Today I was checking Twitter on my lunch break, like you do, and I was scrolling through the usual jokes and promos and discussions, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but this gem from The Atlantic: “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through – and so does literature.”
(insert needle-scratching-on-record sound)
Or, to borrow a phrase from the late Amy Winehouse: What kind of fuckery is this?
As it turns out, more of the same elitist, prescriptivist bullshit I ripped to shreds when it appeared in Ruth Graham’s Slate article. Indeed, author and New York Times editor Juliet Lapidos devotes the fourth paragraph of her own essay to that very article and the “Adults should be ashamed to read YA” controversy. Lapidos admits herself that her always-finish-what-you-start philosophy is unusual, and once I read the article, it was easy to see why. She breaks her case down into three major points, so in the interest of consistency, I’m going to do the same here.
Pleasure: Lapidos argues that if you stop reading a book part of the way through, you might miss something amazing later. She suggests that reading multiple hundreds of pages of a story you don’t enjoy in order to get to something good is a worthy use of your time. I would be interested to know what working professional has enough time for recreational reading that this seems like a good proposition. My suggestion? Chucking the book you can’t stand after fifty pages and picking up something that engages you in five or ten or twenty pages is a great deal more pleasurable.
Fortitude: I laughed out loud at this one. Here’s an actual quote from the article: “It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength.” To whom? Who, exactly, are you supposed to be proving this strength to? Lapidos says in this section that the “ability to endure intellectual anguish” is beneficial to her job as an editor. And I can relate to that — I’ve been a freelance script reader for over a decade. I’ve paid my bills and put food on the table by writing synopses (which means reading every single word) and critiques of everything from sitcom pilots to 500-page nonfiction tomes about the Iran hostage crisis. Some of them were great. Some of them were godawful. Guess what? Not one of them improved if I still didn’t like them after 20 pages. Not one. And some of them were good and then botched the ending and you do not want to be within earshot when a text I’m engaging with crashes and burns, whether I’m reading for work or for pleasure.
Respect: You are not disrespecting the author, the act of authorship, anyone or anything by putting down a book unfinished. Well, maybe if you know the author personally, but even then some authors will understand. Lapidos suggests that starting books gives you “intellectual cachet” and not finishing them is “one step above saying ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’” On what planet, outside of maybe certain New York publishing-world cocktail parties, is this even an issue?
This last argument sounds suspiciously like the Internet Uber-Fan argument of “You aren’t a TRUE fan if you haven’t read every comic/seen every episode/listened to every B-side/etc.” — which is something that has stuck in my craw for ages. Who gets to be the arbiter of who has what kind of “cachet” or “cred” or whatever term the community in question likes to use? Who are we trying to impress by attempting to earn this “cachet”? If “cachet” is required for a person to view you as an intellectual equal, do you really want to interact with that person anyway?
As I said above, I’m a professional script reader. I’m also a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, a published author and a copywriter. My ultimate goal is to write for television drama, specifically in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, supernatural and mystery. Consequently, I have read, watched and critiqued pages upon pages, hours upon hours, of creative works that I did not enjoy in the slightest. You know what the result was? For a long time, I didn’t read recreationally. At all. I was burnt out. This happens to a lot of people somewhere around high school, which seems to be the peak time for being forced to finish books we don’t enjoy… so why on earth should adults with limited time and/or resources attempt to recreate the experience?
There are many, many things happening in the real world, either in the news or in our own lives, that cause us “intellectual anguish”; why heap more on top of that? It’s just as baffling in my eyes as continuing to watch a television show after you’ve started to hate it – and, as a future hourlong-drama writer, I have a vested interest in as many people watching as many of the shows I love and/or may work for as humanly possible! It’s in my best professional interest for people to cause themselves intellectual anguish if they have a Nielsen box and the source of that anguish is Grimm or Agents of SHIELD or (insert other beloved show here)… and yet, I shudder at the idea of anyone doing so. Because I am a writer, I want people to love story, in whatever form, and the best way to cultivate love of story is by reading (or otherwise partaking of) stories we love. Stories that engage us. Stories that don’t make us want to hurl our book or Kindle or remote or laptop across the room after we’ve devoted significant amounts of time to them. Stories that we aren’t merely slogging through in the interest of earning some mythological “cachet”.
Life is not an MFA program. There is no assigned reading. Engaging with art and story is not homework. Treating it as such does nothing more than poison people’s hearts and minds against the intellectual and emotional rewards of narrative. I can only hope that a majority of readers continue to find pleasure in whatever narratives speak to them, have the fortitude to ignore naysayers, and respect their own instincts enough to make choices that resonate with their souls rather than obeying the poisonous shoulds of the elite.