I stopped reading a book this week. Not finished, just stopped. This book had come to me well recommended, and it was in a genre that I enjoy but hadn’t read in quite some time, so I was interested. I really wanted to like it. I was rooting for this book, but I just can’t find it in myself to read one more leaden passage.
Of course, putting down a book is not really an event worth noting. I don’t feel moved to commit a feverish, gnashing review of the thing. It just wasn’t very good. Hardly a crime. The ways in which this particular book failed to engage me, though, that was interesting. Reading just part of it has taught me some very important lessons about writing.
Just previous, I had finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In place of any grander review of that book I’ll just say this. While I don’t believe I agree with the author’s world view here, I do think that The Road is a well written book. McCarthy has written a story that I find actively off putting in a lot of ways. Not the context of a post apocalyptic world, but his implied assumptions about the inherent darkness of human nature. Even with that, I kept reading, and actually enjoyed the book. The deftness of the writing carried the lurching pace and strained allegory. It was a good book, perhaps in spite of itself.
Funny enough, the book that I put down has almost the exact same aggregate review scores as The Road, so there are a lot of people out there that really like it. It took me several chapters to zero in on what was bothering me. When I finally got it, I knew I could safely stop reading and move on.
It might be shockingly obvious to everyone else, but I hadn’t really realized that fiction in writing, just like in movies, is all about show, don’t tell. Maybe I realized it, I just didn’t appreciate the degree to which showing and not telling effected written works. That was the wall. That was my problem with this book. I was constantly being told what characters were thinking, and why, but I was never reading any descriptions of them actually doing things. Reading about them doing things in a way that reveals something important about their inner life without explicitly describing that thought process. Maybe that tell don’t show sort of writing really works for some people, and the reader reviews seem to indicate that it does, but I bounced off that book incredibly hard.
I think I needed the sharp contrast between reading a book that I enjoyed, but had problems with the narrative, and reading a book that in summary sounds like something I would love, but just couldn’t get through due to how the story was being told.
Now, I don’t know that this one moment of slight understanding will do anything to improve my own writing, but I have to figure that every little bit helps. Regardless, I’m happy to state that it took reading a bad book to make me understand good writing.