Seven reasons to stop reading a novel

Randall Payleitner reads more than I do, and the books he recommends are always worth reading. Here are his thoughts on what’s not worth reading.

(1) It has sustained periods of boringness. Plenty of good books have slow spots, but if you’re fighting sleep or reading pages at a time without retention — maybe it’s time to move on!

(2) It’s offensive. If you don’t want unhealthy moral or spiritual content filling your brain space, don’t let it.

(3) The argument or storyline is weak. Whether the author lacks perspective or rigor, it’s not your problem. If it’s poorly put together, find a better argument elsewhere.

(4) It’s not living up to its billing. When you discover a book isn’t what you signed up for, feel free to let it go.

(5) It’s too long (without good reason). Some of the best books ever written are really long — but they have to earn every word!

(6) It’s irresponsible. There are typos. Half the text is bold or ALL CAPS. The design is confusing. It’s an obvious money grab. When the creators of a project don’t take it seriously, why should you?

(7) You keep thinking of things you’d rather be doing. Unless you’re studying for something, reading is voluntary. If your “gut-feeling” says, I wish I were done with this, grant your own wish.

How to stop reading a novel

A novel may be a friend, companion, and traveling partner — but it’s not a person. If it isn’t working out, let it go! No one will be hurt, and you’ll have more time for the next one.

Here are two ways to walk away from a novel — and tomorrow we’ll explore seven reasons why you should stop reading one (a guest post from Randall Payleitner).

The slow fade . . . 
When a story doesn’t interest me, the characters are artificial, or the writing is vapid, I wander off. Readers can be drawn into anything — even a giant, floating peach. But if the peach isn’t floating your way, drift elsewhere.

Rejection . . . 
I’m patient man, but we all have boundaries. When my good faith interest in a story is violated by a celebration of the intolerable, I don’t drift off. I walk away. Fiction is not theoretical — it’s experiential. The reader lives in the story, and if the story repeatedly violates my convictions, I choose different company. Which is OK. That author probably wouldn’t choose to spend time with me either.

What to do with racism in novels

The Last of the Mohicans. A tale of adventure, resolve . . . and scathing invective heaped upon the Hurons!

Racial derogation isn’t easy to read. When some character in a novel slurs a people group, it makes you wince. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth reading. It means we need to know how to process racism in novels.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Discern the author’s point. Is she making a point? Setting up a situation? Exposing a character (or the reader)? Or is it simply gratuitous?
  2. Take inventory. Is there any hint of this attitude in my own soul or social group? When the abrasion of reading racism provokes you, review your own assumptions.
  3. Learn from example. All characters are learning opportunities. Aspire to what’s honorable and repudiate what is not. Grow in wisdom by considering the warp and weft of others.

The more time I spent with the Mohicans, Hurons, French, English, and Colonists, the keener my insight into the character of man. By the end, I aspired to a higher standard. May every book we read leave so positive a mark.

Characterization, Beowulf style

Whether rearing children, growing your soul, or writing a novel, it’s hard to beat this bright line from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf:

Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere (page 5).

Wanting and doing

Characters want, therefore they do; desire drives the action. It is what makes characters real, and it is the writer’s job to connect the characters’ wants to the reader’s own longings. Like characters, readers want justice, love, redemption, freedom, connection. Desire propels. Mistakes, irrevocable blunders get made. The story quickens.

But while characters want things desperately, only rarely can they have them. Drama lies in the frustration of desires. (From WORD CRAFT: Driven by Desire, by Carol Edgarian)

Does our writing resonate? If our characters breathe, wince, and cheer, our readers will do the same.

The feel of a book

When an author makes you feel, she has you.

I remember reading a manuscript, enjoying the characters, and wondering where the story would lead. Then, in the middle of a conversation, one of them cocked his head. Something wasn’t right. A noise that shouldn’t be there. I felt a chill.

Suddenly, those wonderful characters — high school students — were engulfed in horror:

The first thing I noticed was the blood. It was everywhere, all over Kyle’s clothes and arms, soaked through the back of Daniel’s shirt and already dripping onto the sandy grass near Mani’s knees. It was so much darker than I had thought it would be — almost black — until I touched him, and my hands came away red.

A week later I was still replaying that scene, and I wasn’t alone. When it came time to title the book, one of the women on our team quoted a line from the story — and we all agreed. The author, Lisa McKay, had every one of us from that scene forward. What else would we call the book?

My Hands Came Away Red.

The geography of fiction

Novels are tricky. Is upbeat artificial? Is dystopian faithless? Are plot line and characterization exclusive? Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography, hints at the link between realistic characters and complex scenarios:

Geography is common sense, but it is not fate. Individual choice operates within a certain geographical and historical context, which affects decisions but leaves many possibilities open. The French philosopher Raymond Aron captured this spirit with his notion of “probabilistic determinism,” which leaves ample room for human agency. But before geography can be overcome, it must be respected. Our own foreign-policy elites are too enamored of beautiful ideas and too dismissive of physical facts-on-the-ground and the cultural differences that emanate from them. Successfully navigating today’s world demands that we focus first on constraints, and that means paying attention to maps. Only then can noble solutions follow (from The Wall Street Journal, 9/8/12italics mine).

In Unseduced and Unshaken, Rosalie de Rosset points to the realistic characterization of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. “These women do not betray their convictions; they are not sentimentalists. [They] are ‘formidably self-possessed young women with detailed moral sensibilities’ who take themselves and are taken seriously. They don’t just respond; they decide what to do with their lives, every part of them” (from page 153).

The ultimate formula fiction: realistic geography + human agency = noble solutions.