talking about reading

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)

11 Replies to “talking about reading”

  1. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could take a book which I had read a significant portion of–say 100 pages or so–and set it aside as “not for me.” Took awhile to realize there are too many good books out there to waste my time on something that is either poorly written or not up my alley. I do also have several of the “pile 1” books that I would like to pick back up, but at the time I started them I had a horribly ominous feeling about the book (several of these I attempted to read shortly after having a baby, and they foreshadowed bad things happening to children, so hormones on my part may have contributed to my dislike!)

    I do have to comment on the review you posted. Being raised a northerner and having lived 3 years in the rural south, I have been called “girl”, “yankee” (by my former boss no less), “sweetie” (that one blew me away that people I didn’t know routinely called me, a woman in my 30s, sweetie), I am sure I have seen or read about churches doing abortion-themed haunted houses, and I was careful to keep my religious beliefs to myself as I’m sure I would have been labeled a heathen, if not worse! So, yes, the south may irritate feminists (and others), but is your job as a writer to appeal to the politically correct–or is it to accurately portray your subject matter and tell your story in a way that is believable? I’d put my chips on the second but to each her own.

    1. You know, as I was writing Pajama Girls I had readers who gave me feedback. Many of them natives of the South. Some of them African-American. In one case, a born and bred Southerner who happened to be an African-American woman. When readers raised concerns, I addressed them. Nobody ever used the word caricature (I assure you, that would have sent me into emergency rewrite mode); certainly nobody ever mentioned minstrel shows. So this is not a criticism that I take particularly seriously. It makes me doubt the reviewer’s perspective, instead.

  2. The review you mention makes me think of people who get offended on other persons’ behalves. Sometimes I think that sort of behaviour comes in and out of fashion. Perhaps you were just a convenient victim of imagined outrage. In any case – you have a healthy attitude, in my opinion. Kudos to you.
    I’ve got a book tucked away in my collection as an object lesson, should I ever get the notion I’d like to write for a living *shudder* truly awful in a genre I love.
    Sometimes I’ve tried a book from a genre outside my comfort zone, and it either opens up a new world, or it reinforces for me that I am not yet comfortable reading vampire fantasy, for example (no matter that I truly enjoyed Buffy and Angel), reading it just isn’t for me. I dunno. Some genres will always be in the ‘donate’ pile for me. But I go in with my eyes open at least. No use blaming the messenger if the message isn’t for me.

  3. I decided to stop wasting time when it comes to reading. If after a few pages I am not interested I just put it down. I either ‘accidentally’ leave it somewhere public or pawn it off on somebody whom I suspect might (have dubious taste) enjoy it. (I could do the responsible thing and give them to a library, but I wouldn’t want them to think I was giving them only sucky books; or worse yet–think I enjoyed them!) Life is too short to punish myself by reading things I have no interest in.

    However, (there’s always a however with me,) if I’m just tired or frazzled or something about the book is bothering me emotionally I put it aside for another time.


    Now, Rosina, I apologize for veering off course so much but sometimes the comments hijack my thoughts away from the topic at hand. Since it is after two and I cannot sleep and Pam’s comment rattled something around in my mind…

    I think there’re actually three different kinds of these PC Defenders of Others:

    1) Those who do it to show others that they are Modern/Cosmopolitain people who have absolutely no problem with other races, cultures, religions etc. They often get into these… tiffs not to defend but to flaunt their education and have witnesses to their Englightment. (AKA Educational Elitists)

    2) Those that argue in such a way that they’re really just making excuses for whatever group is beind denigrated because they believe they are Simple/Innocent/Don’t Know Any Better. (AKA Cultural Elitists/Latent Imperialists)

    3) Those that always speak up whenever they feel something is Wrong; with or without an audience, regardless of education level. They might not even like the people they’re defending but they simply cannot help themselves. (AKA Moral Compulsives)

    Sometimes it’s tricky to sort them out…

    1. Kenzie — I think your way of categorizing the kind of reaction in the review I quoted is quite useful, and I’m glad you shared it. It’s a complicated thing, though, because sometimes the criticism — well or poorly expressed — is valid. No?

      1. I think criticism is intrinsically valuable. I’m a very critical person by nature, I don’t see it as an especially bad thing, in my mind I’m improving things all the time.

  4. I really struggle with letting a book go. It takes ages for me to talk myself into it, and then I still feel guilty afterwards because you never know, it might actually have got good in another 5 pages or so!

    I think I have given up on 3 books in the last 5 years, and one of them I still think about giving another go just in case it was just the wrong time!

  5. I loved your descriptions of your different piles. My bedside table is littered with books that fall into anyone of your piles so I could really relate.

  6. I’ve recently adopted the motto, “Life is too short for reading books I don’t like”. Fortunately, I know myself very well and very seldom do I pick up a book which isn’t something I’d want to read — however, wanting to read something and then actually reading it are two different things — I have definitely been disappointed by an author’s writing, etc. But, as long as the plot is reasonable, I’ll try to muddle through. Not long ago, I read a huge book which was quite amateurish — and could have been cut in half (I think the book was self-published — which I don’t mind — but there was obviously no editor involved) — yet, I enjoyed the plot and the characters so I continued reading — but my fervent hope is that the author doesn’t write a sequel — because I’ll want to read it just to see what happens — but I really dread it. How crazy is that?

    1. Lynn– you are a far more adventurous person than I am. But I also have to admit that I am now curious about this behemoth you fought your way through.

  7. Ha! The font has changed on the comments.

    Well, we DO refer to agnostics as heathens! And atheists as damheathens. Well, some people do. And so a friend (Yankee. Catholic.) was offering to take my MIL to church. Baptist. She kept referring to it as taking her to mass. MIL corrected her. Humph! I laughed and called her a damYankee papist heathen. Then we both laughed.

    Not that very long ago being Catholic here was as bad as being black or Muslim or homosexual. Better than being a female, I s’pose.

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