The Partnership, the first volume of my newest New Adult romance series, is up on Amazon and Goodreads and reviews are starting to trickle in. That's terrifying. I think five actual people had read this book in beta and today it's out in over 80 new hands (whoops-- two hands per person=160 hands). As the responses trickle in I've already seen several of the "it was well written but...." variety and I realize that I write a lot of those kind of reviews too. What's that about? What's with this big BUT (ha!) in the middle of those comments?
Some of it is probably politeness. If you don't really like a book it's more polite to start with something vague and nice, then tack on what you really think afterwards. But that's not all that's going on because I often write that very same sentence about books I do like. In fact, I use it most with a category of books I could call the Bad Good book.
The Bad Good book is one where I love the author's work and expect a lot from it. I read it aware of the skillful handling of plot, character, and set up. I'm carried along by solid prose and witty dialogue... BUT something stops me from getting fully engaged in the story. The heroine is too mousy. The hero is a bully. Their conversations aren't as funny as they think they are. Their connection seems thin. The coincidences pile up too high. The back story ends up front and center.... These are some of the things that routinely happen in books I otherwise enjoy by writers I admire. I'm sure they happen in my books too--because they stem from the reader's particular tastes and in genre fiction (where you're usually selling fantasy and escape) those tastes are highly specific and personal.
If the Bad Good book happens all the time, the Good Bad book is much rarer. The Good Bad book is messy, shapeless, rushed, or unfinished (or all of the above!), but manages to carry the reader along compulsively anyway. Often a first novel, it sets low expectations and surpasses them (as opposed to those Good Bad books that raise high expectations). That actually makes Good Bad books really fun and exciting to read (unlike plain old Bad Bad books). They're always so much more than you expect.
The gold standard of reading and reviewing, of course, is the Good Good book, which is rare too. These books may have flaws too (what doesn't?!) but their overall awesomeness pulverizes all resistance. You barely notice that unrealistic scene or gloss over some clunky dialogue as you're swept along by irresistible characters or a fresh situation. The Good Good book activates your emotional response so that your analyzing brain turns off and you go along for the ride. That's always a special treat.
Today's indie publishing world means that you can often watch gifted writers work through this progression in real time. For me, that was my experience of Christina Lauren's Beautiful series, though I didn't read them in order. I loved Beautiful Secret and Beautiful Player-- they were Good Good books with vivid complicated characters and a distinctive style--but as I worked my way backwards to the first book, Beautiful Bastard, I could see how much the authors had learned along the way. Beautiful Bastard was a Good Bad book, a (great!) bunch of vignettes instead of a coherent whole (for me). It was actually kind of comforting to remember that even great writers (and great books!) have to start somewhere....
Of course I aim to write Good Good books and I want all readers to love every word of them, but Bad Good books and Good Bad books have their place too. They're on their way somewhere.