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Craft of Writing, Fiction, My Novel, The Writer's Life

What Makes You Abandon a Book?

GalleyCat reported this week that Fifty Shades of Grey was the second most abandoned book by readers. Good. First was JK Rowling’s adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, but that’s probably because many readers were expecting more of a Harry Potterish experience.

The article has some interesting stats from Goodreads about when people stop reading books they don’t like. For example, 15.8% of readers who stop do so before 50 pages. Another 27.9% stop before 100 pages. People who finish no matter what total 38.1%.

The Goodreads article lists a few reasons people stop reading books. To me, they sound a lot like the reasons people break off or stick with relationships:

  • I really liked the way you looked when I saw you for the first time, but learning that you eat linguine with your fingers is a real turnoff.
  • It’s been a couple of weeks now, and I see that you’re not going to stop chewing gum during sex, so…it’s over.
  • I truly can’t stand you, but I’m going to see this marriage through to the end even if it kills me.

For the record I’ve stopped reading some books after as few as five or ten pages. The most recent was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which is supposed to be a classic. But I found the writing pedantic and unimaginative, so unchallenging as to be sleep inducing, and I knew I’d never make it through. Plus I understand Gaiman eats linguine with his fingers.

Abandonment works both ways, of course, for writers. You stop reading someone’s work, other people stop reading yours. At this week’s writers’ meeting it was my turn to submit, and I presented the first two chapters of a novel I’m working on. Two people liked it a lot, and a third liked it enough to keep reading. But four people said they wouldn’t read any further, and a couple of them were so critical of the writing they tried to take my laptop and erase the file. (Yeah, my writers group can be brutal.)

But three out of seven is about as good as it gets for a writer, so I guess I’ll have to keep working on it. At least now I know which readers I’m writing for, and that helps. No use trying to please everyone, because when it comes to writing, it can’t be done.

What makes you abandon a book?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


40 thoughts on “What Makes You Abandon a Book?

  1. There’s never any one reason for all books alike as to why I stop reading. Generally, I power through and try to read books to the sheer cliff of neverending, if you see what I mean. But I can describe one of my most recent experiences. An academic named, I believe, Jeremy Scott wrote a talented and vital book entitled “The Demotic Voice in Contemporary British Fiction.” It was so inspiring that I read a number of the works it describes, even though many of the authors’ names were previously unknown to me. Through it, I met up with a genius of a book called “How Late It Was, How Late” by a Scot named James Kelman. It was a truly gifted book. This led me later to another and more recent book by the same author with yet another intriguing title, “You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free.” As it turned out, though, all that was wonderful about this second book was the title. I tried, I really tried, but the author seemed just to have attempted to transplant the portraits of occasional drunken stupors, quite haunting and unforgettable in the first book, into a second book which didn’t have the richness of other details, but was set in an American bar and just babbled on, boriing sentence after boring sentence. And you can see how it affected me–I’m boring on sentence after sentence about the whole unsatisfactory experience. But I definitely was unable to finish the book, which felt like my failure for the longest time and made me feel guilty, until I reflected that after all, I finished “Moby Dick” and it was often slogging, so I had no reason to reproach myself. Like the man said, I guess, “De gustibus non est disputandem” (did I spell that right?), or in other words, “Whatever floats your boat.”

    Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 1:24 PM
    • Your experience with Kelman’s books reminds me of reading Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex was one of the best things I’ve read and certainly deserved its Pulitzer. But his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, was one of those sub-100 pagers for me. So dull and didactic I just couldn’t take any more.

