Literary pet peeves: seven reasons to hurl away a book
We all have our own pet peeves, things that cause us to toss a novel aside, and not lightly
“Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Henry James’s advice still rings true today. Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913, National Portrait Gallery, London.
‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Henry James’s advice still rings true today. Of all my literary pet peeves, dream sequences are right up there. Fiction relies on the suspension of disbelief, so when an author asks her readers to believe in an imaginary character’s imaginary dreams, all too often it breaks the spell. We all have our own secret literary bugbears, red flags that make us mentally roll our eyes. Here are some of my top turn-offs along with those harboured by friends who are voracious readers.
One novelist friend has an almost allergic reaction to characters who sigh, blush and smirk. Especially if they also admonish, chide and exclaim, rather than simply saying something. And he’s right, of course – we start to doubt the writer who falls back on clichéd or overheated actions to convey how their characters are feeling.
The use of the present tense may be an increasingly popular narrative technique, but it has a Marmite effect on readers: some enjoy it; others are turned off the instant they get a whiff of it (perhaps scarred by previous experiences). A present-tense narrative can inject immediacy into a story, but it’s hard to do well, and to sustain. Writers must hide their brush-strokes – if the reader still notices the technique after the first page, it becomes a distraction that may well cause them to throw the book aside.
My spirit always sinks when I plough into a lengthy run of florid, descriptive passages. Even in books I love, even if the writing is exceptional, there’s only so much I can take before I start scanning the pages ahead
for dialogue, the end of the chapter, anything to signal that an end to the self-indulgence is in sight. As Elmore Leonard said, “When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Impersonating the greats
My latest bête noire is the trend for ‘authorial regeneration’, as it’s grandly called, whereby modern writers attempt to step into the shoes of literary giants such as PG Wodehouse, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. I’ve read several of these with high hopes that someone has managed to bring Bertie Wooster, Mr Darcy or Hercule Poirot back to life, but it’s almost always a disappointing experience. It’s like drinking non-alcoholic beer or a decaff latté – it may look and smell the same, but you can tell straight away that there’s something essential missing.
Plain old bad writing has got to be the ultimate literary bugbear. As a friend who always seems to have read everything new and interesting in the book world put it, “For some reason, I don’t mind watching trashy TV, but I just can’t read trashy writing.” Her reading time is limited and precious; she can’t afford to waste it. And there are very few readers these days for whom this isn’t true.
I’m all for subtle, even ambiguous, endings except when it’s obvious that the author hasn’t delivered a definitive closing sequence because they simply couldn’t think of one. If you’ve invested enough time to get through a 100,000-word novel, a damp squib ending leaves you feeling unsatisfied, cheated and perhaps even swearing off that writer’s work forever more.
Even worse are the thrillers that descend into melodrama as the novelist strains to tie up loose ends and resolve all the mysteries they’ve relied upon to keep the reader hooked. If you’ve stayed up till two in the morning to find out what happens, the payoff had better be good.
Caroline Madden is a freelance journalist, and blogs at myfirstbookdeal.com