I thought it was time, as a reviewer, that I posted about the things I dislike in books and films (including TV); the things that throw me out of a story, the things that make me abandon a book or a series and the things that stop me buying. Some of the following might result in a bad review. Some might prevent purchase. Some are just a warning sign and I might like a book despite their inclusion. Some are very personal dislikes and don’t say anything about the book or film. But you deserve to know where I am coming from! In alphabetical order:
* Bad language in the sense of curses and similar.
I know it might be realistic, but when it’s constant, I can’t read or listen to it. Recent examples include The Wolf of Wall Street who used f…g as every other word, and Dominus, a novel about ancient Rome that had so many curses and uses of ‘s..t’ that I just couldn’t carry on. We all use expletives from time to time but most people, particularly people with even a modicum of education, reserve them for important issues (like hammering your thumb…) and I think constant usage diminishes their impact in real life and is bordering on unlikely in scripts and novels. At any rate, I thoroughly dislike it.
*Bad language in the sense of poor grammar, spelling, etc.
I don’t mean typos though those annoy me when they come thick and fast.
I do mean the misuse of vocabulary where either the author either hasn’t a clue what the right word is, or cravenly believes their wordchecker’s correction.
I also mean the dizzying switching of tenses or points of view within one section of text.
I mean, too, the frequent use of poor punctuation (which a wordchecker would soon put right). (Punctuation should make a text easier to read.)
I mean, in addition, the frequent use of things like ‘er’, meant, I think, to add verisimilitude to speech but actually just making it hard to read. (When we listen to someone who hesitates we ignore the hesitations, but that’s harder when they’re written down and we are forced to process them.)
I certainly mean poor grammar – not what Word’s spag checker regards as bad grammar but what the average English teacher means. As an ex-English teacher, I am always annoyed by it and it almost always throws me out of the story and ensures I won’t return to the author. I’m aware that grammar isn’t every writer’s strength, but that’s what editors are for.
I hate comedy that seems to be telling me I must laugh. I am highly amused at some jokes, cartoons and situations but I rarely enjoy stand-up comedians or comedy shows, I often have to switch off if there’s canned laughter, and I don’t enjoy books that employ similar techniques. I realise I’m in a minority here! My sense of humour tends more towards irony than banana skin slips. I say ‘tends’ because there are exceptions but they’re few and far between.
It should go without saying that I don’t appreciate any attempt to ‘sell’ me racism, sexism, or fundamentalist religion of any kind in the guise of fiction. I actually binned a couple of children’s books given to my daughter with these themes, because I wouldn’t let her read them till she was old enough to ‘see through’ the message (by which time she wouldn’t enjoy the stories) and I didn’t want to be responsible for unleashing them on others via a charity shop. Not quite book burning, but yes, a kind of censorship. I would, of course, defend the right of the writers and publishers to produce these, but at the same time defend my own right to decide not to have anything to do with them and to discourage others.
*Insistence on using experimental prose.
I appreciate that some people think this is clever, and certainly it isn’t something that is actually wrong. It just strikes me as pretentious and annoying, whether it’s done by a Booker prize winner or a fanfic writer. For example, Hilary Mantel does it in A Place of Greater Safety – the whole style changes from chapter to chapter, with some of it reading like a TV script, and some like a history book. Irritating.
*Plot devices that are almost guaranteed to make me abandon the book or film.
I personally dislike stories that are told from the point of view of the villain or criminal. I feel cheated, because I enjoy crime stories where I try to work out ‘whodunnit’ or how they did it alongside the detectives.
I dislike ambiguous endings unless there’s a sequel in the pipeline, though obviously I won’t know till I reach the ending and just end up feeling furious.
The same goes for endings that are not consistent with the story and seem to be a kind of ‘how on earth can I end this’ attitude on the part of the author. As a teacher I used to dislike children’s stories that ended ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘and then I died’ and I find adults have similar tendencies at times… I think the worst book I read was one that was a crime story which ended abruptly. Apparently the author died and friends got the book published as a kind of memorial. The reader could be pretty sure who the criminal was, but there were so many unanswered questions I wanted to throw the book in the trash – some memorial!
I know some of these are probably not even noticed by the writer till after the book or film has gone public. They should have been noticed by beta readers, editors, etc. Oddly, I have seen more of these in books published by mainstream ‘big’ publishing houses than in genre fiction or fanfic. Maybe a lack of beta readers and discussion groups?
*Serious anachronisms and cultural errors.
I’m not talking about using modern language when the story is about e.g. ancient Rome. That makes the writing more accessible to the modern reader and unless the writer is going to write in Latin (and even then, Latin changed, as all languages do) it’s not something that worries me. Linguistic anachronisms do ‘throw’ me; the use of slang terms should be always be carefully researched. It’s no good using modern language for a book about e.g. mediaeval society and including slang that is obviously twenty-first century in origin. Yes, the mediaeval people would have used slang, but unless it is very carefully done, the text shouldn’t really include it. It’s easy to say something like, ‘he cursed roundly’ rather than have him saying ‘Shit’. So should the correct usage of period phrases be researched – like ‘methinks’ or ‘prithee’ though I really wish writers wouldn’t use them at all. Film makers can just about get away with it if they’re staging Shakespeare…
One type of anachronism that infuriated me was in a book that purported to be about the mediaeval popes and their families. A party was described and the meal ended with chocolates with exotic fillings. I instantly distrusted all the other historical research the writer had done.
