Literary Deal Breakers: What Scares You Off a Book?

by Patrick on January 8, 2010

On NPR’s website, Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga recommends the NYRB Classic To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson.  It’s an excellent recommendation for a book I’d been intrigued by but that I also found a bit intimidating.  Apparently, I wasn’t alone:   “The book, which was published in 1940, is called a classic and is described as a history of socialism. For these two reasons, I avoided it for years, assuming that it would be stupendously boring. What a mistake that turned out to be.”

It isn’t uncommon for a book’s length to scare people off, and I’m not surprised to see Adiga mention an aversion to the “classics.”  The term conjures images of mahogany-paneled libraries and leatherbound copies of Thomas Hardy books.  It also, unfortunately, can carry echoes of boredom, of difficulty, or, worst of all, of a book that is “good for you,” something you’re supposed to have read.  There aren’t that many universal truths with regards to reading, but one of them is that reading and obligation aren’t a happy couple.

Genre can also scare off many a reader.  How many people have picked up a book  that looked interesting, only to put it down again after realizing it was fantasy or sci-fi or a thriller?  I find myself drawn to certain subjects and certain styles, and I frequently have to remind myself that there are great books in many different sections of the store.  I’m scared off by long books and old books.  So scared, in fact, that I decided to take on some of my fears in 2010 by reading at least two books published before 1900.  People were good enough to give me some recommendations (including a couple of readers who noted Moby-Dick‘s surprising humor).

When it comes to choosing a book, what’s a red flag issue for you?  What makes you put a book back on the shelf?  Is it something in the jacket copy or something about the cover?  I’m curious.

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    Richard Lyle 01.08.10 at 12:22 pm

    The words ‘Dan’ and ‘Brown’ on the jacket. Kills it for me every time.

    kalen 01.08.10 at 12:44 pm

    Footnotes in fiction. They rarely add anything to a story.

    Matt 01.08.10 at 3:43 pm

    I have an aversion to the older books as well as anything in the romance or fantasy genre.

    Ann Erdman 01.09.10 at 12:18 pm

    Anything written by an “it” celebrity.

    k 01.10.10 at 11:36 am

    If my mom really likes it…

    Alanna 01.10.10 at 11:45 am

    any kind “period piece” or anything involving war

    Lisa 01.10.10 at 4:57 pm

    I’ll put down a book when (a) I can tell you everything that happens before reading the first page or (b) when it sets itself up to be the kind of book that has to be an emotional wasteland to seem at all poignant.

    Amy @ My Friend Amy 01.10.10 at 6:02 pm

    I have to admit I shy awa

    Amy @ My Friend Amy 01.10.10 at 6:03 pm

    oops, accidentally hit the wrong key there! I was going to say, I shy away from chunksters, sci-fi and any fantasy that looks like I’ll get confused by complicated geography and creatures.

    Brenda 01.11.10 at 6:07 am

    I’ll put a book back if the jacket copy tells me almost nothing about the nature of the story. If I can apply that same back cover blurb to other books I’ve already read and it would fit perfectly… well, I’ve already read that book.

    I’ll put it back if the blurb outlines one or more of the main protagonists as someone I wouldn’t want to waste two minutes exchanging pleasantries with in real life. If the blurb, presumably offering you the single one or two most important things to know about this character, makes them sound boring, emotionally toxic to spend time with, or too stupid to live in some respect, why would I want to bother?

    If the review snippets on the cover are utterly generic, or so full of ellipses it looks as though they couldn’t extract a single complete complimentary sentence from any review and had to paste one together by selectively editing out every other word.

    If the book gives no obvious indication of being part of a series, or is the first and only published book of a series, but has a character list at the front that’s more than a page or so long. If it’s a stand alone book, that many characters important enough to warrant a listing makes me suspect none of them are going to be done justice. If it’s the first book of a series, I worry that these are just the characters with a significant role in Book One, and wonder how many characters there will be to keep track of by the (probably not written yet) fifth book.

    I’ll put it back if it’s a later volume in a series and the rest of the series isn’t available. A missing volume in the middle won’t put me off, but if none of the previous volumes are there, I’ll just move on.

    Any indication that the publishers themselves have little faith in the quality of the book, ie. blurbs and reviews that describe the book in a way that makes me think they’re saying “this is a good book to read when you don’t want to actually pay attention to what you’re reading”; also cheap print quality, (especially at regular quality prices) which suggest the publisher didn’t think it was worthy of the good paper, or page cutting machinery.

    Sarah McCoy 01.11.10 at 9:38 am

    Dear Patrick,

    If there’s a bikini, a beach scene, a dog as the main character/plot line (sorry, MARLEY & ME), painted fingernails, daggers or half-naked men of the Fabio mold, I can’t do it. Oh, and anything vampire-related. I hope I don’t offend anyone, but I’ve simply reached my threshold.

    On a more serious note: This weekend I picked up Stefan Zweig’s THE POST-OFFICE GIRL. I read about 20 pages and noticed myself antsy and impatient. I put it down and wondered if I’d had too much caffeine. The writing was excellent. The story was fairy tale rich, intelligent and engaging. So what was my problem? After a full Saturday of avoiding the slim novel, I realized my subconscious tick. The book has no chapter breaks. Pages and pages of margin-to-margin text. Even the paragraph indents are sparse. A book, even as short as this one, becomes intimidating when I don’t have them. Does that make me a petty reader–that I need those reading respites? To combat my neuroses, I dog-eared every 30 pages like chapter breaks.

    Yours truly, Sarah

    Dee 01.15.10 at 5:48 pm

    Anything by a baby boomer or older white male. I’m just so not going to get into the mindset that I don’t bother any more. Younger white men, fine, but baby boomers are done, imo. Wallace Stegner… zzzzzzz.

    Just being honest here. I know there are a lot of men who don’t read novels, much less women novelists. But women do most of the reading and book buying.

    Joel 01.18.10 at 10:55 am

    I’ve been realizing lately that what seems to matter most for me is actually voice – that particular way of telling the story that certain authors (or their narrators) have. With the right voice taking me through a story, I could probably read about anything. And the sad truth is that nothing on a cover, or even in a review, can tell me what a book’s voice is like. So I’m trying to open myself up to books that would normally turn me off.

    Having said that, a spaceship on the cover is hard for me to get over. Which is a shame, because I love SF. 🙂

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