Quick poll

What do you value most in the books you read?

I started a discussion on my other blog about Cloud Atlas and the new film version, in which we’re talking about physical descriptions of characters.

And it got me thinking: what do you like best in your reading material? Great dialogue, stunning plot, relatable characters, poetic descriptions, societal importance, genre? Are you willing to forgive bad writing for a breathtaking plot? Will you endure laborious descriptions for magical fantasy? Do you wade through anything for romance? Do you hate fiction and value nonfiction?

What’s your thing in the books you consider great? And while we’re at it, what do you loathe above all else in fiction?

39 thoughts on “Quick poll

  1. Wait. Other blog? How did I miss that? Anyway, I don’t give a skippy about plot. I love a good voice, great characters, and a dash of societal critique. I just started Too GOod To Be True and I am so in love with the raw honesty and the voice I am about to die. For fiction, I like relatable characters in believable situations, and I like humor, but not slapstick. What I loathe in fiction is fucking self-importance– it’s boring. Tell me a good story. Then shut up.

    • Yes to all of that. The most overwraught sections of Freedom are the mining bits. I agree with him, I am glad he chose that location as a sinister and dark place. Now cut all the preaching, please and move your story along.

  2. I hesitate to say this because I know there are grammatical (punctuation) issues with my writing more often than I know, but I can’t stomache crappy writing – No matter how compelling the plot. And great writing will even make me excuse boring content. I am reading a book on teaching techniques for an upcoming interview and while it is not the most exciting literature, it is written with a strong voice, excellent flow of language and is crystal clear. I tried to get into the hype of fifty shades of grey and cannot continue because of the horrid nature of her writing. I put more time and effort into my silly blog posts in assuring I have not repeated words or phrases, and I am not a writer. She is. So, no more grey for me Which is unfortunate. I could have used some good smut.

    • Blogs aren’t published books. I have typos all over this blog and I’m a professional editor. I have awkward phrasing (in fact someone once linked to one of my posts and cited mine as the worse sentence she’d ever read, EVER) in way more posts than I’d care to count. But a book is different.
      I’ve avoided Twilight and Grey because I’ve heard the writing is abysmal. Oh well. Plenty of smut elsewhere.

  3. Great is a book that stays with you. One that you want to read again and again. One, when it ends, you feel as if you’ve lost your best friend.

  4. I just finished a book with slightly stilted dialogue, but the world she created was so stunningly vivid, the internal thoughts so clear, the story so heart breaking I couldn’t stop.

    I need to love the characters to read any book. And I’m happier if the writing flows smoothly. I tend to prefer something tinged with joy and light.

    What an interesting question!

    • I like vivid, I like clear, I like heartbreaking. But stilted dialogue would make me put it down. Joy and light sounds delicious. I haven’t read anything like that in ages.

  5. When I get to read anymore, it must be positive books. Same with movies. I can’t take anything sad, horrifying, or mean. Abuse, rape, violence? Forget it.

    I’ve always been this way, it’s just that now I’m not willing to subject myself AT ALL to the miserable view of life during my precious free minutes.

    Mostly, I tend to re-read the same books over and over. Or books about food. Those are pretty reliably non-depressing.

    Bad writing, though? Can’t do it. Or bad editing, for that matter. Typos make me INSANE.

    • I can’t abide bad writing, either. Especially the forced, Creative Writing 101 stuff about billowing fog and smell of coffee. Blech.

      Can you allow a flashback to a dark moment that a character has witnessed or experienced? Death of a family member or suicide of a friend…that kind of stuff? Or is all emotional pain just more than you want to pretend about?

      • Oh sure. I don’t mean that there can’t be anything unpleasant in a book, because that wouldn’t be very compelling, now would it? But I absolutely cannot read something that’s all about misery. And pretty much anything with a rape scene in it will leave me with nightmares. “Prince of Tides” still haunts me for that reason and I kind of wish I hadn’t read it, though I enjoyed it at the time.

        • There was a long period after Peanut’s both where I couldn’t read *anything* with hurt or injury or blood. So I wondered if you were unable to stomach the long survivor of horrors fiction or any reference to emotional pain. Because I’ve been in that place and had to retreat to Victorian novels for a while.

  6. The thing that I want most in books I read is compelling relationships. That implies that the characters have to have some a bit of substance, but really, the relationships are what give them substance, frequently. (I’m not talking “love” relationships. I’m talking interactions between people that make the characters form some kind of bond — political, romantic, antagonistic, parent/child, whatever…)

    I also really like novels that tell political stories in a personal way. That’s why I am so crazy about books like Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games, and 1984. Oh, and Shakespeare’s history plays, of course!!

