Discussion of writing style Literary analysis

Ten reasons why people don’t finish reading novels

My “Bookcase of Immediate Requirements” in my study. On the top shelf, right, are the books I should be reading and reviewing, which is a mixture of books I ought to read because they are acclaimed and they would be good for my brain, and others that I have cautiously peeped into and have a feeling that no good will come of it.

Readers who are unable to finish reading a novel know that bothersome feeling – when you imagine that an inanimate object, a book, is grimly staring at you, reminding you, day after day, that you have not finished with it. And every day you find some excuse not to do it. I have found another way to avoid finishing reading certain books: – writing about why I cannot finish reading them. Below are ten reasons why. Do you recognize yourself in them?

1. You don’t have the patience

You did not finish the book because you are competitive, have an urgent sense of time, and get irritated easily. Friedman and Rosenman labeled this behaviour Type A personality in a 1976 study. Though first classified as a series of physical characteristics of patients who suffer from heart problems and hypertension, it has become a set of behavioral responses collectively known as “Type A Behavior Pattern”. If you’re mainly this type of person, you would not have the patience or the desire to wade through a book that is not immediately useful, or that does not give immediate insights. Novels? Nah. Long novels? Nope.

4321 – A Novel, by Paul Auster

People are a convoluted mix of personality traits, but it takes patience and a willingness to delay gratification to get through a book, regardless of your personality traits.

Thinking I was above all of that, I had no hesitation in ordering the latest novel of one of my favourite authors, Paul Auster. 4 3 2 1: A Novel is a ginormous 880 pages. I got about 150 pages in and realized it would take me weeks to finish, even at my hasty reading speed. It’s still sitting there in my bookcase – thick and unfinished. And making me feel guilty.

2. You cannot make up your mind

When you pick a book off the shelf or put it in your online shopping basket, you know you will pay the bucks and will therefore have to read it to justify the expense. In my case, I know I will have to review it as well. Often, finishing a book means to have done your thinking about it and made up your mind about it. It means that you and the author have gone through the same story together and reached the finale. And now you have to say what you think about it, even if only to yourself. And you can’t. There are many novels I have read halfway or all the way and failed to sum up in my head. They remain unfinished.

Slipcover title, S, which I thought was just a background pattern.

“S” (a.k.a. Ship of Theseus) by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is one of those. I have read and reviewed only the text part of the novel. The artifacts inside the book – all the inserts and loose documents – and all the handwritten comments in the periphery of the pages, that make up additional stories, I have not read, nor reviewed. I suspect I have missed at least two other stories within the story. But I had a really hard time making sense of the primary story, and it was exhausting to read. It took me about a year to get around to reviewing it, and I feel I only did a half-way job of it.

3. You don’t know the form

Sometimes, the form of a written work makes it impossible to finish reading it. When I read the audio scripts of the Night Vale podcast, I knew what to look for in such scripts and what features they should have. But I am not equally familiar with all forms of literature, though I know in theory what they are supposed to be like.

One example is a book by Sci-Fi author William Gibson, whose work I think is quite superior. So, when he released a graphic novel, Archangel, I bought it without a second thought. But I discovered that I do not know how graphic novels work or how to read them.

Graphic novels are a type of sequential art – a novel with a narrative (or sequence of events) that’s conveyed through both text and drawn art. Like in information design, the words and the drawn art are inextricably linked and carry equal weight. The illustrations are supposed to depict what the words don’t. And that’s where the wheels came off. I could not pick up enough of the narrative from either the pictures or the words. I never did finish it. My bad. Sorry, William Gibson.

4. You are easily bored

As I explained in my review of the Night Vale podcast scripts, every novel has a plot arc and this has to keep the reader engaged.

CLICK FOR A BIGGER CLEARER PIC. A typical story arc, showing the suspense, time, the actual arc (blue) and the character development (brown) that fits with it. It looks a bit like a backwards log-normal distribution curve.

