I’m 100 pages into a novel (which shall go unnamed, for the sake of the as-yet-innocent), and am trying my best to give it a “fair shake,” but failing. The problem? The language. It’s just clumsily written. It’s also full of cliche and poorly drawn characters. But I persist! I persist because the novel promises some interesting situations, and I really want to at least make it past the rising action and get to the goods. The author is obviously smart and interesting, and I’m sure she has something to offer me–at least I think I’m sure.

Does this ever happen to you? How many pages do you give a poorly written book before putting down? Is there a magic number? Or is it entirely case-by-case?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

7 responses to “Keep reading?”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    With me, it’s all by feel. Sometimes I put down novels I’m enjoying and never go back to them. I have to want to read something, or I simply can’t do it. Residue of school, I guess — the night in high school when I was forced to read Heart of Darkness in one sitting. The horror, the horror.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I do the same sometimes with good novels. It usually happens, though, when the novel is less about story or character than about language. I think the last time was with Stories in the Worst Way, by Gary Lutz. I just felt as though I “got it” and didn’t need to read any more.

      Still, that “want” is something that can be built upon motives exterior to the actual text. In my current example, it’s based on recommendation and some vague promise of what’s to come.

      • Greg Olear says:

        For me, the “want” is almost impossible to articulate. It’s the same thing that determines whether I’d rather watch a basketball game, Colbert, or The Big Lebowski. If I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood.

        The best feeling there is, of course, is when a book is so damned good you can’t put it down, and get annoyed when you have to (see also: Haney, D.R., Banned For Life). It’s like football…most football games are boring, but there is nothing in the wide world of sports better than a good football game.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Aw, Greg. I see that I will have to contact you at once, in order not clutter up this board with maudlin thanks. Stand by.

          Oh, and Shya, I have books strewn every which way in my apartment that were set down due to a number of factors, including time and lack of interest. But I do hope to get back to at least some of them, the notion of a “fair shake” being one of them.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Wait. I didn’t phrase myself well at the end, overeager to press the “add comment” button.

  2. Mary says:

    I read as long as I can stand it, which sometimes isn’t very long. Or, I’ll begin reading with the intention of putting my finger on exactly what is wrong with the book, thinking maybe I can at least learn something from this awful situation. But honestly? I have no shame about just putting a book down forever. There are too many books out there to expect anyone to like all of them, or even all of the classics. I don’t care if everyone else thinks certain authors are just the bees knees. If I can’t bring myself to read them, I’m not going to sulk for days wondering what kind of literary imbecile I might be. Nope, I will just read a different book.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Evidence of a remarkable self-assurance! In cases where I’m reading something heralded by my peers, let alone canonical, I’m perhaps sometimes too quick to think I’m missing something important.

      I agree, though: there are too many good books to waste time reading lesser ones. That said, I have far lower standards for TV or film. So it’s not as though I have anything against wasting time…

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