When to stop reading?

I am trying to figure out if I should continue reading the book that I’m reading. I haven’t had a lot of time for reading lately, because I’m trying to update my professional website in hopes of getting more attention from employers (very important, as I’ve been unemployed for over a year now). So when I do have time to sneak in some chapters, I’d like them to be chapters of substance. Or absolute fluff. Either works.

This book*, a space fantasy, is not bad. The writing’s decent. The plot concepts have a lot of potential. The storyline is functional. What it boils down to, however, is an average story with a somewhat interesting idea. It’s solid, and I’m sure a lot of people will love it, but somehow I just don’t want to read it any longer.

Which leads to the question: at what point does it become okay to stop reading? I know it comes down to personal preference in the end, but I’m trying to write a book review blog. Do I have an obligation (albeit internal) to finish and review as many books as I can? I don’t want to have a review blog of nothing but genius books. If the audience sees nothing but 5 star reviews, it would be a less effective blog, because there’d be no comparison by which to judge my ratings.

I have finished much worse stories than this one. I’ve also enjoyed books much worse than this. Those stories might have had miserable writing or trite plots, but they had characters worth following. Or a premise that keeps one’s attention.

I don’t know how many times I’ve kept reading a mediocre book because the premise had so much promise, I just had to see if the author could follow through. Most times I’m disappointed; once in a while I’m surprised. I don’t know how many books I’ve read where I can see the brilliance just past the place where the author settled. So many books that could be amazing in better hands. Sometimes I keep reading just to see if the author finds the higher level, because it’s RIGHT THERE CAN’T YOU SEE IT?

This is not one of those books. I think the issue with this particular book is that it hits my lazy-writing pet peeves. It begins in what is basically a fantasy world, then jumps into super crazy advanced civilization and technology. And of course, crazy advanced technology means our bumpkin heroes quickly get infodumped with The History of the Universe. This, in itself, could be a significant plot point, if addressed as anything other than a quick way to level up the characters. Yes, you now have an easier time telling the space opera part of the story, but you’ve taken away your characters’ agency in the process. You’ve established these characters as protagonists but you don’t trust them enough to get from point A to point B on their own.

That’s not counting the Mary Sue character who is genetically engineered so that men will be immediately attracted and obedient to her. There’s probably a way to turn that into a treatise on gender roles and society, but it would be a tricky path to navigate well. At the point I stopped reading, this has been made explicit but hasn’t really impacted the plot, but it’s practically a given it’ll be used as a shortcut eventually.

I could probably get a good review out of this book, considering what I’ve dealt with so far (and I’m less than halfway through). This book has Issues. I’m not sure it would be a worthwhile prospect in the end, because the issues would likely push me to frothing rage. And there’s benefit in the exercise of writing a measured review on something that hits one’s hot buttons. That said, there is a time for such exercise, and I don’t think it’s now.

Probably the easiest way to get me to stop reading a book is to remove the characters’ agency. Characters should further the plot, not be dragged along behind it. I hate prophecy stories as a rule, because they’re rarely done well. But prophecy is just one obvious example. Infodumping on characters is another; it’s one thing if you infodump your reader (in itself a hazardous process) but if you’re giving your characters “magical” knowledge just so they can interact in your plot, you’re doing it wrong. There are ways to elevate problematic plot devices if you look past the cliches; I have seen it done right, so it can be done.

I guess the answer to my initial question is: you stop reading when you hit the part where the problematic bits are more significant than the plot. In this case, even if the characters actually progress the plot, there will always be the underlying knowledge that they can only do so because the author artificially manipulated their situation. I want to read stories about people doing things and changing in the process, not just when the author wants them to have an epiphany. If you can’t write the story without lazy-writing the level ups, you might want to reconsider your plot.

*My personal policy is if I didn’t finish the book, it doesn’t get named. I feel it’s not a fair depiction of the actual book. If you ask, I’ll tell, but the name isn’t necessary to this particular discussion.

This entry was posted in In The Details and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When to stop reading?

  1. Charles says:

    “Probably the easiest way to get me to stop reading a book is to remove the characters’ agency. ”

    Finally, someone else who hated The Lovely Bones!

    And let me continue to miss the point, by mentioning that your professional web site barely shows up in Google search results. You should try creating a few more inbound links to it, including right here. (And get yourself a couple more stars in Javascript. It’s a fun thing to learn!) Good luck, btw.

    • anverie says:

      I haven’t actually tried to read The Lovely Bones, probably because it struck me as one of those books I wouldn’t be able to stand.

      And yes, I need to fix the links. I’ve mostly been using the site to back up my resume when I send it out, so it hasn’t been a major focus. Trying to change directions but still working the kinks out. I also know it would be better if I had more stars in Javascript; unfortunately, it’s less fun for me and more the bane of my existence. We shall see. And thanks; I need all the luck I can get.

      • Charles says:

        Clearly, you should teach me giftwrapping and I should teach you Javascript.

        And back on your original topic, this just occurred to me:
        “I don’t know how many books I’ve read where I can see the brilliance just past the place where the author settled.”

        If you want the opposite experience, look for a play called “The Pillowman.” The first three scenes are a pretty satisfying play by themselves. Then there’s an intermission, during which the audience is left thinking, “You mean there’s more?” The remaining two scenes are the brilliance beyond where the playwright could quite reasonably have settled.

        • anverie says:

          I suspect you’d have the wrong end of the stick in that exchange, alas.

          I will have to look up “The Pillowman,” it sounds fascinating!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>