      I do wonder if book abandonment was as common in the past. Seems like when I was younger, people finished books out of a sense of duty, believing that there would eventually be something worth learning in the pages to come. We certainly live in a time of greater self-gratification now, where readers exercise the power of editors.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 3:50 PM
      • I sometimes wonder if the more editorially inclined readers of our own time are that way because of the number of one- or two-hit wonders or slightly more out there (i.e., authors who don’t fulfill their early promise). While I hate to suggest that it’s the fault of authors, if you think back on Dickens, he wrote tons of books, and so did Henry James and other writers of the canon, and I’m sure from my own reading that some of their works were of uneven quality with what they’d already written, yet barring literary scandals of various sorts, their audiences were amazingly faithful, maybe just because they kept trying and trying again. What do you think of this suggestion? Or am I way off base?

        Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 7:29 PM
      • I’m thinking that the state of media and marketing in those days limited popular authors to only those with tremendous staying power. Nowadays, our 24/7 marketing efforts spread the word about hundreds of very good writers. Open a copy of the New York Review of Books and you’ll see ads for more books and authors than most people in the 1800s encountered in their lifetimes. It’s Andy Warhol’s prediction about everyone having 15 minutes of fame come true. But I’m still waiting for my quarter hour.

        Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:30 PM
      • I know what you’re saying, Jon, about the fifteen minutes of fame we’re all due, and I too am still waiting, but I guess there are so many writers whose first novel I’ve read and whom I’ve eagerly wanted to hear from again, never to hear another peep out of them that I think we need another system (which, of course, you’re working on, so I’m complaining to the right person!).

        Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 9:47 PM
      • We’ll do our best to make that happen!

        Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:51 PM
    • I wouldn’t know about the spelling, but I got a kick out of seeing the “De gustibus…” comment. It was one of my Dad’s favorite sayings. Good advice.

      Posted by michellemorouse | July 13, 2013, 6:36 PM
      • Thanks. To play the game a little further and paraphrase another famous quote, “Tis a poor thing, and not mine own.” Such are the tag ends of that once ambitious education of mine.

        Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 7:31 PM
      • And now I finally know what it means!

        Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:24 PM
  2. In “old age”, I’m not as patient as I used to be. If it doesn’t draw me and *keep* me in, I abandon it. Why? My time is valuable

    I put down one book about 3/4 of the way through when the author threw in a plot twist that had me groaning. It did nothing to advance the plot, it just added tension–only it was tension the story just didn’t need. It was going fine as it was but the author seemed inclined to amp things up *solely* for the sake of adding more angst (and I *like* angst in my fiction).

    What keeps me reading can be any number of things, but either there has to be a good plot hook (something so intriguing that I *need* to see how it ends), main characters I love, or the writing (the actual prose) has to be so good I can overlook a couple of plot holes and a cad who eats linguini with his fingers. I started reading Flannery O’Connor last year (I first read her in college and remember liking her work quite a lot). I’m not in love with all of her stories (short, gothic slices of life are typically not my thing) or her characters, but dang if I don’t keep going back for more good writing. The woman knew how to put words together. I appreciate that.

    Posted by Helen Pattskyn | July 13, 2013, 1:36 PM
    • Too bad for that author. There’s a lot of pressure on writers to amp their stories with plot, even if the characters already face sufficient tension. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw that line.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 3:55 PM
  3. Great question, Joe. I abandon many books because I’m getting too old to waste my time, and there are so many books on my TBR list. I need compelling characters, a story that pulls me in, and then holds me there. A great opening is important, but often a book will start off with a bang and fizzle in the middle. And I’m a sucker for humor. I can stick with the most depressing theme if humor is weaved in to relieve the sorrow.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | July 13, 2013, 1:50 PM
    • I’ve read a ton of books in my life that had me thinking the author added some sections just to get the page count up to standard–sections that just seemed to mark time before the climax. I suspect that now that ebooks and shorter books i general have caught on that authors won’t feel as compelled to do that.

