Over my Christmas vacation this year, I read a novel that had gotten a lot of buzz in the months before it came out in an English translation: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. It was a hefty book – around six hundred pages – and probably the worst novel I’ve read in years. But I read the whole damn thing, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I honestly don’t know why I keep reading books I don’t like. Once upon a time I believed that it was my solemn duty to finish anything I started, but I got over that a few years ago when I realized that my reading list had already exceeded life expectancy and also people kept writing new books, so that’s not it. I frequently give up on books when I realize that I simply can’t be bothered to turn the next page.
Sometimes I give up when I realize I know everything that’s going to happen in the rest of the book. This happens most often with fantasy or with young adult fiction (and fairly frequently with young adult fantasy), which are, let’s face it, both genres with a pretty high level of predictability. It’s possible I’ve missed out on some good books this way, but I doubt it. Good writing will carry me through a predictable plot, and poor writing is not a good indicator of interesting plot-twists.
Speaking of YA, I frequently give up on something when I realize the author is setting up an obvious and uninteresting love triangle. My response to love triangles is usually “why don’t all three of them get married and work it out?” so I really could not care less about this particular method of building tension. Someday it will go out of fashion again, but in the meantime, I’m sure I’ve missed out on some otherwise good books just because I don’t have the patience for yet another “Team Edward/Team Jacob” pile of nonsense.
I do not, on the other hand, immediately give up just because a character has done something implausible, improbable, or outrageously stupid. The sort of thing that would be called “out of character” in fanfiction but you can’t call it out of character when it’s in the original story, even though you can tell it’s a poor writing choice. I don’t like it, obviously, but it’s not an immediate drop. Neither is a bad plot twist – when something goes unexpectedly wrong, not in the story but in the way you can tell the writer just lost track of what they were doing, I can’t wait to see how it all falls apart next.
So there is a certain trainwreck appeal to reading a really bad book. Some books, after all, are bad, in the same way some movies are bad, not intentionally but with a degree of fascination. This, I think, was part of what kept me going through The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: the plot revolves around a love affair between a man in his thirties and a sixteen-year-old girl. Everyone’s immediate reaction is disgust, but as soon as he defends himself with “but I really loved her! And she really loved me!” the sympathetic characters agree that everything must be okay and you can tell the unsympathetic characters by their continued insistence that the guy has a serious problem. This is beyond the usual level of bad writing, it’s just bizarre. I kept reading to find out what kind of weird alternate universe the novel was set in. (Turns out it’s also the kind of weird alternate universe where authors receive $3 million advances, date models, and get accosted on the street by admirers, after having written only one breakout bestseller. I should have known.)
I suppose the answer is, I’ll keep reading if something’s interestingly bad. Like anything else, boringness is the death of entertainment, but something that’s so dramatically mis-handled as to catch my attention is bound to keep me going, even if it’s just so I can complain to everyone else about the godawful thing I just read.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about punctuation. Punctuation should never be interesting.