I read a lot. Most of it is pretty good, but sometimes I’ll slog through a book and find myself wondering, “why is this so hard?” When that happens, I’ll usually start trying to analyze what I think the author is trying to do, and why it’s not working. And I usually learn something from that process. So what’s something you learned from a book that was hard to read? I’ll go first in the answers.
I will say something that had recently made me dislike books are toxic romantic relationships. I am so over this troupe, because we all know in the real world you have to work very hard and get your stuff together in a relationship for it to be happy and work. I have had a lot of books like that I have put down recently.
Conveniently, I just bailed on a bad book. (Seriously love this question, by the way.)
I was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I could tell right off the bat that it was poorly written–there was just a lot of explaining the story (“telling,” so to speak), with very little action happening in the story present. It was like listening to gossip, rather than getting to experience the story with the characters.
The characters were a little interesting, and this was a very popular book about 15 years ago (what’s the fuss about?), so I stuck with it and read about 40%.
There was a little bit of sexual content throughout the book, but nothing over the top or graphic. Then there were a couple of scenes that were just far more graphic than necessary, like abusive stuff (which is ironic, because most of the story was detached “telling” except when the sexy stuff happened, then it was all here and now).
If it was a great book, maybe I would have just went with it or maybe skimmed through those scenes. But it wasn’t a great book. The poor writing hadn’t raised enough capital with me. The book wasn’t posing any big questions, or giving me anything to root for, so I easily made the choice to just be done with it.
It confirmed a lot of things about what makes for strong vs. weak writing, but more importantly, I think it’s a really good lesson that if you want your reader to endure hard stuff with you, you have to earn them first. I’m a big proponent of Christian fiction with hard stuff in it, but you gotta bring your A-game up front if you’re going to retain the audience through the darkness.
A huge way to do that is with a well-developed and focused philosophical conflict, some universal way that anybody can relate to the protagonist and empathize with the struggle. Without that, it’s so easy to just say “no thanks” if the story goes anywhere that makes me uncomfortable.
I think great books should make us uncomfortable at some point. But you have to prove to me you’re likely to be a great book, you have to earn it first.
I had an experience like that recently with the third book in the Assassin’s Apprentice trilogy. I loved the 2nd book so much I absolutely couldn’t put it down, and the momentum carried me half way through the third book in almost a single afternoon before I realized “wait, this isn’t fun anymore.” The reason in that case might even be guessable from the title: “Assassin’s Quest.” Meaning the protagonist leaves the setting and characters you’ve become invested in over the previous two books.
That in itself doesn’t have to be terrible, but I feel like two things made it really difficult to deal with: First, the motivation for his being away as a long as he was is kind of a hand-wave. All the protagonists goals and desires would have had him doing something else, but an accidental psychic curse drew him onward. I realized this comes down to character “agency,” as the experts call it (something I don’t always understand very well, so this was a good lesson). Basically, Fitz never believed he was where he was supposed to be, so I didn’t either. Second, and far worse, while this was happening, important storylines started to be resolved off the page while the main character was away, reinforcing the idea that the stuff happening here was not the stuff I cared about. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of stuff going on that was objectively interesting – I just couldn’t appreciate it because of the constant reminders that the story I had already cared about for two books was happening without me.