    • Fie, I agree about relationships. I hate reading romantic relationships (and writing them, too). I want friends who love each other or marriages falling apart or bickering siblings. Real relationships.

      Yes to Bradbury and Orwell. And Follett and Vonnegut and Dreiser and Wallace and Atwood and Barnes. It’s weird that I like my fiction historical realism or social-commentary future dystopia. Or not, really. Not weird at all. Personal political. How did I not notice that before?

  7. For me it’s chiefly ambition and beautiful or innovative language. I’m finding more and more that it’s hard to get drawn in if there’s not at least somebody in a book who I think is basically a good person.

    As for what I hate, I don’t know. I’m not generally into genre stuff. I need more than just a good story (though I will read the occasional potboiler just for fun).

    • That’s why I’m so drawn to Joyce and Barnes and Wallace and Mitchell…ambition and beautiful language. I love Wallace and Faulkner for inventing words, the former by reversing the common order of words and the latter for compelling portmanteaux.

      Too bad the ambition of Pynchon and Gaddis and Delillo don’t sway me.

    • How freaking awesome are you that your preference for succinct is part and parcel of your comment. Brava.

      Yes. Weird that I don’t care about plot. I should. But I want characters and dialogue and don’t care if they don’t actually get anywhere or do anything. How very mid-90s American cinema of me.

  8. Great voice is most important to me in both fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, I will abandon books that don’t have relatable characters and in which the story does not flow well. Laborious descriptions of setting usually get skimmed over. I love to read nonfiction but am turned off when references to studies and papers are constantly referred to in every other sentence. It interrupts the flow of the writing too much, in my opinion.

    • Rita, I absolutely skim scenery. And character description. And the why-are-you-wasting-my-time adjectives about the room in which people are sitting. Good gawd, let’s get this show on the road! ;-)

      Seems to me that nonfiction that constantly refers to other studies either doesn’t understand them well enough to spend a few paragraphs on them (but rather lists them or jumps from study to study) or doesn’t have enough of its own argument. I agree: skip ’em.

      • Interesting that you brought that up. I am not a fast reader. In fact, I think I probably read about 1 percent of what you are able to fit in due to that. Years ago (before children and other things to do) I tried to get through a Stephen King novel. He spends about five pages describing furniture. I couldn’t get through it. I just thought fast readers were able to absorb all of that good stuff and still enjoy the action. Maybe not?

        • For the record, that was the third read. I was tired of the details. But also for the record, if I had thought of that trick when I was younger, I would have loved permission to skip such large sections. It is with experience that I’m willing to skim details. I used to read every single word. And still do if I love the book.

      • While reading your response, I realized I have the same “let’s get the show on the road” attitude when my husband relays every detail in his dreams to me. Funny, now that I think about it. I rarely remember dreams, and he is one who sees colors and hears sounds. When he tries to tell me about them, I’m always thinking – get to the point of it all – what was so great about it?

        • I do that, too! I thought I was a terrible partner for not caring about the details and demanding the point. (NB: I am.) Buy now I know I want plot and he prefers sensory data. I would be a horrible witness. “I don’t know what he looked like or what he was wearing, but he went that way.”

  9. Gimme some zippy dialogue. I love me some zippy dialogue. Not too over-crafted, though, because nobody sounds snarky and intelligent ALL the time (well, except for you and me, of course).

    If you wrap up every loose thread in a nice pretty package at the end of the novel? I will hate you forever. The world doesn’t work that way.

    • Exception granted for our snarky and intelligent dialogue. I have to say I always notice when people are too clever in their dialogue. Juno. Please. You’re a teenager. No way you’re always that funny.

      I love good dialogue, too. Oh how I do.

      Happy endings? I hate your book.

      But while we’re on that, and I’m asking for a friend, can 25% or so wrap up nicely by the end of the novel? Like one or two people figure things out and the rest are still white hot messes? Again, for a friend.

  10. I’m pretty omnivorous in my reading tastes, different genres, time periods, fiction and non-fiction, etc. Obviously a rich reading experience, with a compelling story, unforgettable characters, and gorgeous writing is ideal, but I can cope with a lapse in one area if I am rewarded in another. I find that I can forgive poor but passionate writing more easily than I can forgive lazy writing.

      • Oh, jeez, I just wrote a long, rambling explanation that was longer than your original post. LOL Let me try again. I read a ton of mysteries, and I love to find an author or character I like and read them in order. Sometimes, often around the sixth or seventh book, the author seems to be getting bored with the characters, and a certain laziness sets in, with plots that are gimmicky instead of clever, characters drawn with a shorthand that assumes we already love them, and a general feeling that inspiration was not involved. I have to admit I’ve given up on authors who fall into that category. I’d rather read an inspired but flawed story than one that was just phoned in out of obligation. If the author seems to be getting no joy out of it, then I’m less likely to as well.