The author moves the plot along by using, for instance, foreshadowing (hinting at what’s to come) and flashbacks. But also by carefully pacing the events, the foreshadowing, flashbacks, red herrings, climax, etc., so that the reader will not get bored. It works the same way in films. There are even formulas for pacing the film plot:

Source: The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Movie Scripts, by Michael Hauge (rtrvd. 2018-07-18)
The Fiddler Is a Good Woman, by Jeff Berner (Paperback – November 7, 2017)

A good reader or editor would be able to tell a writer, when reading their draft, where to shorten or lengthen the interval between events or turning points, to prevent the reader from losing track or getting bored. A well plotted novel carries the reader along effortlessly. I have often not finished a novel simply because I got bored with the plot. Some people have really short attention spans and easily get bored (like me). A slow-paced novel is not for them.

The Fiddler is a Good Woman, by Jeff Berner, contains a terrific description of why fiddle playing is so darn difficult, but also unfortunately vague ambling events and a confusing timeline. I gave up. It will stay unfinished.

5. The characters do nothing for you

The more unlike ourselves the characters are, the more likely we are not to identify with them and feel empathy for them. In other words, we do not care if they live or die or suffer. This can be because the character is a robot or machine, in which case the reader makes accommodations for that, or that the character is an unreliable narrator or off their head. You can allow for that too. But when the characters are poorly described and their actions and thoughts are unfathomable, it’s time to put the book away.

The Mistaken Wife, by Rose Melikan

I tried to read all three novels in the series by Rose Melikan that features “Mary Finch”, an 18th century version of a Desperate Housewife, her dour “Captain Holland” and their coterie of heaving-bosomed aunts and assorted historical figures.

At Mary’s nth preachy, awkward speech about the history of France, the law or social customs I wanted to guillotine her. I cannot say how it ends or who the Mistaken Wife was because frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn and gave up midway.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

I also found the characters in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (2013) utterly unappealing. I speed-read the book and skipped the wordy, product catalogue-type parts. This was his debut novel, and he fell squarely into the traps of spouting clichés, stereotypes and truisms. Perhaps it was meant to be a satire…I don’t know. Regardless of my take on it, it has been a huge hit for Kwan, and he followed it by China Rich Girlfriend in 2015 and Rich People Problems in 2017, and the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was released in April 2018. But I’ve still only actually read about 80% of it.

6. The concept goes over your head

A novel needs technical competence (at the least) by the writer, in the form of the written work that they have chosen. Writing a novel demands certain basic skills to do certain basic things, as does a screenplay, a drama, a poem, a graphic novel or a script. Many writers are good at their mother tongues and write fluently, and have the techniques down pat. But a novel also needs an interesting or engaging premise or idea to keep the reader engaged. If the novel leaves you wondering, So what?! Then, it’s a problem.

The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips

The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips, passed right over my head the first time I tried to read it. At the end of a fairly diverting few hours, I ended up wondering what the point was, other than entertainment. I call this novel “unfinished” since I skipped over about half of it. I reread it a year later, and then realized that Phillips has a particular take on gender, gender roles and gender-swapping. I had not particularly noticed that at first. (Sigh…) But then, that kind of thing simply does not interest me. I probably shouldn’t have been taken in by the spin on Arthurian legends on the cover.

7. The author’s language is not as good as yours

The opposite is also a sure-fire way to put off a reader – plain technical incompetence. I rarely give a wholly negative review since I know what pains writers go through to finish them and get them published. (Also, I do not undertake a review unless I am fairly certain that the book will have merit.) But some books are clearly amateur works – and clear early indicators are grammar and spelling mistakes, sloppy sentence structure and inconsistent or inappropriate writing style. A printed book is an expensive way for a writer to demonstrate that they are still learning their craft and refining their artistry.

You judge other people’s language use against your own standards of course, but if you think the author is a worse writer than you are, that book is going in the bin. In our house, quite a few boxes of books have gone to be recycled because of plain bad English.

8. You prefer “comfort books”

A delightfully honest cartoon by Valerie Minelli, a.k.a. “Mrs. Frollein”). That looks like me in the cartoon – if given the choice, I revert to the easy, comforting stuff and leave the difficult books unfinished.

