Why Stop Reading?

by F.

I get a new book (usually from the library) and am excited. I begin. It’s great. Anything can happen. I’m cruising along and don’t even notice that the cat just barfed a hairball on my PowerBook.

Then something happens in the story and I’m ejected from the reading-dream. I get up and put the book in the “to be returned to the library pile.” Why? What’s the pattern? Here are some things I seem to be thinking when I put the book down. These are in no particular order.

“This author isn’t very smart.”

I have to feel that the author is smarter than I am, which is not a terribly high bar, by the way. And s/he can be “smarter” in one domain, rather than generally. I just have to feel like the author is worth listening to.

“This author doesn’t know what s/he’s writing about.”

This is a killer for me.

If I know about the subject matter and I can see that the author knows less, I’m out. Anonymous Lawyer is a popular book by a fine writer. But he doesn’t seem to know enough about how law partners think; so, when a real partner or any senior lawyer reads the book it doesn’t ring true. As Ted Frank says on his blog

And this plot is the first fatal flaw of the book: now the Anonymous Lawyer has an aspiration, to become the managing partner at his law firm. But Blachman, who at least had some sense of how law firm summer programs work, has no sense of how internal law firm politics, or even internal law firm management, works.

In the fictional world, the managing partner serves for life and is given dictatorial micromanaging powers by an executive committee, and elevation to managing partner is treated by the protagonist as the natural next step from being elevated to partner. Right down to the frustration the protagonist expresses over the decisions of the executive committee (which raises the question why he doesn’t aspire to be a member of the executive committee, much less why the executive committee would grant such power in someone other than one of its own).

And as Tung Yin notes, completely absent from the competition between Anonymous Lawyer and his rival is any sense of what competitive law firm partners really care about: shares and draw.

I’ve split the quote into three paragraphs for ease of reading.

“This is boring. Not enough drama.”

Right now I’m reading a biography of Sargent. At this point in the book, he’s really successful. He’s making boatloads of money. Commissions are coming in from all sorts of people. He paints the President. And it’s completely dull.

There is no opposition to his goal—no conflict. I’m barely hanging in there. I’ll finished, but it’s a forced march, not a walk in the park.

“I can’t see the scene.”

I need to see it, which means I have to know what kind of place it is. I have to have seen an example. Using 2,000 words to describe something that the reader has never seen—even in pictures—just doesn’t work very well, I don’t think. For examples, see any Sci-Fi book in which the authors describes for sixteen pages, say, the Caves of Floofernill, and how the Plugusians eat their chocolate covered floof inside it’s gleaming caverns made of Noobelinium, and how it looks like nothing in this world, and so on.

“This author is arrogant or otherwise hateful.”

For instance, David Foster Wallace. After three or four pages I just thought, “What a dick.” If I want to listen to someone like this, I can just call some people I know and get an earful.

“I’m going to get screwed in the end/ripped off.”

You know that feeling when you start to fear the ending? Start to question whether the writer has the skill to bring the reading-dream to a close? And I’m not just talking about a deus ex machina ending, either. It could also be by not really having an ending (like in Nick Hornby’s How to be Good).

This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.

I don’t want to feel like I’m being experimented on or duped. Is this writer a pro? If I’m going to spend precious hours of my life on this story, I want it to be professional all the way through. Not just a good couple chapters and then filler and then an ending. The second act is key.

The Demanding Reader

Now, am I more demanding than most readers? I don’t think so. Readers are pretty damanding, it appears:

57% of new books are not read to completion.

And now that were on the topic of bookselling stats:

One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.

42% of college graduates never read another book.

80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

These numbers come from Jenkins Group, Inc. via ParaPublishing.com,

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