Thursday, April 3, 2014

Avoiding the Poison Pen

It's mightier. Wield it carefully.
“It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” -- attributed to Dorothy Parker
Last June, I met a fellow historical novelist--a truly lovely woman, who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this post--at the Historical Novel Society Conference. We chatted over Saturday breakfast about our manuscripts, and she handed me a complimentary copy of her self-published war novel, asking only that I post a review in return. I thanked her and told her that I looked forward to reading her work. I meant this. I truly did.

Well, I started reading it about two months ago. The novel opened with transcriptions of period letters that describe egregious war injuries (insert the obligatory pile of amputated arms and legs here) and then jumped to a present-day dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. How the historical letters figured into this shift in time and plot, I knew not--but I was willing to give the book more time to show me. I kept reading.

More problems emerged, though. The characters were not sympathetic. The father--a middle-aged, arrogant workaholic with a pot-belly and a chip on his shoulder--was realistic but not likeable. No sense of true urgency was established. More letter transcriptions appeared as the chapters wore on, but they didn't connect to the modern-day scenes in any meaningful way. The author seemed to have thrown them in for historical "flavor" in the same way a cook adds spice to an otherwise unremarkable dish. The result was artificial and confusing.

I once read a short and slicing book review that stated, "I can't remember exactly when I slipped into a coma while reading this." This novel wasn't quite that bad, but I began to daydream mid-sentence, literally jolting back to the present to discover I'd only read half a page at most. I chided myself for not focusing and began reading again, only to have the same thing happen again. And again.

When my mind wandered, it became mired in a bog of unanswered questions. Why didn't the author have a book editor look at her manuscript before she published? Couldn't someone in her writing group point out that there must be a reason for the transcriptions, like the letter authors' appearance as characters in the novel? Shouldn't someone have told her that "[sic]" wasn't needed; license to change historical text into something more understandable for the modern-day reader is implied by the genre? Why hadn't the author read (or if so, paid attention to) a few celebrated novels set in the same period to see how others had navigated the past-to-present divide before making her own attempt? As far as I could tell, none of the above happened--and boy, did it ever show.

So, I gave up about halfway through the book. I probably should have tossed it aside long before that, but I have issues with not finishing novels. "If you were bored by a TV show, would you switch it off?" a friend once asked me. "Yes," I replied at once. "Then why force yourself to continue read a boring book?" she asked. She had a point. I guess I kept reading until the midway point because I hoped that the "good part" was coming, and I didn't want to quit before I reached it. But then I remembered something a writing professor at Stony Brook Southampton once told me: "Don't talk about the 'good part' of your book. Every part should be the good part." He also had a point. Halfway through, I didn't care if the characters fixed their problems, conquered their sorrows, fell in love, or lived period, let alone "happily-ever-after." That's a problem, because the reader needs to care. The reader needs a reason to continue reading.

Now, here's my confession: I decided not to write the book review. It's poor form, I think, to kick the author in the teeth when the book has been gifted. Nor would I appreciate it if the situation were reversed. That won't stop me from getting my own bad book reviews, of course, but I'll feel better for having avoided picking up the poison pen myself. Yes, I could have been as diplomatic as a form rejection letter--I just didn't love your book. Perhaps others will feel differently--but I still chose not to write one. I'm not part of the literary police. Still, I feel a little guilty about saying nothing, even though I had nothing nice to say. Why is that, I wonder.

Have you ever given up on a book, or do you push through until the end, hopeful that it'll get better at some point? If you stuck with it, were you happy that you did? Have you written a bad review for a book that disappointed you? Why or why not?

I look forward to reading your comments below.