Sandi at Fresh Fiction has posted about what it’s like for her to give up on a novel she’s reading. She feels compelled to finish, no matter how bad the match. This reminds me of the fact that I still feel guilty for reading all morning. I read and write for a living, but it was drummed into me as a kid that I READ TOO MUCH, and I can’t shake it. Even though I do, sometimes, read all morning.
As far as starting a book that doesn’t work for me, here’s my routine: I put the book-that-isn’t-working into one of three piles:
Pile 1: The problem has to do with me. It’s where I am at this moment, emotionally or in terms of work. I can see that I might like or even love this novel at a different time — or at least, that I might learn something — but that day is not today. I put the book on the “try again later” pile. On second reading, this novel may be recategorized as Pile 2 material.
Pile 2: The story is sound, but the subject matter is inherently not a good match. Example: A few years ago there was a historical novel, the title of which I am blocking out. It had to do at least in part with the development of hypodermic syringes. It doesn’t matter if it is best book ever written, I can’t read it. It goes into the “probably worthwhile but I can’t for personal reasons” pile. I don’t read religiously-themed, cautionary novels (what are those romances called again?) for the same reason. There are most likely many such novels that are very well written and plotted, but I am not the right reader for them.
Piles 3a and 3b: There are two kinds of unreadable novels, in my view of things. One is so horrifically poorly put together that I keep reading it in the same way I would keep watching a propane truck skidding at high speed into backed-up traffic on the other side of the highway. I think of it as the awful-book trance. I could name three such novels without trying, but I won’t because (1) there’s nothing to be gained by hurting anybody’s feelings and (2) there’s a lot to be lost by offending them. Offending another writer just for the thrill of it is a useless and counterproductive thing to do. It damages my self-respect, but there’s also the possibility that I will be launching a wild-fire-type internet war. Some people thrive on the chaos of battle. Some people are almost pathologically provocative and offensive (think: Ann Coulter). That doesn’t work for me. This is not to say that I never get involved in such battles; just that I avoid them if at all possible.
And finally there’s the book that I cannot find any value in, not even in the abstract. Pile 3b contains the ones I donate to the library, because it is possible that somebody else will find value in them. Hard to imagine, but possible.
Pile 3a is an interesting category, because any author lives on both sides of it. If I come across a novel that is really, really bad, I will not write about it here unless there is something to be learned, and I can do it in a way that it is at least somewhat objective. I can only remember one review I’ve written of a novel that stunk, and it took me a long time to decide to write it, and a long time to get the tone right. People who don’t write for a living but who talk about books online don’t have the same inhibitions, which is to be expected and even welcome. How else does an author get honest feedback?
Google sends me an email when somebody posts something about one of my books. I usually go have a look, and this is where I find out where other people rank my stuff. It might be something fantastic — just recently a major author mentioned on her discussion board that she was loving Pajama Girls, for example. This is not somebody I have met or corresponded with, so it was very gratifying, because I respect that person’s work and opinion. On the other extreme, this is one paragraph in a longer post (dated June 2008) from a young woman who graduated from college a few years ago, and who is active in the theater. She did not like — really did not like — Pajama Girls. My Pajama Girls fall into her category 3b:
There are several troubling elements in this modern Southern romance. The handful of African American characters are treated like caricatures from a minstrel show. Agnostics are referred to as heathens. And “Yankees,” in general, are objects of scorn and suspicion. Local churches stage haunted houses about the dangers of birth control. Grown women are referred to as “girls.” This portrayal of the South may or may not be realistic, but it will likely inspire more irritation than amusement in feminist readers.
And that’s not the worst of it, but honest feedback means just that, and it’s sometimes pretty brutal. So what did I do?
Nothing. The author is entitled to her reading. I may find the way she expresses herself strident and her interpretation offensive, but she’s within her rights. It seems to me that she has not read very closely, but that’s not a discussion I can have with her. Any response from me would be seen as bellicose or self-serving or worse still, bullying. So I didn’t respond, and I haven’t put a link here, because the idea is not to have anybody else respond, either.
I do wonder if she wrote her review thinking that I would see it, or assuming I would not. I’m not sure what either of those would mean. For my own part, I try to remember that I shouldn’t write anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be comfortable repeating to somebody’s face. This doesn’t mean I can’t be honest in a review about a book I don’t like, but it does make me think about my tone and approach. Which is why I keep this little reminder on a sticky note on my computer: You can no more take something off the internet than you can take pee out of a swimming pool. (Attribution unknown)