For most of my life, I would plow through and finish every novel I started, even if it wasn’t very good and/or I wasn’t enjoying it. I’d feel guilty if I abandoned one partway through.
Those guilty feelings were probably the result of ingrained habit from years of required reading in school, where I sometimes had to slog through stories with the expectation that someone with more experience saw something of value in them and eventually I would, too. In general, that’s a good thing; cultural literacy is important, as is the broadening of outlook we get by dipping into different genres and perspectives we wouldn’t notice on our own. (That doesn’t mean I liked all their choices. I still can’t stand one classic my 7th-grade teacher inflicted on us, and I’ve not read anything—and probably never will—by Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck since I graduated from high school.) But once I was out of school and reading on my own, without a teacher filtering out the dreck and guiding me towards the good stuff, I still read everything all the way through, somehow believing that I might miss something valuable if I didn’t.
Pretty silly, eh? I also seemed to feel that I owed the author the time, especially if I’d bought the book, rather than borrowing it from the library. Maybe I felt that if I’d spent money on it, it had to be worth something. Or, more likely, I’m just borderline obsessive-compulsive.
I no longer have the time to waste on uninspiring fiction. A sense of mortality is creeping up on me; I’m old enough to accept that my time on this earth is limited. If I’m fortunate I may have another thirty years, possibly even more, given good genes and continuing advances in medical science. But at the current rate I’m reading, and the number of books already on my shelves and e-reader, I already own enough books to keep me busy for the next twenty years. Twenty years! (How’s that for an overflowing TBR pile?) And there’s the library, and new books being published all the time. Hundreds of thousands of them every year.
So many books, so little time.
I’m reading now mainly for fun, and trusting my own judgement about what’s good and what’s not. I will still keep plugging on a novel that has some dead spots if it has enough substance and originality to convince me it is worth the slog—An Instance of the Fingerpost, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Doomsday Book are good examples—but I am becoming much more ruthless about most novels, particularly run-of-the-mill genre fiction, even if they come highly recommended. If the writing’s bad, if it’s a thinly disguised rehash of a story I’ve already read, if there aren’t any likeable characters, or if I’m just not enjoying it, for whatever reason, out it goes. A predominant theme of deception and betrayal usually earns a book a quick trip to the giveaway box by the back door. (I can’t stand spy novels, which are by definition about that.) So does plot-induced stupidity, failure of the imagination, or a sense of déjà vu.
Here are a few of the more memorable failures of imagination* that have led me to abandon a book:
- A group of friends are staying at a resort hotel. One man who had been enjoying himself dies after drinking from a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The bottle had been left in another man’s room—a man who was known to favour the whiskey—but everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that the dead man had committed suicide. No investigation called for.
- In a fantasy set amid merfolk, the author seems to frequently forget that they’re underwater. One character has blood trickle down her side. Another characters suggests it’s time for a cup of tea.
- A supposedly experienced FBI agent acts like a green rookie. At home alone in an isolated farmhouse, threatened by a crazed and violent criminal, the agent answers a call from an unrecognised number and replies “Yes” to the question “Are you home?”
Some of these failures are screamingly funny, but that’s probably not the effect the author wanted. It’s not what I’m after, either, when I pick up a mystery or fantasy. I’d rather just move on to something better, and find my comedy in sparkling dialog and characters aware of life’s absurdities.
* I haven’t identified these books because I don’t want to further embarrass their authors, or get into pissing contests with them. I’d usually rather use my airspace writing about books I enjoyed and would encourage others to seek out, but just because I don’t often write about them here doesn’t mean that I haven’t encountered some that were awful.