      Interesting point about humor in writing. There’s nothing like an author who can see the absurdities in life, even in a dark tale. It’s one of the reasons I love writers like Zadie Smith and Jose Saramago. No matter how bad things get, they see the other side.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 3:59 PM
      • About adding filler pages just to get the page number or length of section up to a standard amount–I don’t know if you saw this quote already on the WordPress posting page, but Elmore Leonard supposedly said “I try to leave out the pages that people skip,” or words to that effect. So, unless you really like Elmore Leonard, there’s something to be said for the other side of the question, i.e., writing at length. I guess it all depends on whether you like an author who’s chatty and informative in tone, or one who is terse and telegraphic. The nineteenth century preferred the chatty and loquacious, Hemingway a little later was telegraphic to the point of self-parody sometimes, and now in our own time all hell has broken loose, with writers going off in all different directions, some without deliberate literary intent. What next? Who knows? Speaking only for myself, right now I’m in the middle of reading Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford Chronicles,” and every bit of gossip among the neighbors and every dropped knitting stitch is of importance to someone, so I’m trying to adjust my preferences, since I know that historically she was important (and I guess if I get thoroughly sick and tired of her, I’ll read “Freaky Deaky” next by way of corrective).

        Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 7:46 PM
      • Indeed I have seen Leonard’s comment, and I have mixed feelings. True a writer doesn’t want to bore readers by overwriting, but if the reader is really connected to the prose, s/he may wish for even more. One of the tests of that is how you feel when you come to the end of book. For the great ones, I slow down to make the final pages last as long as possible, and even then I wish the story would go on.

        Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:34 PM
  4. I’m reading the original Last of the Mohicans and written in 1826, and in the vernacular of the day as it is, it’s proving a challenge to stay focused. I think if I didn’t already know the story I’m not sure I would know what was going in.

    Posted by Bartman | July 13, 2013, 2:16 PM
    • Very true. I’ve tried a few old classics and had the same problem. Authors tended to use 50 words to say something that today might only take 20. Of course, that was before the digital age, when people still had time to read.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 4:01 PM
  5. Sometimes it’s poor writing, which I find frustrates me to the point where a good plot can’t save it. The reverse is true as well. Sometimes the writing is beautiful, but the descriptions go on for paragraphs and the plot suffers. I want risk and high stakes involving someone I care about. Stakes can be emotional or physical. I’m in the 50 page group. If the author hasn’t pulled me in by then, I probably will stop reading. The only exception is when a book is highly rated, and I’m curious to find out why.

    Posted by Christian Belz | July 13, 2013, 2:44 PM
    • Yes, once you’re at the 50 page mark it’s pretty rare for a novel to change so drastically that you go from dislike to enjoyment. But it does sometimes happen. If I didn’t have to finish Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker for school, I never would have appreciated it. I think all this shows just how difficult it can be for an author to make a connection with the reader, and why there are so many genres and subgenres in literature, which give readers a better starting point for their reading selections.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 4:05 PM
  6. I’m one of those till-death-do-you-part people, which is why I wait quite awhile before starting a book, listening to what people say & reading reviews– and still, half the time I find myself suffering through it. I recently read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra because good friends said it was good, and they were so, so right– then I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and had to keep swallowing the bad taste in my mouth. But I think you’re right– every writer has her reader.

    Posted by girl in the hat | July 13, 2013, 5:12 PM
    • Yes, your audience is out there. It’s finding a way to get your work in front of them that’s the hard part. It almost makes the writing part seem easy.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:36 PM
  7. I don’t abandon books too often. The first book that I ever quit was “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” I got half-way, then skipped over to the “surprise” ending. I’ve read four out of the five most abandoned books. I thought The Casual Vacancy, the Dragon Tattoo books, and Wicked (as well as Maguire’s other books) were good. I also enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but I felt that I was dealing with a very unreliable narrator, so I sort of enjoyed it as fiction.

    I felt good about seeing Moby Dick as one of the five most abandoned classics, having abandoned it myself recently. I picked up Atlas Shrugged, another one of the five, recently, and I didn’t get past the first few pages. It had such an obvious agenda. I guess they were defining “classic” as “something that was popular a long time ago.”

