Every Book Its Reader
NEIL HOLLANDS is an adult services librarian, specializing in readers’ advisory, at Williamsburg Regional Library (VA).
In readers’ advisory, we talk about appeal factors: elements of plot, character, style, setting, pacing, mood, and tone that combine to form a particular reader’s preferences. If we can
identify these ingredients, the thinking goes, we can serve up a
menu of books that will match the individual reader’s taste. It’s
usually a successful approach, but taste is not just about what is
appealing; it’s also about what is repellent.
My wife has a theory about contemporary menus. For her,
their extremely detailed descriptions guarantee that every dish
will contain one thing too many, the ingredient that turns the
pièce de résistance into plain old resistance. I asked friends and
coworkers if the same is true for reading—if the presence of
certain elements turns them off a good read. The answers are in,
and put simply, we are more than just a little peeved.
Readers can be challenged or hesitant to identify what they
like in books, falling back on genre names or vague references
to “good writing,” but if asked about peeves, their answers
pour out. They cherish the sanctity of the places they go when
involved in a great story. Words and phrases like “distracting,”
“ruins the spell,” or the violent “makes me throw the book across
the room” emerge as readers catalog grievances.
Some irritants are quirky little stink bombs we probably can’t
anticipate. I don’t expect you to guess that I hate amnesia as a plot
device. Only a pointed question uncovered my friends’ obscure
bêtes noires: covers that cut off heads, circuses, or the percentage of
fictional virgins impregnated the first time they have sex. Other aggravations, however, fit patterns, and these deserve consideration.
Certain content doesn’t sit well with some. Left- and right-wing politics, sex, religion, obscenity, disease, war,
violence, and dark humor are peeves we give readers a chance to avoid on my library’s “Looking for
a Good Book” form.
We’re picky about how narratives are presented.
Too many points of view or story lines that shift
chronology for no clear purpose were frequent
complaints in my impromptu survey. Telegraphed
“twists” or boring framing devices that distract from otherwise
great stories were also common gripes. Novelists beware: forced
or abrupt endings will ruin our estimation of the best novel.
Rather than enticing, clumsy midseries cliff-hangers may lead
readers to push your future efforts off the edge.
We’re sticklers for detail. Awkward exposition or long, dull
technical sections are vexations for many. Anachronistic language
is a piece of gristle that readers just can’t chew, and that’s especially true if the anachronism is also deemed offensive. Mistakes
in depicting cultures, religions, or occupations that readers
know, or technical errors in fields like history, science, medicine,
and law, also drew ire from my respondents.
Character portrayals are a sore spot. Many readers dislike too
many characters, but conversely, others report boredom with a
limited first-person narrator. Interesting secondary characters
whose subplots disappear are a source of woe. A shortage of lik-
able characters makes many readers unhappy, but precocious
children or overtly perky characters exasperate just as many.
Most of us aren’t rich, and thus perspectives limited to the upper
class bother many. It’s even worse when unemployed or working-
class characters subsist at levels beyond their means. Respondents
variously expressed loathing for preachy narrators, navel-gazers,
or characters who are “just too stupid to live.” We like romance
but not unconditionally: unnecessary love interests are widely
unpopular. Women in particular are tired of their gender’s por-
trayal, with lack of dimension or inclusion only as a love interest
or as a target of jeopardy topping the list of grumbles. Descrip-
tions of young women as “cute but quirky” or “gawky but still
beautiful” are galling to some, who would be just fine, thank
you, with strange-looking but interesting heroines—female
equivalents to Jack Black or Christopher Walken.
Errors provoke dramatic reactions. In Nick Hornby’s wonderful collection of light criticism, Ten Years in the Tub, he notes how
his reaction to a popular novel went from positive to nitpicking
after he read a sentence in which his beloved Arsenal football team
“won Liverpool 3–0.” Grammar flubs, errors in agreement, and
typos of any kind make us suspicious, especially when reading
nonfiction or fiction that is intended as realistic. As faux pas pile
up, latent editors find themselves proofreading the book instead
of reading it. Inconsistencies, continuity problems, and repetitious
wording are other gaffes that grate on readers.
Given this inventory of irritants, what is one to do? Just composing this list has filled this writer with dread that in writing
about peeves, I have somehow set off several of yours. I apologize
in advance! Unless you hate too many apologies, in which case
I stand by every word. But if arrogance is one of your triggers, I
withdraw that last statement.
OK, we obviously can’t limit advisory work to books guaranteed to avoid every reader’s annoyance alarm. One reader’s peeve
can directly contradict that of another. For instance, some readers like long, detailed books, while others complain endlessly of
“writers who appear to be paid by the word.” What we can do
is ask readers about what will spoil a book for them. As I discovered, it’s a great way to get them to open up. We’ll not only
escape hidden snares but in learning what peeves them, we’ll also
gain insight into their pleasures.
“Descriptions of young women as ‘cute but quirky’ or ‘gawky
but still beautiful’ are galling to some, who would be just fine,
thank you, with strange-looking but interesting heroines—
female equivalents to Jack Black or Christopher Walken.”