Friday, October 19, 2007

Do you read bad books?

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?


Marianne Arkins said...

I'm absurdly busy any more, and my reading time is down to a bare minimum -- so I have no patience or time to waste on a book I don't love. Most authors only have the first 10 pages or so to hook me. If I don't care about the characters by then, it's outta here and I'm reaching for a new one.

That's one of the reasons I use the library so much. BUT, if I do like a book, I'm your biggest fan. I will buy it, and then search out your backlist and buy that, too. And then I'll stalk your blog, and nag you to release something else.

As an author, I've tucked manuscripts away, but never completely abandon them. There was something I liked, or I wouldn't have started. My NaNo book last year was a waste of time, but I loved my hero. So, this year, my wonderful hero gets a new love interest. Did I abandon the manuscript? I suppose I did, technically. But I took what I loved about it and used it for a new story. IMHO, that's not the same as completely leaving it behind.

Brittanie said...

I have given up a few times. Once in high school on Tess of D'Ibervilles(sp?) and a few summers ago on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. As far as Christian fiction I gave up about half way through Deanne Gist's second book Measure of A Lady. I have not read or bought any more of her books. There are some books I have forced myself to read all of the way through ... some of which I wish I had never read at the end. Oh Well next time I might have to put your idea into practice ... I just really hate the feeling that I have wasted my money. :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

I'm afraid I'm like your hubby. I keep hoping a book will get better. :)
There have been times when I wanted to put a book down for good--but I ended up finishing them. (And you know, they never got any better by the end)
You'd think I'd learn. :)

DebMc said...

Only in recent years have I become a quitter. I used to finish everything I started--reading wise anyway. No more. Grab me and drag me through the story. Don't let me go because if you do, I'm gone. Real life is too real and commands too much attention.

In my writing, I deliberately put away a manuscript because I love the characters. Love them. And their story is too complex for my skills at this moment. Instead, I've created some fun characters and a fun story. Halfway through now and I love these characters almost as much as I love the original ones.

My writing skills are just gonna have to grow to accomodate everyone. I don't want to disappoint these people.

Brenda Coulter said...

Interesting comments. Thanks, Marianne, Brittanie, Jennifer, and Deb for jumping in.