Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When to stop reading

What makes me put a book down, or stop reading an article or blog post? This was discussed at You Don't Say this morning. The answers so far aren't particularly revealing. One commenter said that she would stop reading if the writer showed ignorance of the rules of grammar and punctuation. It was inevitable that someone would say that, but I suspect it isn't actually true, not even in the case of the commenter who said it. Someone who stops reading because they detect non-standard grammar has too little imagination to gain any real pleasure from reading. I wonder whether that commenter enjoyed Tom Sawyer, or the books of Toni Morrison, or Sir Walter Scott?

What makes me stop reading is the impression that the writer has nothing to tell me. Cliché, self-conscious imitation, repetitiveness, incoherence, obfuscation, gratuitous reference to fashionable concepts, impenetrability, are usually signs of a writer who is not original, has nothing of their own to express, has found no voice with which to speak, or, at least, has nothing to say to me personally. Poor style is very off-putting, and nearly always accompanies lack of content (I'm sure there must be counterexamples); on the other hand, many great stylists have written with no great depth of content (PG Wodehouse being the first and finest example I can think off). Evelyn Waugh said that he considered writing novels to be an exercise in the use of language.

This is little more than a stray thought, but I ask the same question that John McIntyre asked of his readership: why do I stop reading? Because I don't expect to gain anything from it. The clues are the signs of lack of style and originality that I mentioned above. In technical texts my intention is learning, rather than pleasure, but lack of clarity in the language used is generally a sign that I will not learn what I wanted, and I will seek another source.

Another good reason to stop is when I realise I don't know why I'm reading something. Or, as another commenter says, that I am reading it because I want to have read it.

Good writing is a pleasure to read. There is plenty of it, and no need to continue reading something that doesn't satisfy you. But I wonder if what puts us off is in fact what we think it is.


Vincent said...

A fine topic! Certain books have built-in brakes in every sentence, as far as I am concerned, urging me to make an emergency stop in my reading. Taking novels as an example, one of the worst faults is to assume a complicity between writer and reader which hasn’t been established. For example the slang, cultural references or geographical context are imposed upon me, taking for granted that I already have an affectionate relationship with them. Or the hero (through whose eyes I am to see his world) is offered to me as someone I can identify with, without the author taking the pains to introduce me to him. Or the book starts with so much detail - mobile phone conversations, the to-ings and fro-ings at an airport, on a street or in an office, that it would take me much effort to absorb it all. All this before I have been given the slightest clue as to what kind of thing might unfold, so that I could decide whether or not I care.

The great novelists, living or dead, are never guilty of such forms of impoliteness. They might start with several pages of general observation about the time or place where the action takes place, or some of the characters involved, without advancing the plot at all. But they draw you in. They present you with a start-point, so that you know how to view what is to come.

Here’s an example: the first sentence of The Tragic Muse, by Henry James:

“The people of France have made it no secret that those of England, as a general thing, are to their perception, an inexpressive and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable, unaddicted to enriching any bareness of contact with verbal wit or other embroidery.”

It goes on to present an English family living in Paris, who certainly don’t deserve the reputation assigned them by their hosts, who are the focus of the book. (I did stop reading after a hundred pages or so, but I don’t hold that against James!)

By way of contrast, here’s the beginning of Deception Point, by Dan Brown. (The front cover repeats a verdict by the Washington Post: “A case study in suspense. Unputdownable.”)

“Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.

As Brophy’s four huskies pulled his sled of geologic sensing equipment across the tundra, the dogs suddenly slowed, looking skyward.”

This is where I stopped reading: after three sentences. I’m being given piles of detail, but I’ve understood nothing, and nothing persuades me to care. I see sloppy writing in every sentence. I know that vast quantities of further detail will be piled on before I discover who Brophy is, why he was there, how he met his death there, if indeed he did, and whether the novel is going to go forwards from this point or backwards or back and forth endlessly till I’m seasick. I once tried to read the first two pages of the Da Vinci Code--I was more persistent in those days. Say what you like about Dan Brown, he starts as he means to go on, and I thank him for that: for not deceiving me, for not wasting my time.

CIngram said...

Great to hear your ideas on this. There was once a tradition of producing arresting first sentences, and a sense that the beginning mattered, if you wanted the reader to keep reading: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...', 'It was the best of times...', 'Many years later, as he waited to die, Colonel Buendía remembered how his father had taken him to touch the ice as a child...'

Great writers don't assume they share your cultural references, adn they don't try to get you to flesh it out youself from memory of all the other books or films they've pinched ideas from and assume you will have read/watched. But there are many mediocre writers in these days when it's so easy to get a book published (easy than 50 or 100 years ago, I mean; the market is many times larger than it used to be; I still can't get a publisher).

For openings I recommend, as an example, Hardy's 'The Return of the Native', which spends a page and a bit telling you exactly where you are and what you're seeing, in such a way that by the time the character ambles into view you feel as though the place were part of your life, and you already have a deep interest in its people.

I would look up a few more, but my library is currently piled up in the spare bedroom until the painters turn up, which they have mentioned they might do at some indefinite point in the future.

People whose judgement I respect warned me about Dan Brown years ago and I have never tried him out. Popular novels aren't my thing anyway.