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Perspective | What readers hate most in books – from dreams to cursive


A few weeks ago, I asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that annoy them most about books.

The reactions were a tsunami of bile. Apparently, book lovers have been stashing their hobbyhorses in the basement for years, waiting for someone to ask about them. Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, beyond my wildest dreams.

In fact, dreams are a primary irritation for a number of readers. Such a reverie might have worked for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not anymore, thank you very much. “I absolutely hate dream sequences,” writes Michael Ream. “They’re always SO LITERAL,” adds Jennifer Gaffney, “usually an example of lazy writing.”

Laziness can be the underlying cause of several other major irritants.

Historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies drive readers mad. Karen Viglione Lauterwasser despairs over mistakes “like calling the divisions in a hockey game or having a pentagonal table with six chairs.” Deborah Gravel warns authors that a cruise to Alaska isn’t enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier. Kristi Hart explains that when your characters boil maple sap to make syrup, they shouldn’t stir it. “You just cook it until the sugar content is right, and then you’re done.”

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Sharp-eyed readers are particularly annoyed by typos and grammatical errors. Patricia Tannian, a retired editor, writes, “It seems that few authors can spell ‘minuscule’ or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘show off’.” Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, bemoans that so many “authors don’t know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘layman’.”

“If those who write and publish the book don’t make the effort to get it right,” says Jane Ratteree, “the book doesn’t deserve my time and attention.”

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And – quelle horreur! — those copy-editing problems aren’t limited to English. The only thing readers find more annoying than untranslated foreign passages are foreign sentences that contain errors. “How hard is it for authors, editors or publishers to find someone who can prove other languages?” asks Irma V. Gonzalez. “I’m furious as I type this.”

A few words should be removed or at least sent to the corner of the page for time out. Andrew Shaffer – himself a novelist – says no one should “use the word ‘lubricious’ more than once in a book (looking at you, James Hynes).” And don’t get so confused with “lurid,” which Wanda Daoust is just as tired of. Meanwhile, Cali Bellini thinks the word “supernatural” is “overused, misused and never needed.”

While we’re at it, let’s avoid “bewildered.” “It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” says Paula Willey.

If these comments suggest anything, it’s that readers don’t want to waste their time.

Excessive length was a common complaint. Jean Murray says: “The first books by best-selling authors are quite long; then they begin to believe that every word they write is worth gold and should not be deleted.” She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, “A Great Deliverance,” was 432 pages. Her most recent, “Something to Hide,” is over 700.

Susan Moss suspects this is a false impression of prestige. “Only JM Coetzee seems to think that an important book can be less than 300 pages.”

But not only the books are too long. Everything in them is also too long. Readers complained about endless prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights, and italicized passages.

While we’re at it, let’s just stop italicizing passages. “Long italic passages drive me crazy,” writes Susan Spénard.

“Cormac McCarthy italicizes entire chapters,” adds Nathan Pate. “Only the rest of his writing redeems that.”

McCarthy may even be the source of another common annoyance: quote vaping. If it’s meant to look sophisticated or sleek, it won’t work. Speaking of Amor Towles’ “Lincoln Highway,” Nancy George says the lack of “dialogue quotes is just distracting.”

When authors don’t use quotation marks, “sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,” writes Linda Hahn.

It is like a film director shooting in black and white to indicate the seriousness of the target, writes Michael Bourne. Usually, though, it makes it hard to tell when the characters are talking. To see?

Such confusion seems like a larger objection: Readers have had enough of what Susan Mackay Smith calls “unnecessarily confusing timelines.”

“Not everything has to be a linear timeline,” admits Kate Stevens, “but often authors seem to use a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no other reason why this is done than to show how smart they are.”

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But smart authors are still preferred supernatural unrealistically smart children or talking animals, who are very annoying in novels – along with handicapped characters who only exist to provide viscous inspiration.

And how disheartening to find so many “women always in need of rescue” at this late date, as Deborah Gravel puts it. The old sexist tropes still lurk in too many novels. Even when female characters are given modern responsibilities and professions, they are often portrayed through the same old gauze-like lens. “Nothing makes me put a book down faster,” writes Heather Martin-Detka, “than overly sexy descriptions of women in non-sexy situations, like a scientist at work in the lab.”

NJ Baker is done with “stupid women who start with intelligence and then turn into glitzy idiots over men who aren’t worth their shoe leather.” She admits, “Sure, it worked for Jane Austen (think ‘Pride and Prejudice’), but if you’re caught up in that kind of storyline, you’re not Austen.”

Of course, the classic objections that have dogged novels since their inception are still valid. Many readers are disgusted by explicit sex scenes (including references to “his member”) and senseless violence, especially against animals, children and women. “I like detective novels of all kinds,” writes Margaret Crick, “but graphic descriptions that go on for pages, no.”

Surely, somewhere a cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel writing program that can address all these complaints for maximum marketability. The problem is that the things we hate in books show not only infinite variety, but also infinite specificity.

Bart Hansen has lost interest in a character who “pinches the bridge of his nose to indicate frustration”. He notes, “Pinching the bridge of my nose doesn’t feel any better than squeezing a carrot.”

Susan C. Falbo is tired of “protagonists who’ve had a rough day finally stumble home and take a scalding hot shower.”

Connie Ogle and Susan Dee are fed up with “lip-biting.” Ogle explains, “If real people bit their lips with the frightening regularity of fictional characters, our mouths would be a bloody mess.”

Gianna LaMorte is tired of seeing “someone escape a small town and rent a big house, get a job at a local newspaper, or make a living gardening.”

“Vomiting is the new crying,” laments Tobin Anderson. “I think it’s part of the whole hyper-appreciation of trauma — and somehow tears seem too weak, too mundane. But imagine a funeral full of upchuckers.

Linda Landau notes that “donkey shit shouldn’t be described as if it were human shit.”

And with that we have come to the end.

Book writers, you have been warned.

Ron Carl reviews books and writes the book club newsletter for the Washington Post.

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