I am always interested in the one-star reviews on Amazon because I assume they are usually honest spleen. With a positive review—especially when a book has attracted relatively few comments—it is sometimes difficult to know whether the raves are those of the author's best friend or an enthusiastic stranger.
Browsers who look at the five-star reviews for Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winning novel The Round House should not try to make that distinction. At this writing, the book has more than 530 positive reviews and I am sure virtually are the author's enthusiastic fans.
Which makes the 21 people who gave the book a one-star rating that much more interesting to me.
Several of these critics could not follow the story. A typical comment: "There are gaps in the story, nothing makes sense, nothing comes together."
And from another, "it was the most disjointed book I have ever read. The author failed to introduce the characters properly."
And, "I read about 30% of the book and found I couldn't go on any more because I
simply didn't care enough to keep reading. The book started off pretty
well but then it just dragged and dragged and dragged with too much
detail that I just didn't feel was bringing anything to the story."
Some complained about the language: "The supposed great writer rambles on in circles and uses constant toilet talk between adolescent boys for no apparent reason." (Except possibly that it's the way adolescent boys talk.)
Another issue bothered some readers: "Also hideous is the total absence of quotation marks. We are left to
wonder who is talking and, indeed, whether we're reading narrative or
dialog. I'm not sure if this is a stupid literary gimmick or just plain
laziness, but either way, it's annoying and unacceptable. Another
reviewer advises us to 'get used to' this ridiculous gimmick because
writers are increasingly using it. Well, no thanks . . .And if some authors can't be
bothered to delineate dialog with quotation marks, I won't be bothered
to buy their books."
Another reader noted, "On top of the foreign words on every page, the author uses no quotation
marks for spoken word...it's actually quite frustrating to figure out
after an entire page that there was a conversation going on."
They felt story was difficult to follow: "The four boys were so interchangeable that it was hard to keep them straight." There were unnecessary digressions: The story the narrator's grandfather "told in his sleep was entirely pointless. It had absolutely nothing to
do with the plot, and only served to throw in a little Native American
folklore. Again, who cares?" Finally, "The book seems like it contains much more information than needed and could be cut down to two hundred pages or less."
I am, as you probably guessed, in the five-star camp. The Round House is narrated in the first person by an adult male Native American lawyer recalling incidents in his 13-year-old life on a North Dakota reservation. Because he is 13 years old, and because we never see events from the point of view of another character (not an easy trick to pull off in a novel), things do not always make immediate sense. True, the novel could have been cut (what novel cannot?) but it would not have been the rich, satisfying work of art it is. I feel sorry for the one-star critics who were not able to find the pleasure the book offers.
In my writing, I like quotation marks because they immediately distinguish between direct and indirect quotation. I worry about how to introduce characters properly—when they should be introduced, how much does the reader need (or want) to know about them, how important are their physical characteristics? Clothing? What details add to the story and which ones are extraneous distractions? The stories I tell in my fiction are never unnecessary digressions—at least not in my mind. A reader may argue otherwise, but everything on the page has a reason for being there. I can only hope that most of my readers understand (and agree with) my reasons.