Recently, after reviewing a book I finished only because I wanted to know how it ended, we discussed the term we would use to describe a book we're finishing not out of compulsion but due to morbid or frustrated curiosity.
Thinking about why I finish books and how I feel about them while I'm reading made me realize some things about how I grade books. In many cases, I begin identifying the grade while I'm reading. I have noticed that there is a difference between my reading due to mild curiosity and reading because I am compelled to keep reading. There is an obvious difference between reading because I cannot stop, because I am unable to close the book and do something else until I finish one more page, one more chapter, one more scene, and whoops, it's 2 am and there's the end of the book – and reading because, meh, whatever. I have a hard time deciding not to finish a book, and have to repeatedly give myself permission to put a book down unfinished and start something else.
Whether I hit the point of compulsion in reading, the point of meh-whatever, and the point of no-more-please-this-is-not-working often influences the grade I'd give that book. If I hit “shut up and leave me alone because I'm reading,” it's a good grade; if I'm distracted by anything and everything other than the book because the book is boring the hell out of me, it's not a good grade. Deciding what specific grade and outlining the supporting reasons why I chose that grade often becomes the bulk of the review.
The hardest reviews, I've said before, are the “meh” reviews. I can outline in great detail why I loved a book, or why I really, really disliked a book. But if I'm entirely “meh” about it, it can be very difficult to explain why. It's not objectionable, nor it is effervescent, entertaining crazy sauce. It's just there. I'm sort of interested. Mildly. That's probably the very definition of a C for me: “Meh.”
But all of my ruminations about what I think while I read (can you tell that I was reading a book that wasn't interesting me? I was more interested in my own reaction to reading than in what I was actually reading, which is the most acrobatic sort of mental navel gazing I've done in awhile) are just another way to examine my own rubric, the method I use to grade books. My level of reading compulsion is one of the early influences to the grade I assign, which then communicates my reaction to the reader.
Readers have to follow a blog or reviewer for awhile to figure out what an “A” means, or a “B” or a “C.” Here we have different kinds of Fs, for example – F+ is bad-but-full-of-excellent-crazysauce, and F is just bad, and not entertainingly so. It takes some time and reading of reviews to figure out where a reviewer's rubric is located and how well it lines up with someone else's. It's not just “I liked this book,” but the reason why that person liked it, and whether that reason lines up with the reason YOU like it. (I've said before that one of my favorite email messages said, in effect, “I hate everything you love, and love all the books you hate! Keep up the great work!”)
One of the earliest influences of the grade I am going to give a book is found in the compulsion to keep reading. If I want to keep reading, I ask myself why – is it the plot? Do I want to find out what's going to happen next? Does every chapter end on a perilous cliffhanger? Or is it the characters, and I want to find out what happens to them, to move from the current emotional position to the next?
There are things that interrupt my compulsion, and I suspect that mine are similar to some readers' points of immediate exit. Things that bug me include repeated phrases, poor continuity, cliches, clunky or completely unrealistic dialogue, out-of-character actions that serve to move the plot forward but don't represent something that character would actually do. These and other peeves combine to create situations wherein I'd rather write about how I review than read more of that book.
I've sometimes described books as “sticky,” meaning that I can't put them down. The glue that prevents me from putting the book down and effectively attaches the book to my fingers is usually found in characters for me, and not always in the plot. I'm more drawn to emotionally complex characters attempting to change themselves, and don't always enjoy a lot of outside influences on a character propelling them into action. But identifying what's in my book glue helps me identify, on a basic level, what I like to read. In this case, I like character-driven stories with internal struggles more than I like plot-driven stories that are about things happening to people.
Some books contain glue that we suspect might also contain crack. They're addictive and they can't be put down. They're compulsive reads even when the prose triggers any number of “Wait, who edited this? WTF is going on? EGADS ANOTHER TYPO.” reactions. The more the typical distractions that would normally cause the reader to exit the book in frustration are easy to ignore, the more crack the book has. I am bothered immensely by early JR Ward books. Do I reread them if I pick one up and read one page? Yes. Sorry. Yhes. There's crack in them there pages – something that compels me past all the other things that would in any other story make me stop reading.
So what are the errors or habits that pull you out of a story? What is your reading crack, and which books have plenty of it for you? Do you notice when you're compelled to keep reading, and why?