“People Like It,” and Other Ways to Deal with Not Liking a Popular Book

I have strong opinions.

I don't mean to. It's just, well, I see something, and up in my mind it pops, my opinion, loud and undeniable. This is especially true with books.

There was a time when the force of my opinion seemed to be its own argument for voicing it. I thought it, thus it must be said! Also, I felt it strongly, ergo I must speak it with assurance, edging into disbelieving contempt for dissenting opinion.

It's that last point I fear. See, I have come to realize that having a strong opinion, having what I like to think of as an unerring eye for good writing (good heavens how stupid that looks when it's written out)—these things are dangerously tempting. Sort of like the desire for fame and power. And they are not as conduicive to good conversation, especially about books, as I once thought they were. When people are talking about books, sure, there are elements of "I think this is good." "Do YOU think it's good?" "I hope you agree with me!" "I wonder if it is good?" But these are less important, I think, than the larger, more hopeful goal of the conversation, which is to announce (sometimes), "I read a book and it moved me." And because of assholes like me, this can be a scary thing to say.

Here is what I am learning to do (gee, it's only taken 40+ years): I am learning to say, when someone gushes about a book I feel less-than-gushy towards, "People like it." For a person who rigidly clings to a fairly unyielding definition of honesty, this gives me a lot of room. I will show you how to use it in an actual example.

Nice person: "I loved The Book Thief. Have you read it? Have you heard of it?"

Me: "People like it!" (Note to advanced practitioners: "People really like it!" also works, and well.)

See? (I tell myself.) That wasn't so hard. Let's try it again.

Nice person: "The Poisonwood Bible is my favorite book."

Me: "Yeah, people really liked that."

Do you know who did the best version of this ever? Meryl Streep. When asked about The Bridges of Madison County, she said that before she did the movie, she was "blind to the book's power." Or something like that, which I remember from an interview I read 100 years ago.

Questions arise for me:

1) Is this a way of being afraid? Of not taking full ownership for an opinion, and instead doing an "Oh, it's my fault," book version of woman's apology tour of opinions?

(Maybe.)

2) Am I saying this to say that I am secretly having good taste, and isn't it nice that I pretend not to?

(If you knew how bad my taste really was/is, this would be clearer. Ie: I am blind to the power of MANY books. I don't like Faulkner, for heaven's sake. Or DeLillo! And I know—I know—they are brilliant writers. They're just…not my thing.)

3) People know what you're really saying. So why not just say it?

(I think there's something to be said for not only listening to—or voicing—one's own opinion. I like to think that somehow "People like it" isn't just evasive, it's also the truth, and it tries to honor a larger truth: There is something here that I am not getting.)

Am I going soft? Am I deluded? Also does this apply to, say, Strawberry Shortcake?

No, it does not: Strawberry Shortcake, I will always detest you.

But, more important, how do you guys deal with this situation?

10 thoughts on ““People Like It,” and Other Ways to Deal with Not Liking a Popular Book

  1. I love your solution, Marcia! Back in the early ’90s when I ran a used book store, I would say, “I haven’t read that one yet.” Although I knew in my heart I probably never would (e.g., having passed through my Danielle Steele phase in middle school and moved on), it seemed like a diplomatic way to avoid dampening the enthusiasm of potential book-buyers. :> PS, I bought THE BOOK THIEF and am really struggling to get into it. I feel bad. I want to like it. Everyone else seems to.

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  2. I really like your method. People and books have a relationship. You never know who will be offended. It doesn’t mean you have to deny your own feelings (I don’t) but I also don’t shout my opinions from the roof tops, or actively disagree with people. (I am one who likes to avoid conflicts…if you can’t tell.)

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  3. I say almost exactly the same thing, when asked about a popular book in the course of my job. I figure people at the library mostly want to know what *they* will like, not what *I* liked, so “lots of kids are crazy about STARGIRL” is actually more useful information than “I found STARGIRL twee and manic-pixie-dream-girl-suffused”. In my personal life, I’m often more forthcoming. But when I just don’t feel like getting into it, the “mm, yeah, lots of people love that one” response seems like a perfectly honourable one.

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  4. Now that I’m fifty, I do a bit less hedging and say more forthrightly when I don’t really like a book that “everyone else” likes — I’m sure that this gets me into trouble when I turn my back, but now that I’m fifty years old, I don’t much care. I never read DeLillo and always felt panicked about that, until I finally picked up “Falling Man.” I really, really loved that. Have you read it?

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  5. I often comment on the popularity of a book, rather than my personal opinion, when something just isn’t my cuppa. As with my children, so with all other readers, just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t get something wonderful out of it.

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  6. A berry close personal friend writes some of the Strawberry Shortcake books. Pays the bills, foot in the door, etc! They are not so toxic. Most of the ones I’ve picked up and read (around her house) are more about friends helping each other get over some obstacle (broken ankle before the big ice show! scared of swimming in the ocean!) than conforming and plastering a smile on your face.

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  7. We can’t talk about how long it took me to get the “berry close” part of this. Oh dear.
    I am sure I would/would have written Strawberry Shortcake books for money had to opportunity presented itself. And yet…I still have a problem with her. Let’s hope Strawberry and I never meet face to face.

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  8. These days I ask what they loved about the book. Then I listen. It is harder with books that I really hate (having read them) but easy with books that I just suspect I would hate (if I actually read them). I do have one friend who loves a fantasy series that I truly HATE (the misogyny) but her love for it is all tied up in her childhood memories so I haven’t told her… it seems too hurtful. I really do hate that series though. Really.

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