Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit

Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.

These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.

I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.

So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.

Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.

Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.

What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.

Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.

I can in fact quit you: the triumphant return!

I used to make posts about why I quit reading the books I quit reading, and a couple people have poked me about doing another one, so here we are! Why I have quit on various books lately!

1. Stereotyping of thin big-breasted women as stupid. At least, I think that’s what he was, like, saying? I dunno. He, like, used some kinda big words? and there weren’t any men (or flat-chested ladies or fat ladies or non-binary persons) around for me to ask? so I had to put the rully rully hard book down. FOREVER.

2. If you want to compose a novel by putting a prose poem on each page, make sure it’s a good prose poem. A bad prose poem per page = a bad novel. (A good prose poem per page might still = a bad novel, but at least you have a shot at it.)

3. If you have to pick a subculture to endure forever, despite major (MAJOR) social upheaval and major (SERIOUSLY MAJOR) technological change, make it something more fun than whiny pretentious hipsters. Complete with the word “hipster” meaning identically what it means now.

4. Pacing. Pacing, pacing, pacing. And more pacing. When people talk about something needing to be faster-paced, they don’t actually mean that it needs to have a fight scene or a sex scene closer to the opening of the book. Sometimes they mean that something central to what is going on needs to happen closer to the opening of the book, but if the action (of whatever kind) is not central to what is going on–or you don’t have any reason to know that it is–that’s not going to help. No matter how many action verbs a scene has, it can bog down the pacing of a book if it seems irrelevant.

4b. More pacing. Putting more things central to what is going on towards the start of the book does not actually fix all pacing problems, or even most pacing problems. Starting with an opening that goes whiz-bang-boom is only a good idea if your book goes whiz-bang-boom. You’re allowed to have a quieter, slower-paced book. Having a quieter, slower-paced book that you have set up to go whiz-bang-boom at the beginning is going to give me whiplash.

5. When I said my tolerance for sexual violence in SFF was pretty low, I really meant it.

6. When I said my tolerance for sexual violence in SFF was pretty low, I did not mean “so you should give me a protagonist who merely pretends to rape people, who lets his friends assume he has raped them in the next room but does not actually do the raping. NOT HELPFUL, DUDE. NEXT.

7. Addiction does not fascinate me the way it does some people. After about the twentieth consecutive page of how much someone wants a fix, I am ready to read about something else, particularly if the book purported to be about something else. No matter how future-cool you think the drug you came up with is.

8. Zombies + Mris = no. There are a few exceptions to this. Vanishingly, vanishingly few.

9. Making sweeping statements in works of nonfiction about What Repressed Homersekshuls Do is bad enough. But when you are also arguing that the historical figure in question has had same-sex affairs with everyone of their sex they come across, you may wish to consult a dictionary regarding the meaning of the word “repressed” and rethink how much these theories apply.

10. If you are going to claim in a work of nonfiction that an historical figure has molested another historical figure (who was a child at the time), you need some kind of footnote. Seriously. Citation of some kind. This is a major allegation. I understand that sexual abuse is hard enough to prove in a court of law with the actual involved parties on hand, much less a hundred years or more after the fact. But you should be able to complete the following sentence: “I believe this because ________.” Biographers are not speaking ex cathedra. Your claims can, should, will be evaluated. If you have better evidence than “I have taken a dislike to this historical figure,” it really behooves you to produce it. Really, there is behooving here.