I know, man. Gene Wolfe is supposed to be amazing. People that dig his stuff go on and on about that. The Book Of The New Sun was supposedly voted the greatest fantasy of all time after Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. Whatever. I’ve tried three separate times to read it. Three times, man. I suppose I’m not smart enough to see the big deal. Anyway, after I tried to read a book by Felix Gilman called Thunderer, it got me thinking about books that look amazing but turn out to be fizzlers.
So I asked around. It can’t just be me that this happens to. And it happens to me a lot. I’m a little too hard on my literary entertainment. If I get a few pages in and there’s too much rambling, inane dialogue, or I see no sign of whatever hook drew me in, I’m bailing. Anyway, I got some answers as I posted or chatted about this very point that formed a pattern. Thought I’d let you in on that.
The Gilman book I mentioned said this in the description:
“Gilman takes his readers on a journey through a world of deep and wondrous impossibilities where marvels lurk around every corner. His infinite city and the lives of its people quickly become an irresistible compulsion— I imagine an evening where Dickens, Miyazaki, and Jules Verne sat down to dream up a metropolis and its wrangling multitudes. Thunderer will leave you wide eyed, breathless and hoping for more.”—David Keck, author of In the Eye of Heaven
Let’s break down what caught my attention, because the cover was an embarrassment. (Go look for yourself, I’m not posting that nonsense here.) The quote describes a teeming city, mentions Dickens (always certain to catch my eye) and the genius from Studio Ghibli behind the greatest anime ever made. I love interesting fantasy cities. One reviewer mentioned it reminded him of Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s the point: because of the reviews and cover description, I was hoping for a city with a supernatural twist to it, with some intriguing imagery, and a storyline- any storyline – that took that idea to some kind of fulfillment. I mean, I couldn’t even have told you when I started reading it what the jacket said that story was going to be. I was just trusting it would fulfill the promise of those influences I’d been promised.
Unfortunately, it’s a boring, dreary, rambling incoherent mess with plain-Jane characters and dull ideas ripped from a cosplay convention. I stuck it out just because, which is very unusual for me.
What I heard from a lot of folks I asked about this – books they had to put down – was that there was in fact a hook that caught their eyes, but they just didn’t deliver on it. Evan at From The Wastes said for him it was Dante’s Inferno, which is why I included that picture on this post. A city in hell is a firecracker of an idea; but if that’s why you’re planning to read Dante, you’re going to be disappointed.
Several folks named bestsellers like Girl On A Train or Gone Girl. The pattern I heard from them was similar – with a bestseller thriller you have specific things you expect to see; and the bestseller apparatus should assure that. Here’s what some folks said:
“I want the book to grab me with characters and plot immediately”
“I need movement and plot…and make them interesting”
“Didn’t get into the plot. Didn’t move along. Just blah blah blah scenery and description”
“Someone said it gets better after the fifth chapter. WTF! I have to wait five chapters!?”
You get the pattern, right? I suppose writers should face the fact that within a few pages, most readers have decided whether they’re pressing ahead or not. Look, most editorial reviews on Amazon are paid for. When other authors are quoted, they’re just doing drudge work their publisher is requiring of them.
Leo Tolstoy said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity” I suppose as writers we ought to listen to him and to our own experiences with books we’ve put down. Pick one where it happened to you and cypher out what it was that drew you in to begin with, and how the book failed to deliver. My guess is the author overcomplicated a cool idea and decorated it with a bunch of style and ambience. That’s ironic if true, because all the reader ever wanted was to just see the cool idea in its simplicity.
Get back to me with your own experiences or thoughts. I’m curious what you’re putting down and why!
6 thoughts on “Books We Put Down (And Why)”
I’m always leery of books that get hysterical applause from the early reviewers, even if those reviewers are other writers. It can be a matter of taste, but more often the book just isn’t that good. If it isn’t too painful, I’ll slog through because the problem isn’t always that obvious until you get well into it. I managed to finish Old Man’s War, but hated it. Why? Because when the old folks got their wonderful new bodies and physical abilities, they left their minds behind. All the experiences and whatever wisdom they’d accumulated over the decades was swamped by adolescent nonsense.
In general, the sample, if there is one, tells me a lot more than the reviews. I don’t demand to be hooked with the first sentence or paragraph, but I do demand that the first few pages are well-written and keep me wanting to know more.
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I hear you. I’m probably too sensitive too bad dialogue; but there’s nothing that loses me faster than vapid chatter or people talking just to advance a plot.
If you’re too sensitive, then so am I. Nothing turns me off faster than clumsy or irrelevant dialogue. That single thing will completely kill a book, as far as I’m concerned.
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My son loves American Gods. I hated it, skimmed just to get through it, felt it was a total waste of my time.
Some of it is taste, but some other of it is worldview, the reader’s differing from the writer’s.
I’m not happy when people use other people’s characters in the first place (which was basically what AG did, IMNVHO), but when they misuse them, and I have to jump to a new paradigm without me wanting to, or any obvious reason why, I get unhappy.
And when the book I can’t stand is leonized, it drives me even crazier. I guess most readers don’t mind.
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Good point. It’s surprising when a writer pushes a worldview that’s divisive- like atheism or drones on with a political agenda. It’s splitting people up and alienating them when really – don’t they just want people to read their books?
I’m struggling to make a couple of plot points that are crucial to my story more interesting in and of themselves – because the last thing I want is a bored reader.
Even with all the tools of the trade, it takes effort to ask the same question in fiction I would ask in life: why should I listen to this? I am my own first and best reader; if I’m not interested in what I have to say, and capable of having the same feeling when I reread something, it’s not ready for the public. I’m not in the business of promoting skimming.
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