the conference. They started out talking about the couples in each series, their dynamic, and why they picked those. You can probably guess what the series were—mostly urban fantasies like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books, Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, and Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson books.

After the initial praise, the panelists settled into picking apart the relationships, and the overall arc. They fell into criticizing what didn’t work for them—the downfalls of the alpha hero, self-defeating behavior on the part of the heroine, where repeated mistakes began to tarnish the magic for them.

Every once in a while they’d stop and apologize, saying that they’d really picked these series and relationships because they loved them so much, that they didn’t mean to only criticize. They speculated that reading so many in a short space of time gave them some overdose. For a few minutes, they’d try to focus on what they loved again, but would soon revert to their peeves.

I think the reason is something entirely different: we don’t value the language of praise.

If you think about it, in school we learn literary criticism, not literary praise. In general, society loves to rag on anyone who praises anything “too much.” Teenage girls are belittled for their emotional enthusiasm. To love anything is to be suspect of lacking basic intelligence. “Thoughtful criticism” is what’s valued, which means finding the flaws.

Is that really true, that we only show intelligence through criticism?

I think these gals on the panel felt that way. They had a roomful of people wanting to know what they discovered by reading all these series. They had to feel tremendous pressure to provide thoughtful commentary—and in our current culture, that means to criticize a thing.

SEE ALSO: Romance in the Age of the Trigger Warning

We not only are taught how to criticize, it’s easy! Ever notice how popular the pet peeve posts are? Or the “what trope should die forever” posts? How about the threads on what words we hate in sex scenes? Tons of comments!

Where are the reverse posts—the what do you love ones?

I think two things happen there: they’re difficult to reply to in an original way, and we tend to be self-conscious about praising “too much.” How many times have we all apologizing for “gushing”? I know I have.

So I propose a challenge. Let’s turn thoughtful criticism on its ear and study the language of praise! I define this as developing ways to talk about what excites us about a story, what we truly love about it, while still discussing those ideas thoughtfully. Intelligent discussion might mean setting aside purely emotional reactions, but it doesn’t require focusing only on the critical or negative.

As romance readers, we seem to be forever accused of having no judgment. We can’t tell real life from fiction. We’re so stupid we fall for the fantasy of happy ever after. We’re even so foolish that we read books knowing how they’ll end!

Of course that’s all B.S. Some critics actually think it makes them look intelligent to diss romance, when it truly reveals their ignorance.

We know what we read romance for, and few thrills are better than reading a great romance that’s well told and makes us truly believe in the HEA. All genres have their awards, their ways of praising their truly great works. I’d love for us to get really good at talking about the romances that rock our worlds, to use thoughtful language to praise and celebrate the best of romance.

I’m going to follow with a series of posts on various rules of literary criticism and turn them upside down so we can use them for praise.

In the meanwhile, what tips and tricks do you have for making the squees and gushing sound fresh and intelligent?

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Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award.

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Katy Cooper
1. katy.madellio
I can't wait to see the later posts -- I'm very curious to see how this plays out.

The only thing I can offer for making squees and gushes sound fresh and intelligent is to be as specific as possible.
2. Mo
I think praise is hard for a couple of reasons: because what we like is so subjective and because it often has to do with big picture and not details.

That said, we can love a book and still love it despite its flaws. That's part of what it's all about. In a lot of ways, we are saying "see all these details that drive us crazy, in the big picture none of that matters".

Book reviews tend to be about the details and not the overall feel of a book. When I write a review, I try to include things like narrative flow, character arcs (or lack thereof), word choices and ambience, plot or character-driven and all those things are detail-oriented. But when looking at the overall feel of a book - did it make me feel good, was I shocked, did I want to psychoanalyze characters, or did I want to live in that world - it's often the intangibles. And intangibles don't a review write.
Jerrie Adkins
4. filkferengi
Some excellent points! I look forward to your subsequent posts.
5. Evergreen
I think a lot of it is that it is simply easier to tell when something is missing or broken, than to notice when something is there/correct. This happens in tech all the time, where the person whose code is rarely a problem or doesn't break the systems, is unknown, whereas the people who aren't as good or careful are known. If stuff is running well, you don't notice it. Nobody ever gets props for keeping the system from breaking in the first place, only for fixing something that was broken.

If a story is going well, and you are *in* to it, you aren't paying as much attention to the details because you're too busy just being immersed. You aren't usually thinking "wow, that was some really good dialogue there" or "I can tell this author did their research" or whatever. You're just enjoying it.

They say, that in life, people rarely remember the details of "why" they feel a certain way, but they do remember the feeling. Feelings are the most important, anyways. Maybe we should just try to describe them in more detail?: "After reading this book, I felt like I'd eaten a big bowl of my favorite ice cream" or "This book made me so scared, I had to go watch a few Disney movies afterwards." or "I couldn't put this book down and had to go to work with only 3 hours of sleep."

I'm leery of doing any thorough book reviews myself, as I know I'm overly-critical and I'm afraid of offending people even of books I really love, so I stick to just doing ratings or very short reviews, for the most part. I do think that if reviews include things like pov(s), tense, genre (if not clear), than that is very helpful. I'm surprised Amazon doesn't let you filter for those things.
6. willaful
I don't review that much anymore, but something I try to work on is, as other have said, being specific and detailed, and avoiding buzzwords. So instead of just saying "thoughtful" say, "it made me think about..." and instead of just poignant say "I was very touched by the scene in which..." It's very easy to fall into accepted phrases that don't mean very much! Studying the language of praise should definitely include finding ways to make praise meaningful.
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