    Posted by michellemorouse | July 13, 2013, 6:31 PM
    • I have honestly to say that “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” was boring to me, but I read it for the period gossip, and ended up feeling irritated with the moderns for being such a lot of eccentrics. Also, I agree with you about the Dragon Tattoo books–couldn’t stop until I finished, though I recognized that it wasn’t high lit–and Wicked I also thought was good. My own mother, who is a fairly good judge, panned Eat, Pray, Love, so I gave it a miss and went on to other things. As to Moby Dick, though I made it all the way through once, I will never read it again. When I found that there were so many passages where “even Homer nods,” to quote yet another literary nostrum, I wanted to put the book down and go on to something less Homeric which wouldn’t make me rub my eyes and nod so much on Melville’s behalf.

      Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 7:57 PM
    • Classics are strange entities. Many of the old ones are, as you said, filled with obtuse and difficult language. But every once in a while one comes along that is engrossing. Frankenstein was like that for me. It’s as cumbersome as any other book of its time, but the ideas behind it were what kept me going.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:39 PM
  8. I used to be so much kinder in this regard. Ahhh, youth. Now I’ll throw a book out the window after 5 or 10 pages. There are just too many novels and memoirs and poems and short stories and nonfiction accounts of war and greed and lust and love and sports and essays out there, beckoning. Much like Mr. Belz writes above, you don’t need every tool in the shed to grab me, but you need enough for me to trust my time in your hands.

    It’s damned hard to find a book I can’t put down anymore, but thankfully my faith is renewed regularly enough to keep risking it, to keep trying. I’m almost finished with Andre Agassi’s memoir, OPEN, and I can’t put it down. This was unexpected, and I’m loving it. Next up, THE ORCHARDIST. I have the highest of hopes.

    Posted by Teri | July 13, 2013, 8:30 PM
    • I was more accommodating when I was younger too. Maybe now that I’m older I think I know enough to be more judgmental, or at least know my tastes well enough to make faster decisions.

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:43 PM
  9. From Jeanne Eiseman Tepper via Facebook:

    For me, it’s one over riding question: Do I care? I’m much more likely to finish a book club book even if I hate it, but even so I’ve abandoned two. If I get fifty pages in and don’t give a rat’s ass about the characters or the plot, I drop it and move on. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there. You need to lay off Fifty Shades of Grey. You may not like it but she’s obviously given the public something they want. I’m citing your comment about 3 out of 7 isn’t bad for a writer. Move on.

    Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:20 PM
    • On my own site last September 2012 sometime, I relaxed my literary standards so much as to read all three of the “Fifty Shades” books and to give them an evaluation according to serious reading standards (which may not all be literary but which at least require some basic sense). I still found not much of value in the books, except for the unintentionally humorous things that kept me wincing and laughing aloud at the same time. I’m sorry, but without being a snob about it, “the public” sometimes needs serious critics to tell it what it needs (except me, if you want, I won’t be offended, I had too much fun with the books); part of the role of any good reader is to help and be helped by other good readers to locate and debate about what’s important and valuable in reading and what isn’t, even if you’re only discussing the latest whodunit. Was it a Roman emperor (or was it someone else I can’t recall?) who said all the public needed was “bread and circuses”? That’s not 3 out of 7, that’s only 2 items, and Shades of Grey provided a bare minimum of food for thought (bread) and a lot (I have to admit) of the hilarity of circuses. Sorry, but I have to differ about Grey-bashing; I think all critics of the books should give it all they’ve got.

      Posted by shadowoperator | July 13, 2013, 9:39 PM
    • The fact that I use Fifty Shades as an example of bad writing sort of proves your point, because I mention it mostly because I know everyone’s heard of it. But I shall try to move on. There are plenty of other bad books that deserve my criticism. :-)

      Posted by jpon | July 13, 2013, 9:47 PM
  10. Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust, has a good rule of thumb: 100 minus your age =s number of pages to read before deciding to abandon. Life is short and shorter as time goes on, and you’ll always have plenty of GOOD books to read.