Similarly, books by e.g. American writers who clearly have a foggy grasp of Brit geography, customs, or conversational norms annoy me, as do Brit books that play fast and loose with American (or any other) culture. Whilst I don’t think the exhortation to ‘write what you know’ holds water, I do think a writer should ‘know what they write’ which is a different thing and assumes writers do their research meticulously. I don’t think a writer who sets their work in the past or in a foreign country needs to be an expert, but they should make sure they don’t make glaringly obvious errors. Also, I am more likely to be annoyed if the blurb or the notes about the author try to suggest expertise.
Even fantasy or sci fi needs to be grounded in some kind of reality. I once abandoned the notion of having two moons on a world when I realised I would need to alter all references to tides, seasons, etc. Fairies and aliens work best when they follow ‘laws’ made clear in the story and not random ideas that have appealed to the author as pretty or interesting. If it’s a truly alien or alternate world, it needs internal consistency and sensible natural rules.
*Things I am less keen on but will try.
I am a lover of fantasy but I am not at all keen on books where the main character ends up crossing into another world or reality. I have read a few where it worked, but it’s not my favourite genre.
The same goes for time travel where I find it hard to suspend disbelief.
Mpreg is only acceptable for me if there’s a sensible scientific explanation e.g. an alien race with fluid gender roles, an experiment on humans, an alternative universe where this is the norm.
I am less than fond of vampires (I have read some good ones but hate Anne Rice…), the invasion of earth by monstrous aliens (they need to stay on other planets where the likes of SG1 or SGA can deal with them), and most m/m/f menage tropes. I am also reluctant to read about either zombies or superheroes. I think I like my protagonists to be flawed and human or ‘normal’ within their non-human community.
*Too much explicit sex.
I have no desire for a return to the ‘fade to black’ fashion of writing, whether the romance/marriage/hook-up/whatever is m/m, m/f, f/f or any permutation. However, I want the sex scenes to further either the plot or the character development. If they appear to be merely there for titillation, I skim them, and if they appear too often or are too long, I usually abandon the story. I don’t find the ‘tab A into slot B’ approach to sex scenes hot, in the least, just boring. I am much more interested in the emotions engendered by the sex (or lack of it). Some of my favourite romances don’t get the protagonists into bed until near the end of the story.
*Too much explicit violence.
Although I enjoy crime books and thrillers, I don’t particularly want battle or gore dwelled on lovingly by the writer or the film maker. I tend to skim or look away if any kind of violence lasts too long, and complex battle scenes pass me by in a blur. This probably explains my own difficulties in writing such scenes, even short ones, and I do realise they are sometimes needed to further the plot, but that doesn’t stop me hating them!
Also, while I will read some BDSM, I personally can’t cope with kinks involving things like blood, enemas, excreta, etc. The sex doesn’t have to be vanilla but I have personal limits though I understand that they really are personal and that violence and gore may appeal to some readers and can be well written. Also, I will read about darker things if they are essential to a crime investigation but still don’t like them described in too much detail. For instance, I can read about a detective seeing the aftermath of violence or even a pathologist finding out what happened, but don’t want a blow-by-blow account of the killer’s actions as they happen.
*Too much purple prose and too much description.
Descriptions are all the better for being sparse. Adjectives are overused by a lot of writers just starting out – maybe a hangover from their schooldays when they were encouraged to use too many, presumably to increase their vocabulary and add at least some interest to whatever they were producing.
In a novel, over-description jars the reader. Even world building, which is essential, is better done in very small increments with a lot left to the imagination. We do not need to know every detail of what every character (even minor ones) is wearing, and nor do we need an estate agent’s description of a building or its surroundings. Too many modern writers seem to think that descriptions of clothing will introduce characters to their readers. Actually, for me, it doesn’t work. I am so hung up on trying to visualise the dress, shoes, etc. that it’s hard to get back to what is being said or done. When I meet someone in real life I rarely notice every detail of their outfit though I might focus on a particularly attractive tie or scarf and on a general colour scheme. So I don’t expect to be forced to concentrate on itemised clothing when I meet a character in text, either. (I really don’t need to know what a detective is wearing at the scene of a crime, though it might be more relevant if he has to work under cover.)
Film makers are better in this respect. They get someone to make sure the costumes and location are perfect then just let them speak for themselves to the viewer. Basically, we would notice if things clashed or were not true to the period (which might actually be important if the character liked them that way). Otherwise, we can just leave them in their proper place, the background.
It might seem surprising, in view of the above list, that I find so many books and films to love! That just means there are some seriously good writers and directors out there and they make me very happy indeed.