The Guyliner: Life is short so I get to decide when it’s The End, not the author
‘This was two books in a row I couldn’t finish. Did I have… a problem? Like, a bizarre form of literary erectile dysfunction?’
Historically, I’ve sat through most books to the very end. In some cases, the bitter, twisted, “why the hell didn’t this pile of crap finish sooner?” end, kept on the printed page by the belief, the hope, the desperation, that this book really can’t get any worse, that there has to be a better ending. After all, as the old punchline goes: if there’s all this crap in the room, there must be a pony somewhere. But not any more. Photograph: Getty Images
Is it ever OK to give up on a book?
It can be difficult to admit when something’s not working out, that we can’t see it through. Whether it’s waking up one morning and realising your marriage is a sham or suddenly grasping that perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to rewire the house by yourself, sometimes it’s a braver move to call a halt and confess that you can’t go on.
But when you find yourself struggling with a book, it feels as if it’s your fault somehow. To admit defeat, not to finish a book, would feel like a failure. The fact the book hasn’t grabbed seems to be your problem, not the author’s; somehow it’s your deficiency, your inability to understand. This reluctance to fail kept me from picking up many classics – I’ve read very little Dickens, sorry – but still I took chances on books, some very dreadful indeed, ploughing on out of some bewildering sense of duty.
But no more.
The thing about getting older and having more responsibilities is time – there’s so little of it. It’s not just a dearth of gaps in your daily routine, it’s the general feeling time is getting away from you. Years are passing, and there’s so much to do, so many pleasures and chores to fit in, you become less inclined to squander any of your time. It’s the most precious asset you have – or so you tell yourself, forgetting the hours wasted staring at your phone, playing games or having blunt arguments over text with your friends. But this doesn’t feel like much of an investment, like you’re giving much of your time away. It comes in trickles and spurts; you don’t notice the lake of wasted time building up.
Books, however, don’t work like that. They require your undivided attention from the off, before you even begin to read. Deliberating in the bookshop, or online, pawing the cover and reading the blurb, flicking through briefly to check how bad the dialogue is or whether any of the characters have the same name as you, looking round to see if it’s cheaper anywhere else, buying it and adding it your reading pile – you get the idea. It’s already used up quite a bit of your time, energy and thinking, and now it wants more of you.
This is why, historically, I’ve sat through most books to the very end. In some cases, the bitter, twisted, “why the hell didn’t this pile of crap finish sooner” end. Dull denouements, insipid anti-climaxes, spectacularly obvious twists, I’ve blundered through them all, kept on the printed page by the belief, the hope, the desperation, that this book really can’t get any worse, that there has to be a better ending. After all, as the old punchline goes: if there’s all this crap in the room, there must be a pony somewhere.
The digital age, however, and especially the fact that most of my own work is published online, has made the way I consume words less formal, more transient. Be it skimming through long reads or researching, nothing feels permanent; I don’t have to waste my time on something if I don’t want to. Start reading a feature online and find it’s not turning me on? One swipe of my finger and it’s gone for ever, with hundreds of eager rivals for my attention popping up in its place. But could I ever take the same approach with books, now I was trying to read more and swipe less? My hand, as it turned out, was forced.
I’d been looking forward to reading the latest novel by one of my favourite contemporary authors for some time. A friend bought me a copy for Christmas and it had sat, crisp and proud and, sadly, unread on my bookshelf for the best part of a year. I have agonised over whether to name it, and feel I must: it’s The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, a fantastic writer with some incredible novels under her belt. I was excited. The book is set in Camberwell, southeast London, where I had lived, and was set in the 1920s and, this being Sarah Waters, was likely to involve at least one gay relationship and plenty of intrigue – what’s not to love? I devoured it at first, tearing through the plot, which developed wonderfully slowly, revelling in the beautiful words, the razor-sharp descriptions and keen observations. And then, two-thirds of the way through, I had an epiphany: I didn’t want to read it any more.
It was like waking up 10 years into a perfectly fine marriage and realising that your life is safe and dull and you can’t go on. The huge plot point that happens at the end of the second part of the book, which I had seen coming very early on, didn’t excite me or inspire me to continue, it made me feel weary. The crushing inevitability of it, knowing there’d be no escape from it, and the realisation I could predict the ending, annoyed me. How many nights propped up in bed would it take me to wade through to this unsatisfactory conclusion? Would I regret it? I have a pile of books stacked by my bedside and a phone permanently clamped to my hand – should I invest any more of my ever dwindling time on The Paying Guests? In a move that shocked me, I decided to go online and look at spoilers, to see if I was right about the plot. I was. And so I closed the book, put it to one side, and decided we were done. I felt I’d turned a corner, become someone else. And, of course, as is tradition in the 21st century when you’re trying to make sense of what you’ve done, I dashed over to Twitter to tell the world – or at least the tiny portion of the world that follows me. Many followers were aghast. “I always finish a book, even if I hate it!” hollered one. “It’s unthinkable, unforgivable!” said another. Some came forward to tell me they too had struggled with the same book, and I felt vindicated, but still desperately sad.
But what do you do when it all goes wrong with your lover? Why, you jump into bed with another, of course. I picked up the next book in my pile, something to bleach my mind – the lesser-known second autobiography of journalist, TV personality and poster girl for the eternally grumpy, Janet Street-Porter. Named Fallout, it claims to document some of her famous spats with her various rich, powerful or creative friends. It did nothing of the sort. After about seven chapters of Janet wanging on about the décor of her poky flat from the sixties and dropping names that stopped being interesting or relevant around the time smallpox was eradicated, I’d had enough and bodily threw the paperback across the room. Now, I panicked – this was two books in a row I couldn’t finish. Did I have… a problem? Like, a bizarre form of literary erectile dysfunction?
But now, as I make my way through my “to read” pile, I realise I’m free. Free to finish a book, free to give up on it, free to rest it for a while and come back to it later. I’ve already handed over the money; the author gets the cash and can chalk up another success. What happens next is up to me. I can’t control the narrative of the books I read – and nor should I want to, as it’s the author’s story to tell – but I can steer my own. Better to close the book and walk away, than turn the pages and feed my disappointment.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you – but if you couldn’t finish it, or skipped to the end, I forgive you. It’s your time, after all.