Goodreads.com, for those that don’t know, is a website that let’s you log what books you’ve read, are reading, or would like to. They are book people. I talked a bit about why I joined Goodreads in a post on my website here (basically, it’s all Vince Flynn’s fault).
Anyway, the people of Goodreads recently ran a survey to try and uncover why people abandon books part way through (and therefore by extrapolation, how to keep people reading to the end). This being the internet, they of course put all that information into a nice [url=http://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/424-what-makes-you-put-down-a-book]infographic/url.
Not much in the way of surprises, but perhaps it serves as a useful reminder to both (a) think about some of these things as we plod through our writing, and (b) not to read 50 Shade of Grey.
Put me in that dogged and masochistic 38.1% group at the bottom. I have stacks of books with the bookmark still in them (or the digital whachamacallit meta-data marker set), and it might take me decades to finish them, but by golly I will. 8)
I can live with first person (when it’s well done), but fully agree that too many adverbs and and adjectives ruin a text. I’d add poorly developed characters to the list: either unbelievable or “un-careable”. I was going to say “unlovable” but I don’t need to love a character to read a book, in fact sometimes I can’t stand character but still like the book. So by “un-careable” I mean that, despite effort, I just can’t care what happens. e.g. Joe went walking through Central Park and thought he saw the same pigeon three days in a row*…
I will struggle through poor writing, ridiculous plots, unlikable characters, slow going, immorality and discomfort (to pick a few reasons listed on GoodReads); I’ve finished too many poorly written, poorly plotted and frankly unbelievable fantasy novels (If he/she/it is so magical and can do , why didn’t they just ?). But I do need to care about the character and their world even if I don’t care for them.
[size=85]*OK if Joe was a pigeon breeder, and saw a particularly striking bird, that might work. Or it might be interesting if he was delusional and thought the pigeon was spying on him and reporting his movements to Michelle Obama. But, and this is important, for the narrative to work there has to be a reason that matters and I need to care enough to find out why it matters.[/size]
Results (at Goodreads, not necessarily here) would have been more interesting had they included a few demographics — gender and over/under 40, for instance. Differences among groups would have interested me more than simple reason percentages.
After trying to come up with a list of specifics, I decided that
When nothing of consequence happens for 200 pages, I usually can’t be bothered to pick up the book again, or will stop renewing my checkout with the library and return it. It’s especially true when a first book seems like it’s all set-up and no pay-off.
Long passages that have no impact on the story being told or the characters passing through it.
Horrendous, passionless dialogue. If every page has me pausing to imagine how I’d rewrite the interaction between two characters, I’ll come as close as I ever do to throwing a book across the room.
It was for a book club, in a genre I thought was my favorite kind of brain candy. It turns out that even an award winning novelist whose later work I liked was able to bore and confuse me beyond caring.
What’s THAT like? [size=85]Ah… who am I kidding. I crack myself up all the time.[/size]
Pigfender thinks that you might not like his current work then. He has written it pretty much exclusively in the first person… and in the present tense as well. What was he thinking?
The thing that bothers me the most is where the writing gets in the way of the story. I read books for the stories, which means that the writing has to fall away. Which basically means that the writing has to be very good and very well edited. If I find myself having to re-read sentences in a book that is a warning sign for me. If I have to do it more than a couple of times in the first few pages, well it goes back to the library.
Someone (probably a great many people) once said “Life is too short for bad books”. I’d change that slightly: There are too many books out there for bad books. My local library has more books in it than I’ll ever be able to read in my lifetime (well, not at the moment it doesn’t, as it’s underwater), so I really can’t afford to spend any time on ones that I’m not going to enjoy.
Factual errors quickly kill fiction for me. I almost quit reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove on the first page, when Gus was getting ready to bake biscuits by building a fire inside his Dutch oven. Geeze, if McMurtry didn’t know better than that, what else did he get wrong? But I kept at it, figuring it might be one of those I-never-heard-of-it-so-it-must-be-wrong “corrections” that New York copy editors like to inflict on the unsuspecting, and kept reading. Good thing, because it was a good book, and well-deserving of its Pulitzer Prize–bogus biscuits or not.
But a gee-whiz novelist from some time back who wrote a best-seller-list sea story lost me a third of the way in when his starry-eyed lovers were romantically trailing their hands in the water as the ship rounded Cape Horn. I nearly kept reading, just to see what else people with twenty-five-foot-long arms and hands impervious to cold could find to do with such amazing equipment, but he was already on a lee shore after sailing from London River to the Lizard without tacking, so I closed the book and wished him a full hold of malicious reviews. Unfortunately, he got them only from the saltier-than-thou nautical press.
But setting aside obvious factual faux-pas, what makes me put down a book, or auto-generate a generic rejection for a manuscript, is hard to define but easy to describe, using a standard line from pretty much every episode of Beavis and Butthead: This Book (poem, short story, movie, essay) Sucks. Not exactly sure why, and don’t really care. It just sucks. That covers an endless list of malfeasance, from inept characterization and wooden dialogue to excessive decorations from the Thesaurus.
I may or may not, but that’s unimportant. You, equally, might dislike my work…lots of people do…or even like it. It is impossible for any of us to write a universally popular work. We all have different tastes and styles…and that is something to celebrate. Would be very dull if we all wrote in the same style and read the same books. Diversity of style is the gene pool of literature.
Sorry to hear about the floods. I wish you and Mrs Pigfender well.
I’m pretty tolerant, and plough tenaciously on through most things. It bemuses my husband, who can’t understand why I grumble about having to finish a book but keep picking it up anyway. On the other hand, he mostly reads only Patrick O’Brian and books about naval history and aeroplanes, so I don’t think he’s the best barometer of normal reading habits.
References to shopping or brand names are a real no-go for me, as are slushy bits, lurid sex scenes, bad grammar, too much dialogue, boredom, sentimentalism (especially regarding animals), predictability, avvkward words used instead of “said”, most attempts at representing regional accents (beyond a token effort when a character is introduced), physical descriptions of characters when I really don’t care what people look like, attempts at glamour in location, any sort of reliance on recognising characters by their names (to which I seldom pay much attention), too much attempted realism in dialogue, too much “action”… Hmmm. That’s quite a long list. Maybe I’m less tolerant than I thought!
Having said that, I can also think of notable exceptions to this list of nitpickiness, where authors have done great things in a style which I normally don’t like. And I can think of some brilliant books written in the first person, especially when the premise is of unreliable narration or things-are-not-what-they-seem-to-be. In fact, I’ve just finished John Lanchester’s “The Debt to Pleasure”, and I don’t see how that could have been written in any other narrative voice. Although I concede that first person plural might be a step too far. We are not amused by that at all, oh no.
First-person plural: Jefferey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, worked pretty well in that peculiar voice. Not exactly my cup of tea, but the implementation was spot-on.
First person in general? Geeze, where to start: Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Cranford, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, Little Big Man, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Clockwork Orange, Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Rebecca, Trainspotting, all the Sherlock Holmes’.
All novels have a narrator. The only distinction between what has come to be known as a ‘first person’ novel and a ‘third person’ one is a narrator who is actually involved in the events and one who isn’t. The best way I can think to illustrate this point is by invoking a book that is halfway between the two: The Great Gatsby.
So, I’m with Ahab: The idea of excluding books based purely on the fact that the narrator is present as the action unfolds is kind of…