I tripped over a word usage error while reading a thriller that I’ll call Evil Conspiracy. I sighed and put my Kindle aside. Once I get over my annoyance, I might give the novel another try. Or I might not. Here’s the odd thing, though. Not long ago I encountered the same error in another thriller—call this one Hitman in Love—and winced but kept reading. Why did I abandon one thriller and not the other? The question started me thinking about why readers give up on books. In my experience, it usually comes down to one or more of these reasons.
The writing is incompetent.
The author of Evil Conspiracy derailed my reading by using the word discrete where he should have used discreet. Other common usage errors are to confuse phase with faze and to use less rather than fewer to describe discrete (not discreet!) things. Punctuation errors and typos can be just as distracting. Judging from book reviews, some readers will overlook mistakes until they become a constant irritant while others abandon a book after one or two typos. I fall into the first category—as long as the writer is doing other things right.
The error in Hitman in Love appeared later in the story when I felt involved with the characters and wanted to know what would happen. Up to that point, the prose had been clean, and the writing had style. Clunky prose bothers me intensely. No matter how good the story, I reach the point where I cannot face another clumsy sentence.
Readers are less likely to tolerate an incoherent narrative, poor pacing, stilted dialogue, or unbelievable characters because these weaknesses prevent them from getting into the story in the first place.
Several months ago I committed to reading a political thriller. Let’s call this one Thugs in High Office. It ran over 700 pages, but the opening scene was so compelling I figured the length would be no problem. Unfortunately, the pace slowed and then dragged, weighed down by flashbacks that went on too long and had a tenuous connection to the plot. Most were devoted to a character whose colorful past interested the author more than it interested me. I plowed on past page 400, figuring the backstory would end as the plot moved toward the climax. But no. When the story sank into yet another flashback I stopped reading.
The writing is too complex or unconventional.
Books can be difficult not because of incompetent writing but because of a complex prose style or complex narrative techniques. These qualities put off readers who don’t understand them or who would rather be entertained than challenged.
Unsophisticated readers confuse complexity with incompetence. I once came across a reader review complaining about run-on sentences in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin. Tolkien was a superb linguist, the inventor of languages with highly complex grammar. He knew how to write a sentence. This reviewer had no idea what she was talking about. A run-on is a grammatical construction in which two independent clauses are joined without a conjunction or proper punctuation. It’s not any sentence that “runs on” longer than the reader thinks it should.
Frequent shifts in point of view and convoluted narratives can also discourage readers. I like telling a story from the perspectives of multiple characters—not head-hopping but changing point of view from one section to another—and enjoy the work of writers who take chances with point of view. But I can understand why some readers would rather settle upon one character and stay with that character throughout the story. These readers will never be fans of my books.
Once upon a time I had an agent. He took me to meet an editor who said my novel was half literary and half commercial. She suggested making it more commercial if I wanted to interest a major publisher like the one she worked for. I tried to change my writing and found I couldn’t. In the end, I published the novel myself. I suspect the editor was right. With a more commercial style it would find a wider readership.
I’m not suggesting writers should ‘dumb down’ their writing, just pointing out that complexity turns some readers off. And I’m not implying those readers are stupid. Maybe they just want to relax with a novel, not recall their college days of writing essays in Introduction to Literature.
The same goes for experimental writing. Formal innovation, meta fiction, stream of consciousness—inventions that define modern fiction—require more attention than many readers care to give. My writing is conventional, but I owe a great debt to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and others. If I hadn’t read their work I would have sadly limited idea of what a story is.
The material is offensive.
Considering how many readers loathe profanity, I wish my characters would quit using the F word. Why can’t they be satisfied with “phooey” or “drat”? It’s my fault. I create them from my experience, and I’ve known too many people with potty mouths. I do wonder about readers who choose stories about cops and hardened criminals and expect them to say “Go jump in a lake” instead of “Go fuck yourself.”
But profanity gives minor offense compared to graphic scenes of sex or violence, or depictions of racial hatred and other ugly aspects of human nature. As long as darkness exists in the world it will find a home in the imaginations of some writers. I’m one of them. Still, I understand when readers choose not to subject themselves to stories that are ugly or depressing. I threw up in the middle of Naked Lunch and finished it anyway, but others might sanely choose to spare their stomachs further distress.
The book’s worldview is incompatible with the reader’s.
Everyone understands the world according to his or her own beliefs and experience. When they encounter a book that contradicts their worldview, readers can be angry or baffled. The fiction of Ayn Rand is an obvious example. It inspires some people and infuriates others. Usually the discordance is subtler, but it can still cause readers to abandon a book.
I know many readers love Gone with the Wind, but I couldn’t get past the idea, conveyed without irony, that loss of the genteel Southern way of life was a terrible thing.
A while ago I read a Christian suspense novel that could have been titled Convict Finds God. (Actually, it had a much catchier title.) The story was told well and held my interest for two-thirds of the book, at which point the suspenseful plot was resolved. The rest was devoted to the protagonist’s new life in Christ. I guess this last part would have emotional resonance for religious readers that it didn’t have for me. Oh, I finished the book, but I was bored by the time I turned the last page.
Yet I love The Lord of the Rings, a novel steeped in Tolkien’s Catholicism despite being set in “a world into which Christ has not yet come.” (I’m pretty sure that phrase is Tolkien’s, but I can’t remember where I read it. If you can help me out here, I would appreciate it.) Great novels create a reality so complete that readers abandon their own and—at least while the story lasts—live in the one the writer has made. This transcendence is what I love most about reading fiction.
Every time a reader picks up a work of fiction, the magic either happens or not. And the reasons are as individual as the person holding the book. Or e-reader.