        • Well, especially if they’ve taken the time to set up your relationship with the characters, to abandon them late in a series is especially cruel. Writing that sounds like calculation rather than creation is like nails on a chalkboard.

  11. I’m so beyond late to this discussion! (I can only afford the time to catch up on my favorite blogs once a month or twice if I am LUCKY).

    This is the best question, and one that I’m rolling around over and over in my head on my own blog, simply titled “Books” (http://averidylan.wordpress.com/) – I have had a really hard time trying to get my entries out of an all-too-tempting “I love this book. End of story” rut.

    For me, I really think it comes down to characters. Like Jane said, when the end of the book feels like a cruel and unusual separation from my best friend.

    Truthfully, there are entire neighborhoods of literary characters in my head. They keep me company and conversing with me about this or that happening in the world outside, and in my life. Plot and/or quality of writing have never had any sort of a make-it-or-break-it effect on my reading (yes, I did read every word of twilight and yes, I actually enjoyed it), but characters? Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Anyhow. Love your blog! Always have, since the summer of Infinite Jest, even though this is my first comment. Be well.

    • What a gift Infinite Summer was for the literate diaspora.

      Glad you commented. I feel honored that you joined for this topic given your limited online time.

      I agree that characters make or break books. I like effortless writing. I care not a whit about plot.

      I wish the characters stored in my head would make more appearances in my daily life. To have Don Gately and Jimmy Corrigan and Nancy Drew help color my perspective?

  12. I love long, sweeping epics that follow a character or family for years of their life so you know the backstory, the key events, the fallout, and the long-term consequences for the characters. (ex. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and yes, Lord forgive me, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell).

    I love nonfiction that reads like fiction and truly tells the stories of real people and actual events. (ex Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Homicide: Life on the Streets by David Simon)

    I love sassy chick lit books with snappy dialogue and entertaining plots (anything by Jane Green).

    I love books that demonstrate amazing creativity by reframing and retelling old tales (Wicked by Gregory Maguire).

    I can’t stand books written by novelists who are more in love with language than communicating with their readers. (I can’t name any examples because I stay away from these types of books like they carry the plague.)

    I seriously dislike books without any likeable characters. (Jonathan Franzen, I’m looking at you and The Corrections.)

    I hate trite descriptions of characters, particularly in regards to clothing as an indicator of their personality or backstory. I cannot stand the details of whatever fashionable outfit a female character is wearing in a book, frequently for a scene involving a date, especially several years later when the look described is now the opposite of trendy. I think it’s lazy, ineffective, and distracting, and yes, the reason I don’t write fiction myself is because I am WAY TOO DAMN CRITICAL.

    I am developing a dislike for books written by bloggers that are either haphazardly edited and/or contain little, if any new, material. (Names withheld to protect the guilty, but I will say I am not thinking of anyone I know through this blog. :))

    I love books that speak to you in new ways every time you read them. (ex. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte).

    Yes, I have way too many opinions on this subject. Aren’t you just SO glad you asked? :)

    • Sooooo many things to agree with here, and so many books I’ve never read.

      First: if you don’t like the characters in The Corrections, you’ll slightly like one or two of the characters in Freedom. My problem is that *he* doesn’t seem to like his characters, either. Interesting way to write. I’m fascinated by but repelled by his characters. Shame. Like his writing.

      YES to the nonfiction that reads like fiction. The Krakauer is the only book from your list I’ve read, but I’ll look into the others.

      Sweeping epics: maybe. I loathe Mitchell. I’ll try the others, though.

      New insights each time? Yes. I find that with all the books I love. Wuthering Heights doesn’t count for me in that category, sadly.

      So completely agree about descriptions. Of faces, clothes…fog. I freaking hate scenery descriptions. Gads. White Oleander was a decent book but the chapters that began with descriptions made me want to claw my eyes out. Personal preference. Like you, I self describe as way too critical.

      I *am* glad I asked. Thank you for taking so much time to cover your likes and dislikes. I find it fascinating that some people love books that others hate. Ditto foods, weather, people…we’re a queer bunch, humans.

      • White Oleander also made me want to claw my eyes out too. Drama was over the top. I think the scene with the dog attack (??–my memory has mercifully blocked the details out) is where it truly jumped the shark. Positively ridiculous.

        • I remember finding some of the scenes exceedingly compelling. And the fog description going on for twenty pages. (Probably didn’t, but that’s what I remember.)

          Some of the moments and characters have stayed with me (the locked refrigerator, the LA river, the family near the end), so I know she’s very talented. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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