Liking the Writing, but Not Liking the Story – a Conundrum

BXYkp_ICYAAcNAIThe combination of purple and orange in my Halloween display was serendipitous – I’ve been loving how it looks.

I’ve been reading a book by an author who writes in one of the same genres that I do, a genre I love to read. This is the second book of hers I’ve read – both of which I picked up due to enthusiastic reader responses. I didn’t like the first book, but I thought I’d give this new one a try. They’re unrelated stories. Maybe I just didn’t click with that book?

But this new one isn’t working for me either.

But in a funny way, because – as with the first one I read – I’m finishing it. Regular readers of this blog know I have the 25% rule. I commit to reading 25% of every book I pick up. If I’m not engaged by then, I can bail without guilt. (If I really hate it, I can stop before that. But most books I try to give 25% to hook me.) I have a fairly high percentage of DNFs (Did Not Finish). My reading time is precious and I don’t need to waste it on books I’m not enjoying.

In this case, I’ve kept going. Even though I *knew* by 10% in that I didn’t like the story or characters very much. It’s bizarre to me, because the writing is smooth and polished. I enjoy the author’s voice. I find her interesting in her blog posts and so forth. I’ve met her and find her to be a lovely person. I even like her story premises and get excited to read the book. As I read, however, I get that sinking sensation that I don’t like how she’s telling the story. I never emotionally engage with the characters. There’s far too much angsting and emotional retread for me and I find myself growing impatient with it all. But I still want to know how it ends.

I mentioned this on Twitter and one of my editors chimed in saying this was the most difficult kind of manuscript submission for her to deal with – the polished writing and engaging voice, but a story and characters that fail to grab her.

I realized, during this conversation, that I hear that kind of response from editors and agents all the time. I suppose I always interpreted it as a sort of faux excuse. They’ll say “love the writing, love the voice, but the story didn’t work for me.” And then they’ll add the reminder that this is just their personal opinion and someone else will likely love it.

After all this time, I suddenly get what they’re saying. You can love a writer in every way, except the actual stories they tell. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

I’ve been known to say that I love Ann Patchett’s writing so much that I don’t care what the story is about – I’ll read her regardless. Then, the unthinkable happened – I didn’t like her last book. I didn’t like what happened in the story, particularly something that occurred at the end. So, has that changed things for me? Yes. Now I’ll look at what the story is about. A minor shift perhaps.

There’s been several instances lately where authors of very popular series have ended them in unpopular ways. Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse series is a good example. Just this week, Veronica Roth came under fire for the way her trilogy ended, prompting arguments over what authors owe readers – especially manic fans. I’ve seen numerous fans say they won’t read anything Roth writes again, because they feel they can’t trust her now. I never read the books, but – having heard the spoilers – I think, as a reader, I’d feel the same way.

At the same time, as an author, I respect her right to stay true to her vision and do as she wishes with her story.

I suppose, what this all comes around to, is what we’re “buying” when we commit to reading a book. In that link about Veronica Roth, John Green says, “Basically, I would argue that books are not primarily in the wish fulfillment business.” Yet, I know I do read so I can be transported. I do want my wishes fulfilled. I don’t expect that in life, but I do want it in my entertainment.

In the end, it’s a more or less democratic process, I suppose. We buy what we want to read. I can hope that readers enjoy what I write.

But neither team can control the other.

4 Replies to “Liking the Writing, but Not Liking the Story – a Conundrum”

  1. I remember when the after-the-Olympics performances of gold medalist figure skater Katerina Witt began to be peppered with falls. In response to fans who complained, she said, “I’m sorry. I can’t be perfect every time. I’m human.”

    Writers are human, too.

    1. I never heard that story, Dee Ann – love it! But I think this kind of thing is more about deliberate choices than accidents or mistakes. Choices that other people, for one reason or another, don’t agree with.

  2. I’ve always thought it’s funny how the writing world and the music world are both SO creative, and yet so different. When we buy an entire album, do we really think we’re going to like every song? No, we’ve learned better and we’re ok with it. (And thank you to Apple for getting us to the place where we can buy just the songs we like.)

    But here we are with books and we think an author is going to get it right every single time. It’s an artistic endeavor. We weave our thoughts and imagination into stories and share them with the hope someone else will delight in them as well…but not every one of them will resonate with the reader like it did with us. And that’s ok. Or at least I’m trying to learn to be ok with it.

    Love the 25% rule, BTW. And I totally get the respect-but-not-into-the-story thing. I’ve got a few writers that hit me this way and I’ll at least skim to learn the story.

    1. That’s an interesting point, Rhenna. I suppose I do have the expectation that a beloved author will please me every time. Funny on that.

      And yes – the 25% rule has been truly liberating!

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