Monday, September 26, 2005

when good books go bad

I don't know how many times in the past few years I've picked up a book that I may or may not have already heard a lot about, and had this happen:

Pages 1 - 20. The book grabs me right away. I reread lines. I marvel. Suddenly I want to tell everybody about this wonderful book. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. I do tell people about this wonderful book. You have to read it. It's amazing! Amazing!! This is a BOOK. Everything I've written can't begin to compare. I'm a fraud. I'm your neighborhood Quick Stop where you can get gas, a giant pickle, a lottery ticket, and a soggy glazed donut that taste like exhaust fumes. But THIS. THIS is a real book. A real book by a REAL writer.

Page 30. Getting bored. I remind myself of my earlier excitement. I'm sure it will return.

Page 40. Bored out of my mind. Where's the plot? Is there no plot? Maybe it will get better. Is anything ever going to happen?

Page 60. Nope. Nothing happening. Let's skim a little. And a little more. Description of this. Description of that. Fifty pages ago I would have been amazed. Now I'm feeling a little queasy.

Page 100. At this point, I often put the book aside and never pick it up again.

The sad truth is that most literary writers can't plot, and beautiful, amazing descriptions can only sustain a book for so long.

An editor once told me that the beginning of a book should never be a lie. I've probably broken that rule a few times, because we all want an opening with impact. Lately I ask myself what was the promise I made at the beginning of this book? And did I stick to it? Did I carry through?


Rob Gregory Browne said...

Trust me, Anne, you aren't the neighborhood Quick Stop. But I understand what you're saying.

I used to love literary novels with all their wonderful description and poetic language. Now I've gotten to the point that if I pick up something like that, I tend to throw it aside fairly quickly. Too pretentious, to my mind.

I am a great believer in the notion that a working man's meat and potatoes dinner is ultimately a lot more satisfying than a pricey, designer chef creation.

I like my fiction lean and mean. Regarding description, Gregory Macdonald once said that we live in a post-television society. Everybody has seen EVERYTHING on tv, so too much description is a waste of time in fiction. I tend to agree.

Anonymous said...


I was eating lunch when I read your first-twenty-pages-mindbending-excitement-about-a-book description, and I laughed so hard, I choked.

Too bad you put those books down after 100 pages. I find they usually rock around page 112 or so. ;)

Jeff said...

I agree with rob, you are no Quick Stop writer.
I think all of us have had the experience you describe. I've even picked books by familiar authors whose writing I've really liked, and then been disappointed from the beginning to end. If I know the writer, I'll go along for the ride for the first one hundred pages or so, but if I'm still yawning after that, I put it down. I guess any prolific writer is bound to write a "stinker" at one time or another. Am I wrong about this? :)

Kelly Parra said...

I'm not into nice, lengthy description myself. Unfortunately, I'm one of those readers that can't hold her focus for very long unless there is excitement or tension. I don't know if it's a curse or what! ;)

anne frasier said...

rob -- i love the post-television line.
jason -- :D
jeff -- i think you're right about stinkers. or at least every book can't be amazing. it just isn't possible.
kelly -- we all have ADD. if they would just medicate the people without it, we'd all be on the same page.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

LOL. I think ADD is a requirement for writers, isn't it?

Jer said...

I don't have ADD. My concentration is...oh, look--a ladybug.

e-mom said...

I skip the "fluff" as I call it.
I speed read as it is, but when I notice that every little thing has a fluffy desciprtion I scan for nouns and verbs. I don't want everydamn thing spelled out for me, I want to use my imagination for scenery et al
Just to let ya know Anne,
I've put down 6 books this week because I couldn't get past the first chapter. :(