My hunk o' burnin' love is a cheesecake fan, so I wasn't surprised last week when he ordered cheesecake with a take-out meal from our favorite Italian restaurant. As I sat opposite him at our kitchen table licking my fork and exclaiming over my excellent tiramisu, he scowled.
"How was the cheesecake?" I asked as he slid the last bite into his mouth.
"Not very good."
"But you ate it," I pointed out.
He shrugged. "I kept hoping it would get better."
He does that with books, too. One of his favorite authors recently published a real stinker, but he stayed with it to the bitter end. The guy's just not a quitter (which should explain everything to those of you who wonder how any man could stay married to me for 32 years). But I don't understand how he can keep reading when a novel fails to accomplish its primary job, which is to entertain the reader.
Life's too short to spend it reading unsatisfying novels, and that's why I quit reading an historical romance novel just this afternoon when I was less than a third of the way through it. Yes, the writer in me is curious about how the author pulled things together at the end. But I'm far more likely to find writerly inspiration in good books, so I'm finished with this one.
I am a remorseless quitter. If the first bite of a cheesecake doesn't thrill me right down to my toes, I'll sometimes take a second bite to confirm it's not delicious. But never a third--and my approach to books is exactly the same, whether I'm reading or writing them. I have never agonized over the decision to abandon a manuscript. If I'm not excited about the story, why would anybody else be?
I like to think I can tell, when I read a romance novel, whether or not the author truly loved her story or was just going through the motions after she'd submitted a proposal and then lost her enthusiasm, perhaps because her editor insisted on so many changes. "Put a baby in the story," an editor once commanded an author friend of mine. My friend shoehorned a baby into her story, grumbled about it to me, turned in her manuscript on time, and was not proud of the finished book.
I didn't care for it, either. It wasn't her best writing, and I think I'd have noticed that even if I hadn't known the story behind the story.
We can't see into other people's minds. But read enough romance novels, talk to the writers, listen to a few hair-raising tales about the revising and editing process, and you'll develop a feel for which books flowed naturally from an author's heart and which were cobbled together to meet a deadline or an editor's expectations. The book I quit reading today had that "cobbled together" feel. Maybe the author did love that story, and I just missed something. But I don't think so, in part because I've talked to any number of authors who have admitted privately that they have hated some of their published novels.
Sometimes writing novels has more to do with making a living than with creating art, and I don't see anything dishonorable in that. The reality of the romance market (I don't have experience with any other) is that most books are sold on proposal, and the process can force authors to write books they don't love. After the contract is signed, editors often make content demands that the authors are bound to deliver because to do otherwise would be to default on their contracts. It often happens that the editor's and the author's vision for a particular story simply do not jive--which means the unhappy author is more likely than not to turn out an inferior book.
Because I understand the system, I'm not surprised when one of my favorite authors releases a bad book. But as a consumer, I won't accept anything less than a book with heart. The moment I begin to suspect that what I'm reading was phoned in by a hurried or harried author, I'm done.
What does it take for you to give up on a book? And if you're a writer, have you ever walked away from an unfinished manuscript?