Readers’ Deal-Breakers

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
July 31, 2013
Comments 2

Over at Book Riot, Becky Cole has just posed the question, “What are your book dealbreakers?”  Despite the ambiguous wording, Cole is not referring to actual book “deals,” or publishing.  Instead, she’s talking about that occasional and sad experience in reading: a book starts out as promising, but begins to dissolve, revealing a set of all-too-predictable pitfalls.  Cole describes this experience in her posting:

Maybe it’s arguing against a social issue you feel strongly about or using a plot device that irritates you. Maybe you found out something questionable about the author. The bad thing starts to grow in your mind until it becomes more important than anything else. You try to remember what you liked about the book, but it’s dead to you now.

This is not an uncommon experience.  Everyone’s got their own list of “the unforgiveables” when it comes to literature.  In one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters from 1957, she reveals her disdain for characters who are “moral morons,” declaring, “if there is no possibility of change for a character, we have no interest in him.”   At The Kenyon Review, editor David Lynn admits to generally disliking the use of second person (which, I agree: it can be annoying. But I also feel it can be useful, especially in how the avoidance of he/she can lead to an ambiguously gendered character, an effect that interests me.)  In her post, Becky Cole admits that these pet peeves, or “deal-breakers” are mostly a matter of personal taste.  Hers include:

1. Casual treatment of sexual assault or rape.

2. Books that ignore the existence of LGBTQ relationships.

3. Books that characterize any LGBTQ characters as inherently untrustworthy/up-to-no-good.

4. Books with female characters who cry at the drop of a hat, especially if the author is male.

5. Inappropriate treatment of the issue of suicide.

6. When a plot line fails to make logistical sense.

7. Minor but basic factual errors, especially in nonfiction.

8. Books that repeatedly substitute obscure words for standard ones (“orb” for “eye,” “tresses/locks/mane” for “hair,” “tome” for “book).

9. Sudden romance: when two characters who have no chemistry and who have not appeared to be developing feelings for each other suddenly announce that they are in love.

10. Excessively prolonged romantic tension: when you know two characters are meant to be together and they should know it too but they refuse to do anything about it.

11. When a book ignores basic known facts about the world for the sake of a plot.

12. Oversimplification of mental illness.

A handful of these struck a chord with me, especially those ones pertaining to LGBTQ people and sexual violence. In general, my biggest pet peeves in writing involve the portrayal of women.  If you think the manic pixie dream girl is an archetype reserved for indie films, think again: she’s all over the place in literature, appearing frequently in both historical and contemporary texts.  For me, teaching creative writing, especially fiction, is partially a matter of getting students–some raised on a diet of Garden State and  Daisy Buchanan–to imagine their female characters as something more than muses, “quirky” girlfriends, and the general catalyst for a man’s self-actualization.   I’m not just accusing men of writing this way.  Women are also guilty, as the tendency to oversimplify and underwrite a female character, like patriarchy, is culturally pervasive. And it’s not just the inchoate student who makes this mistake; seasoned writers are guilty as well.

 Daisy Buchanan

Still, when I try to think of my list of “deal-breaking” events in books, I find myself thinking of exceptions.  I’m often annoyed when a child protagonist’s main trait is being verbally precocious, or, worse, a “big reader.”  (As a writer, this choice strikes me as boring, and usually a fantasy/projection on the part of the story’s author.)  But who could say that Scout Finch should have been otherwise?   Another example: in most literature, it seems that every time a women is raped, she ends up pregnant, and always carrying the baby to full term.  This is predictable, a cliche.  But: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace,for me, is a powerful and disturbing novel, even though its primary plot event is exactly what I’ve just described.  Maybe there is some writing that is just good or convincing enough for me to ignore the usual pitfalls.

So, readers.  What are your deal-breaking moments in literature? Are you able to avoid them in your own writing?





2 thoughts on “Readers’ Deal-Breakers

  1. Emma Bovary and Isabel Archer, both male creations, are among the most beautifully realized female personalities in all of 19th century literature. Just sayin’. And either I’m misunderstanding what the author of this article is saying about Daisy Buchanan or her reading of that character is severely deficient.

    I have only one readerly deal-breaker: the author trying to bullshit me around. If they’re not bullshitting me, they can do whatever they can get away with, but, as Flannery O’Connor said, no writer has ever gotten away with much.

  2. My biggest pet peeve/deal breaker is when the book starts off with a proper story arc, only to freefall into oblivion before it reaches the summit. I’ve read a few books by pretty renowned writers that started off so promising, only to trip up halfway through the book. It’s like the author only imagined the story arc halfway through and winged it the rest of the way. Those books never have a satisfying end either, so all that work to muddle through the last half was for nothing.

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