    Posted by Betty Ruddy | July 13, 2013, 9:46 PM
  11. It’s very simple. If the language isn’t working, I stop.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | July 14, 2013, 4:34 AM
  12. I abandon books all the time, at any stage of the game and for any number of reasons. Usually it’s not an issue with the language, because you can see whether that’s working from page one. Most often I’d say it’s an unlikeable character or some form of boredom, though I put down a veteran writer’s book recently because the author chose to do some mid-scene head-hopping that made me feel discombobulated. I hate being jarred out of the story, and am usually too annoyed when that happens to want to go back.

    Posted by Averil Dean | July 14, 2013, 12:14 PM
    • There are very few books I’ve gone back to successfully. I tried to read some things when I was much younger and simply not mature enough to understand the material. On going back years later, I found those titles much more enjoyable.

      Posted by jpon | July 14, 2013, 3:52 PM
  13. I started and abandoned both books you mention in your intro. With Fifty Shades, it was the abhorrent writing. I think this book reflects the unfortunate turn of the publishing industry – it’s all about what they think will sell, writing ability be damned. With the Casual Vacancy, the story felt very unfocused. The inciting incident was intriguing, but every chapter introduced a new batch of characters, and it was overwhelming. I had to create a cheat sheet just to keep track of who everyone was. Reading should be enjoyable and effortless, and it just wasn’t the case with this book.

    Typically, I try to give a book 100 pages before giving up, but sometimes I don’t make it that far. I want a powerful emotional experience, so I guess for me it’s all about connecting with characters. I’ll abandon a book if I don’t like the writing style (The Yellow Birds), if it’s slow to start or seems as if “nothing’s happening” (The Light Between Oceans), or if the story feels weighed down with too much unnecessary detail (A Discovery of Witches).

    Your writing group sounds brutal, but you have a healthy attitude, in that you recognize your writing will never appeal to everyone. I’m an unfortunate people pleaser, which can lead to over-revising and trying to make everyone happy. Thanks for the helpful reminder to stay true to my writing. Great post, as always.

    Posted by Gwen | July 14, 2013, 12:58 PM
    • Your takes on Fifty Shades and Casual Vacancy were pretty much what the critics said too. I’m like you with the “cast of thousands” novels. If I open a book and see a giant family tree, complete with cousins and stepchildren, my reaction is usually, “am I going to have to remember all these people?”

      As for my writing group, they can be quite brutal, but in this case I embellished the part about them trying to erase my files–although who knows if a couple of them weren’t thinking that.

      Posted by jpon | July 14, 2013, 3:56 PM
  14. I’ve only abandoned one book recently and that was because the first two pages were filled with so many typos and grammatical errors, (extra words, here instead of hear, etc) That I had to read and reread every sentence and no it wasn’t Fifty Shades, that one I haven’t read.

    Posted by karensdifferentcorners | July 15, 2013, 1:45 PM
    • You should try reading the Advance Reader Copies that book reviewers get. Sometimes they are loaded with typos, which makes it hard to take the publisher seriously. The one I am reading now has so many typos that I am considering putting a list together to help the publisher out.

      Posted by jpon | July 15, 2013, 1:49 PM
  15. I would. You would think that if you have a publisher, that for the most part, a book would be well crafted, but there are so many vanity publishers nowadays and so many writers that want to be published that the typos get pushed through. And then there are those, like myself, who get excited, “Yay! I wrote a book!” and self publish, throwing our book out there for others to see, when it isn’t quite ready. I am in the process of revising my first two self published books now. Sometimes I think we are our own worst enimies. :-)

    Posted by karensdifferentcorners | July 15, 2013, 2:10 PM
    • Exactly. That’s why I’m taking my time with my self-published book. I want… make that I need to get everything right. Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by jpon | July 15, 2013, 2:13 PM

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