That’s the sound of another romance novel landing in my Did Not Finish pile.
As a reader, I want to see triumph of some sort, and not just in the form of a sad, scared woman being rescued by some guy. Give me a heroine with spunk, not just a tender heart, and a hero with substance, not just toned pecs.
This week’s discard goes something like this: Horrible people have done horrible things to the heroine and her siblings. She flees, casting herself in the role of their protector, but she’s a dithering, nervous wreck, making near-fatal mistakes at every turn. And something horrible has happened to the hero. He’s really sad about it, and angry, and spends his time brooding. There’s a dog involved—that’s what caught my eye on the library shelf. Who doesn’t love a good dog story? But in this novel, even the dog is sad, mourning the death of his former master. What the author didn’t accomplish by the end of Chapter Six was to give me something to relate to, something to care about, other than pity.
My Did Not Finish pile contains several works of romance fiction, literary fiction, and women’s fiction that adopted this strategy: Look at this poor protagonist! Such terrible things have been done to her/him! Don’t you feel sad, reader?
But then, I don’t like people like this in real life, either. “Hi, my name is X. Thanks for welcoming me into your writers’ group. I have fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression.”
Why do people do this? I don’t know anyone who’s reached the mid-century milepost without some physical affliction, emotional scarring, or other heavy baggage. And I get it: women have been taught to bond over shared misfortunes. But a blatant appeal for pity right off the bat?
What impresses me, in real life and in fiction, is meeting a person who’s making the most of life, enjoying it as much as possible—and then finding out that she’s dealing with some heavy baggage. That sparks sympathy and admiration. That’s what’s missing in books like the one above: I want to admire the protagonist in some way.
I didn’t write a book review about this novel because A: I didn’t finish the book, and it’s not fair to review a book under those circumstances, and B: I’ve finally accepted that it’s bad karma for an author to leave bad reviews–though I always read the bad reviews before buying a book. This lets me know whether a story is full of my pet peeves, a probable waste of my time and book budget.
Speaking of book reviews, if you work in education or have kids in school, you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck outlines the concept of a growth mindset, the belief that you can change and improve through effort, versus a fixed mindset, the belief that your abilities are unchangeable and beyond your control. Guess which mindset leads to success and happiness? This book should be added to recommended reading lists for authors, especially for those tempted to make pity their main appeal to readers.
How about you? What problems send a book to your Did Not Finish pile?