It’s pretty rare for me to abandon a book. Yet, in the past couple weeks, I’ve abandoned three. I even deleted them from my Kindle! They were that bad. So bad. Painfully bad. The dialogue was wooden, the plots were eye-rollingly unbelieveble, the descriptions were trite, cliched, hackneyed. In short, the writing was terrible. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.
How did I encounter three books in a row that were so bad? They were “bestsellers” on Amazon. They had favorable reviews. How could they be so “nails on a chalkboard” terrible? Has the quality of literature plummeted? Were they self-published and had no, or bad, editors? Or is it that my own taste in fiction has changed?
I read slush for the horror/sci-fi/fantasy magazine Apex. (For those of you who don’t know, slush is the term for the mound of stories that are submitted to a publication. Apex, like many magazines, has a team that sorts through these stories, rejects most of them, and forwards the very best to the editor-in-chief.) We get a lot of submissions; I get at least ten stories a week to review, and there are sixteen readers on the slush team. Apex publishes three stories a month, and those stories, as well as the magazine itself, are frequently nominated for awards, so the bar is very high. It’s my job to reject every story that isn’t the very best, which means I reject almost everything. And I reject most stories after reading the first page, often after reading the first paragraph. If the story doesn’t grab me right off and compel me to keep reading, I stop reading and reject the story. If the writing isn’t exceptional in that first paragraph or first page, I stop reading and reject the story.
I suspect this has a lot to do with my emerging impatience with “bad” books. A novel has a lot more leeway than a short story when it comes to compelling the reader to continue reading: a short story should grab you with the first sentence, while a novel can usually be granted a chapter or so. If it fails that test, or if the writing isn’t exceptional, I have no patience with it. I stop reading. I reject it.
Maybe I need to stick to well-regarded fiction. Nominees and winners of awards like the Hugo, the Nebula, the Edgar, and so on. I definitely need to stop feeling guilty about abandoning books that don’t measure up to my standards. I used to recommend that writers read good stuff and bad stuff. I was wrong. Life is too short for bad books.