reader expectations

Zeke the Cat sleeping on pond bench,

“Boring!”

A cat would rather sleep than read a book.* So would many readers, if the book they’re reading is boring.

This is the ultimate condemnation of a piece of writing. It’s OK (sort of) for a book to be gross, disgusting, crude and even lame (well, lame isn’t so good), but to be labelled boring means a book is a dead duck. Review sites are full of comments like, “If you can’t sleep, take this book,” or, “The only time the story moved along was when I threw the book at the wall.” Accompanied by single stars.

So, authors — don’t write boring! Easy peasy.

But…

What is boring, anyway?  “Boring,” like “fun,” “profound,” or “disgusting,” is a judgment, not an absolute.

Words and phrases often seen in reviews along with “boring” include: slow, too much description, too complicated, doesn’t go anywhere.

So, to many readers, “boring” = slow, wordy, confusing, pointless. But some readers describe slow-paced books as engrossing, with vivid descriptions, complex characters and intricate plots. Questions, puzzles or mysteries engage readers and make them eager to go on the journey created by the author, even if it’s 700 pages long.

For examples of diverging reader opinions, have a look at Goodreads reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

The deciding element seems to be purpose — slow or fast, wordy or terse, simple or complex, if a story doesn’t present a destination, however distant, many readers are not willing to put in the time and effort to read it. To put it crudely, there has to be a payoff.

July 2, 2012

Where?

A book must offer something worth the reader’s time, a path with promise. If the path heads into a dismal swamp or an arid wasteland, instead of climbing to gorgeous views and dramatic heights, the reader will turn around and go home.

Beautiful prose alone isn’t enough reason to keep reading. A plot full of twists and turns won’t keep the reader’s interest if it wanders around aimlessly without a resolution. Fulsome descriptions, extensive backstory, and philosophizing by the narrator put demands on readers’ patience, but they are willing to do the work and put in the time if there is a question to be answered, a mystery to be solved, a revelation to be revealed. The author must acknowledge this and keep the story moving, even if it’s slow and complicated.

Some readers appreciate books that require a bit of intellectual effort. Others demand pure escapism, effortlessly absorbed. The cover image and book description should accurately signal the book’s genre and tone, but, like body language at a cocktail party, there may be room for misinterpretation. If a book’s exterior says “I’m a thriller,” but the story inside is actually romance or another genre, readers feel deceived.

Once annoyed with a book, readers may detach from the story and start to notice things they wouldn’t otherwise: overused phrases or reminders of character quirks; writing that calls attention to itself  (“Hey, check out my strong verbs!”); potentially confusing complications such as chronological and p.o.v. jumps. And, of course, typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.

At this point, the reader closes the book never to open it again. Or maybe throws it at the wall and writes a one-star, one-word review: “Boring.”

Finally, “boring” may be short for “It wasn’t my kind of book.” Reading, after all, is a two-way process. Just as publishing has become easier, so has reviewing and commenting on books. Not all reviews and comments are thoughtful and eloquently expressed.

Authors, be aware of the expectations your book creates, and make sure it delivers what is promised.

Readers, if you think a book is boring, try to figure out why, and put those thoughts into your review. They might help the author write a better book.

* Of course, cats would rather sleep than do just about anything.

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