A few weeks ago, I asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that most annoy them in books.
Dreams, in fact, are a primary irritation for a number of readers. Such reverie might have worked for Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but no more, thank you very much. “I absolutely hate dream sequences,” writes Michael Ream. “They are always SO LITERAL,” Jennifer Gaffney adds, “usually an example of lazy writing.”
Laziness may be the underlying cause of several other major irritants.
Historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies are maddeningly distracting for readers. Karen Viglione Lauterwasser despairs over errors “like calling the divisions in a hockey game quarters or having a pentagon shaped table with six chairs.” Deborah Gravel warns authors that taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier. Kristi Hart explains that when your characters are boiling maple sap to make syrup, they should not be stirring it. “You just boil it until the sugar content is correct, and then you’re done.”
Sharp-eyed readers are particularly exasperated by typos and grammatical errors. Patricia Tannian, a retired copy editor, writes, “It seems that few authors can spell ‘minuscule’ or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt.’” Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many “authors don’t know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’”
“If those who write and publish the book won’t make the effort to get it right,” says Jane Ratteree, “the book doesn’t deserve my time and attention.”
And — quelle horreur! — those copy-editing problems aren’t confined to English. The only things readers find more aggravating than untranslated foreign passages are foreign phrases that contain mistakes. “How is it difficult for authors, editors or publishers to find someone who can proof other languages?” asks Irma V. Gonzalez. “I’m fuming as I type this.”
A few words need to be retired or at least sent to the corner of the page for a timeout. Andrew Shaffer — a novelist himself — says no one should use “the word ‘lubricious’ more than once in a book (looking at you, James Hynes).” And don’t get that confused with “lugubrious,” which Wanda Daoust is equally tired of. Meanwhile, Cali Bellini finds that the word “preternatural” is “overused, abused and never necessary.”
While we’re at it, let’s avoid “bemused.” “It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” says Paula Willey.
If these responses suggest anything, it’s that readers don’t want to waste their time.
Excessive length was a frequent complaint. Jean Murray says, “First books by best-selling authors are reasonable in length; then they start believing that every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut.” She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, “A Great Deliverance,” was 432 pages. Her most recent, “Something to Hide,” is more than 700.
Susan Moss suspects this is a misimpression of prestige. “Only J.M. Coetzee seems to think an important book can be under 300 pages.”
But it’s not just the books that are too long. Everything in them is too long, too. Readers complained about interminable prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights and italicized passages.
While we’re at it, let’s just stop italicizing passages entirely. “Long passages in italics drive me nuts,” writes Susan Spénard.
“Cormac McCarthy does entire chapters in italics,” adds Nathan Pate. “Only the rest of his writing redeems that.”
In fact, McCarthy may be the source of another frequent irritant: the evaporation of quotation marks. If it’s meant to seem sophisticated or streamlined, it’s not working. Speaking of Amor Towles’s “Lincoln Highway,” Nancy George says the lack of “quotation marks for dialogue is just distracting.”
When authors don’t use quotation marks, “sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,” writes Linda Hahn.
It’s like a film director shooting in black-and-white to signal seriousness of purpose, writes Michael Bourne. Mostly, though, it just makes it hard to tell when the characters are talking. See?
Such confusion is akin to a larger objection: Readers have had quite enough of what Susan Mackay Smith calls “gratuitously confusing timelines.”
“Everything doesn’t have to be a linear timeline,” concedes Kate Stevens, “but often authors seem to employ a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no reason why this is done other than to show off how clever they are.”
But clever authors are still preferable to
preternaturally unrealistically clever children or talking animals, who are deeply irksome in novels — along with disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.
And how discouraging at this late date to find so many “women who always need rescuing,” as Deborah Gravel puts it. The old sexist tropes are still shambling along in too many novels. Even when female characters are given modern-day responsibilities and occupations, they’re often pictured through the same old gauzy lens. “Nothing makes me put down a book faster,” writes Heather Martin-Detka, “than overly sexy descriptions of women in unsexy situations, e.g. a scientist at work in the lab.”
NJ Baker is done with “stupid women who start out with intelligence, then turn into blithering idiots over men who aren’t worth their shoe leather.” She admits, “Sure, it worked for Jane Austen (think ‘Pride and Prejudice’), but if you’re stuck in that type of story arc, you are not Austen.”
Of course, the classic objections that have dogged novels since they began are still current. Many readers are disgusted with explicit sex scenes (including references to “his member”) and gratuitous violence, especially against animals, children and women. “I love detective fiction of all sorts,” writes Margaret Crick, “but graphic descriptions that go on for pages, no.”
Surely, somewhere some cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel-writing program that can accommodate all these complaints for maximum marketability. Trouble is, the things we hate in books demonstrate not only infinite variety but infinite specificity.
Bart Hansen has no more use for a character who “pinches the bridge of his nose to indicate frustration.” He notes, “Pinching the bridge of my nose feels no better than pinching a carrot.”
Susan C. Falbo is tired of “protagonists who have had a hard day, finally stagger home and take a scalding hot shower.”
Connie Ogle and Susan Dee have had it with “lip biting.” Ogle explains, “If real people bit their lips with the frightening regularity of fictional characters, our mouths would be a bloody mess.”
Gianna LaMorte is tired of seeing “someone escape a small town and rent a large house, get a job at a local paper or make a living gardening.”
“Vomiting is the new crying,” complains Tobin Anderson. “I think it’s part of the whole hyper-valuation of trauma — and somehow tears seem too weak, too mundane. But imagine a funeral filled with upchuckers.”
Linda Landau notes that “donkey poop should not be described as if it were human poop.”
And with that, we have come to the end.
Book writers, you’ve been warned.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
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