Finishing bad books

I love reading books. Well, more precisely, I love reading good books. I don’t much care for bad books. In fact, I believe (unscientifically) bad books are what keep people from reading more.

It’s not a complicated theory: people have bad experiences with books that were over-praised, and they begin to develop a negative association with reading in general.

As for myself, I tend to get hung up on bad books in my reading life. I’ll read a few novels in a row, quickly and enjoyably, and then I’ll hit one that I don’t like. Often the bad book has come highly recommended: it’s won awards, it’s been praised by authors I like, and (most commonly) it’s been called “hilarious” when in fact it is not. At all.

As fast as I’ll blaze through I book I really love, I’ll read a bad one just as slowly. It sometimes takes me weeks or months to get though it, and the worst part is that in the meantime, I don’t read any other books. It’s like a mental bad Netflix rental—I can’t bring myself to finish it, but I can’t move on to the next one while I still have it.

A few years ago, I decided I was done with bad books: I started moving on. I abandoned them left and right, sometimes just a hundred pages from the end. I didn’t feel good about it, probably because any book has flat places and if I always gave up as soon as I hit something I didn’t like, I’d never finish a book again. But it was the only way to keep myself reading.

I’ve mostly done away with this tendency recently, thanks to grad school and reviewing books for Chamber Four. Most of the time, I simply don’t have the luxury of not reading something quickly, because I have deadlines.

That’s been a good experience for me; I’ve finished some books that I would have given up on a few years ago, and enjoyed parts that I would otherwise have missed. However, I’ve never found one I love; if I get the urge to give up, it’s for a good reason.

When books don’t respect readers

In reviewing books for this site, I’ve gotten the urge to give up a few times. Going to See the Elephant was not good, Netherland was not particularly enjoyable (though I can’t unguiltily label it bad), and I actually did have to give up on The Monsters of Templeton.

I know I can be a harsh critic, especially of books. That’s because I take it personally when a book is bad. Books like the three in the previous paragraph suffer from a single common flaw, one that is entirely the fault of the author. Books like these don’t respect their readers.

By that, I don’t mean that they write down to us, or overexplain things, or anything like that. I have no problem with Nora Roberts; I simply don’t read her. I have a problem with authors who take readers’ attention for granted.

Going to See the Elephants and The Monsters of Templeton are clear examples of this. Their authors give up on aspects of their stories, like good dialogue, or complex emotion; they provide thin plots, cliched characters, and little excitement. Netherland is a different species of the same genus. In it, O’Neill presumes that his ideas and philosophy will hold your attention, and gives you little in the way of enjoyment. These books are written with the implicit assumption that people will read them. That assumption is faulty.

Partially, this is a technological issue. We’re not in Victorian England anymore, we’re not gathered around a single candle, enthralled by Papa reading a section of the latest Dickens serialization. Books have competition these days in the form of television, movies, video games, phones, and the Internet.

Authors, especially literary authors, seem to ignore the fact of competition. Just because you have an enthralling ending doesn’t mean your reader will trudge along with you while you dryly set it up for 200 pages. Your readers have other things to do.

Adding to this is the fact that books are not very “stackable.” This is a term I heard from Cory Doctorow on an episode of This Week in Tech. It refers to multitasking your media; an example of stacking: watching TV while you surf the Internet while you text a friend.

When you read a book, you have to focus on it, to the exclusion of most of the rest of the world. This means that the fragmented tendrils of the modern human’s attention span are all focused on that writing, and there better be enough to keep them all occupied.

Now, I’m not saying that authors should start pandering to that attention span, but they should damn well be aware of it. All writers, especially novelists, should understand that it’s a privilege to have someone read what you write. This is a trade: the reader gives time, and the author gives affecting drama, laughs, word play, beautiful phrasing, and most of all, most of all, enjoyment. It can be many things (and should be several simultaneously), but something must be given to the reader freely and frequently.

I want to read books in which I can feel the author putting his blood into the writing. I want to feel the author saying, ‘Here, this is everything I have.’ I want to feel that someone balanced each and every sentence precisely. Essentially, I want to feel that the author cares about the experience of his reader.

This does not at all translate into crappier writing. In fact, crappy writers care the least, and while it’s possible to be dragged all the way through a book like The Da Vinci Code, because of astute manipulation tactics, it’s not an enjoyable experience.

The flipside of books being unstackable is that they’re able to provide the deepest narrative experience of any artistic media. Great books can affect readers in ways that even the best TV or movies can’t touch. However, it’s the opposite for bad books and bad TV. At any given time, I’d rather watch bad TV than read a bad book, because I surf the Internet while I watch, and I know I’ll be done in 45 minutes.

None of this has much to do with the world’s best writers. They’re the best because they know how to write deeply affecting stories, and how to make their books entertaining on every level. They respect the time their readers take to read them. One of my favorite authors in this respect is Michael Chabon. When you read his books, you get complex characters, deep drama, engaging plots, frequent laughs, and beautiful sentences. You get the feeling that he struggled with every sentence until he got it the way he liked.

There are other authors that do not expend the effort for that struggle. They know who they are. To them I would say: struggle on. The alternative is that you lose your readers’ attention, and you don’t get it back.

One last thing: I realize that there are innumerable reasons to write books, and that not every author wants to please a crowd. I fully understand that antisocial impulse for literature, and that refusal to be swayed by the fickle marketplace. Sometimes you write what you want to write, and damn everyone if they like it or they don’t. All I would ask in that case is that those books be marketed honestly. If they’re not intended to entertain, don’t pretend like they are, and for god’s sake stop calling every book “hilarious.”