Humans prefer binge-reading the authors and series they already like, or the comforting children’s books of their youth. I’m one of those. When I am struggling with a difficult book, I give up and pick up one of my old, easy favourites, and just let my brain melt into a puddle of soft, sappy thoughts. Who wants to get all agitated by a squirm-worthy novel? I’d rather leave it unfinished and pick up a favourite novel that has been read to rags and which is guaranteed to make me happy. A favourite book is just so comforting and relaxing – especially a favourite from your childhood. It’s hardly any effort.

Research by Hope Bastine, a psychologist for sleep technology brand, Simba, released in June 2018, showed which British children’s books are still being read by adults, and why they continue to read them. The top ten were:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
  2. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  3. The Railway Children, by Edith Nesbit
  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
  5. Animal Farm, by George Orwell (not strictly speaking a children’s book)
  6. Treasure Island, by Henry Louis Stevenson
  7. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
  8. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (not strictly speaking a children’s book)
  9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien (not strictly speaking a children’s book)
  10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

The main reasons why people continue to read their favourite children’s books are because these books transport the reader back to their youth, releasing nostalgic memories; they help the reader to unwind because they are easy and pleasant to read; and they stimulate the reader’s imagination, helping their transition from consciousness to deep sleep and dreaming.

A reader working through a new novel is like a traveller navigating through a strange land. It is the opposite of reading a loved, familiar book. It is actually laborious, especially if you are reading it to review it – you have to look things up, reread parts, think about them, make notes, put in bookmarks at interesting points, talk to other people about it, check the theory, etc. Your head gets full of new stuff. It is an active process, and the more complex the book, the more work it is. So, no wonder that one sometimes succumbs to the temptation of a “comfort book”.

9. That indefinable something

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016)

When you read, you and the author are like one mind (a “hive mind” in the making!); there’s the author’s voice, and your own voice retelling the story. It is quite an intimate experience, and you might be revolted, or scared witless, or nauseated, or in tears, but you could still enjoy what you are experiencing through the author’s words. But sometimes there is just no connection. You feel, as it were, nothing. I have occasionally started novels where I realized early on that there is something missing…a certain je ne sais quoi. Don’t ask me what. I love the works of Annie Proulx. So why is it that I started reading Barkskins and failed to finish it? I don’t know, but it makes me sad, like being the only one left out of an office party, because other people think it is fantastic.

10. There are thousands of other options

The reasons for not finishing a book are a mixture of personal characteristics of the reader and the features of the book itself. Luckily, there are a huge number of novels in the world to read, enough for every pot to discover any number of lids that fit.

Analyzing the fiction market is complicated, but Erik Fredner of the Stanford Literary Lab did an analysis, published March 14, 2017, which showed that, “…if you were something quite a bit more than voracious in your reading, and managed to get through a new novel every day for 50 years without letup, you would have read more than 18,000 “loose, baggy monsters,” which is 8% of our lowest estimate and 0.3% of the highest.”

There you have it: there is no need to feel guilty about those unfinished novels. There are more than enough in the world to go around. So, that’s the last reason: you don’t finish a novel because there are so many others to get going on. 

That being said, one really should pay attention to those unfinished novels languishing all unloved. You never know when a re-reading will make you see them in a totally new light. Disinterest might even turn into devotion!

2 comments on “Ten reasons why people don’t finish reading novels

  1. Loved this! (Jy het Suid-Afrikaanse wortels, nie waar nie? Sal jy Afrikaanse kommentaar verstaan?)

    • Verstaan? Geen probleem nie, “Tannie Frannie”. Vlot tweetalig – oorspronklik ’n Kapenaar dus is Afrikaans nie ’n probleem nie. Maar omdat my leesboeke in Engels is en die meeste van my lesers ook, en omdat ek nou ’n Kanadees is, skryf ek in Engels. Tog, somtyds, voel dit vir my asof Afrikaans iets onvertaalbaar het wat dit mooi maak. Dit pas die landskap, as’t ware.

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