I’m a picky reader. Several years ago, I didn’t use to be. There was a magical time when I would average at least a novel a week during the busy school season, 2-3 novels a week during summer vacation and holidays. My head was dancing with vibrant images and my life was richer, more textured as a result. Not only did I read aplenty, but I also enjoyed what I read; I finished every book from cover to cover and for the most part, was able to derive some literary merit from the trashiest, cheesiest, or most pretentious pulp on the shelves in the day.
Not the case these past three months. Simply put: I have nothing to read! I can’t be accused of not looking: I scoured the four corners of my local library and clicked on Amazon Listamanias until my index finger ached. Futile efforts! Once in a while, a novel, by virtue of critical acclaim, author, or subject matter, would pass the initial inspection, and end up in my hands. I generally give a novel a 50 page window for it to tantalize my imagination before I abandon it flat. Lately, no novel has made it pass this window and onto My Lit Résumé. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with me or the publishing world in general.
I believe that my 50 page window (sometimes 100 page window) is a fair hurdle. I’m open-minded to any work fiction or nonfiction and will only abandon a novel on these conditions:
1) When the novel ceases to be entertaining with no prospect of becoming entertaining.
2) When the novel is slow. Prospect of speeding up: bleak.
3) When the characters are irritating, whiny, purposeless, and unlikable.
4) When the plot is, for a lack of a more elegant word, stupid. Plain stupid.
5) When the writing is overly pretentious. The author is trying too hard to impress the critics of The New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly by bombarding the story with all these fancy literary pyrotechnics. Stream of consciousness, multiple narratives with no dialogue quotations, awkward similes, unnecessary metaphors, fragmented syntax…the works. You know what I smell when I come across these novels? Recent M.F.A graduates.
6) When the novel is random for no purpose other than for the sake of being random. This falls under the pretentious category. I remember coming across a book (which shall remain nameless) in which the protagonist enjoyed the taste of his own urine. The author just inserted that little tidbit randomly into the story. Was it revisited? Did it add texture to the protagonist? No, it was dropped soon afterward. So what purpose did that description serve? There’s too much arbitrariness in the world, we must never be arbitrary with our stories…not our stories…they’re too damn important!
7) For simple reasons: I’m not interested in the subject matter. Some war novels, for example, may be high on literary merit, high in entertainment value, but I’m just not interested in stealth bombers, machine guns, etc…
So what am I looking for in a book? The simple magic when all the elements of writing, plot, subject matter, and characters just fit together. These are books that I will remember several years down the line; these are books that stimulate your wonder, shape your character, and change your life. The experience is like a sonata: once heard, never forgotten.