By Maggie James
What makes a reader ditch a novel?
It's rare for me not to read all the way to the end of a novel. I choose my fiction carefully, avoiding genres that I don't enjoy, such as romances. After a lifetime of reading, I know what appeals to me and what doesn't. (Not always, as you'll discover below - sometimes I get it wrong).
The other night, though, I gave up on a book after finding some of the content offensive. It got me thinking. What might make a reader ditch a novel? As part of my 'Five' series, I'll be discussing some possible reasons. Let's go!
1. It's badly written
Some novels, whether traditionally or indie published, simply aren't well-written. Poor character development, a failure to round off the narrative properly, plot threads left hanging... the list goes on. Nobody wants to read such books.
Dialogue is a common problem. Some authors struggle with getting it right; their characters' conversations fall flat. Not to mention my favourite bugbear - inappropriate and excessive speech tags. I gave up on one novel partly because the main character rarely said anything. Instead, she chirped and mumbled her sentences, reminding me by turns of a songbird or a sulky teenager. As she was supposed to be a feisty, kick-ass kind of gal, this irritated me. There were other reasons I abandoned the book, but when I read one chirp too many, it was game over.
Speech tags are often unnecessary anyway; if an author has given his/her characters strong enough voices and the dialogue flows well, it should be obvious who's speaking.
Enter the panda with the pistol!
2. Bad grammar, spelling and punctuation
A criticism often aimed at self-published novels is that they're full of typos and poor grammar. Not always, of course, but there's some truth in the allegation. Whilst I love what self-publishing has done for the industry, I agree that too many novelists present their work with a disregard for the English language. However, it's also a trend I'm noticing with traditionally published books. It's not unusual nowadays to find typos and even plot errors in novels from big-name publishers. I'm told it's because many publishing houses are axing editors and proofreaders in a bid to cut costs. Whether that's true, I can't say, but it's no longer just self-published authors who have to defend themselves from criticism on this score.
Some people, of course, believe it's not important. They say that as long as the plot flows well and the characters engage the reader, then typos and poor grammar don't matter. I say they do. Language is the medium through which writers create their work; shouldn't they be able to employ it correctly? If a musician plays a wrong note, it grates on the ear. The principle's no different with books. Typos jar on the reader, distracting from the narrative - hardly what the author intended. Would you rather be kissed or pissed?
As for punctuation errors, as Lynne Truss so ably demonstrates in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, they can alter the entire meaning of a sentence. Correct punctuation can save lives. Take the following example:
'Let's eat, grandpa.'
Miss out the comma, and cannibalism enters the picture - not a happy scenario for our aged relative:
'Let's eat grandpa.'
Call the cops, someone!
Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, plus a dash of aggro...
3. The terrible trio - sex, swearing and violence
I've lumped these together because they all turn off any reader who's sensitive to such issues. Some people don't care for brutality, profanity or sex scenes in novels. As I'll explain later, I ditched one book partly because of its violence. I'm not unduly squeamish, but what I was reading was a step too far for me.
When it comes to swearing, I've been told the use of the F-word in my novels has upset some people, and I understand that. I rarely, if ever, swear. Often, though, profanity is necessary in fiction. It would be inauthentic for me to create a character like Adam Campbell in 'Guilty Innocence', and for him not to curse. He's a murderous psychopath - bad language goes with the territory. In contrast, my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', contains little profanity. It simply wouldn't be right for the characters.
As for sexual content, I love a good bit of smut! I may well write erotica one day. Some people cringe when fictional characters get down and dirty, however, and that's their preference. Each to their own.
4. The novel doesn't gel with the reader
Sometimes a novel can be well-written, a popular success, and yet something about it doesn't sit well with the reader. I experienced this with 'Pig Iron' by Benjamin Myers. The book has 33 five-star and 11 four-star reviews on Amazon UK, and has clearly been well received. But I simply couldn't get into it, failing to engage with the characters or the storyline. The author's writing style didn't appeal, either. I read some reviews of the book after I abandoned it, and I'm glad I didn't continue. The book contains scenes of sexual torture along with animal abuse - definitely not my thing. By all accounts, the novel is very well written and has garnered critical acclaim, but for me it wasn't a good fit. My fault - I should have read the back blurb more carefully.
Spare the sermon! No preaching, please
5. When an author pushes his/her own agenda onto characters
Sometimes when I read a novel, I sense a personal agenda on the part of the author. This sometimes happens with political or religious issues, and I find it off-putting. As the novelist Iain Rob Wright mentioned in his recent blog post: 'I would never make my own views entirely obvious through my work, because then I am not creating fiction, I am writing propaganda.' I agree.
It's usually easy to spot this one. Typically, a character will espouse a viewpoint that has no bearing on the plot, expanding at length via unnecessary dialogue or narrative. If axing such material wouldn't affect the storyline, then it's likely a spot of personal propaganda on behalf of the author is being deployed. Like many people, I resent being preached at. It may not mean I ditch the book altogether, but it does colour my view of it.
What about you? What would make you ditch a novel?
Apart from the five reasons above, are there any reasons you'd abandon a novel? Does sex, swearing or violence put you off a book? Do typos bother you? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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