Elizabeth: Reader’s Remorse

Have you ever finished reading a book and wished you could go back in time and prevent yourself from ever reading it in the first place?  A friend posted that question a while back and I thought it was an interesting one.

Flaubert’s Madam Bovary is definitely one such book for me.  I read it in a “Reading the Classics” course for a creative writing program I was in and I can unequivocally state that I despised it.  Considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, the story didn’t work for me because I found the characters to be so unlikable.  Frankly, by the end of the story, I was actively rooting for them to get the unhappy endings they so richly deserved.  I’ve read other books with unlikable characters, and I certainly don’t expect to like all of the characters in any story, but I do expect to be able to connect with or, at a minimum, sympathize with at least some of the characters.  On the bright side, at least I didn’t have to slog through it in the original French.

For a completely different reason, M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin also has a place on my “un-read it” list.  I’m a big fan of Kaye’s mystery novels – they were some of the first books the librarian allowed me to check out from the “grown-up” side of the library when I was a young reader – but this particular story contains an image (skillfully described) that gave me nightmares when I first read it and, if I dwell on it, is disquieting even now.  It is the reason I find partially filled swimming pools with dark murky water quite disturbing.  While it says a lot about her skill in setting a scene and evoking emotions, I think I’d have preferred to skip the experience.

Just last week, I finished a book that joined the aforementioned books:  P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley.  I had high hopes for the story, both because I am a Pride and Prejudice fan and because it had been made into a Masterpiece show (I generally enjoy those).  The story, which featured the cast of characters from Pride and Prejudice, was a retelling of that story, followed by a great deal of narration about a murder that happens years later.  It didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons.  First, there was a great deal of telling and very little showing.  It made for slow reading.  There was also very little character development, since the author started with characters who were already well defined.  A glance at the reviews out on Amazon shows that I’m not the only one who thought this story fell a bit short.  As one reviewer said, “it’s tolerable but should be slighted by the accomplished gentleman.”  Ouch.

Looking back at books that I wish I could un-read has been a useful exercise.  Pemberley drove home the importance of “showing” vs “telling” in a very effective way;  Madame Bovary reminded me of the importance of characters (good or bad) that readers can relate to / empathize with / root for; and Berlin showed me what a double-edged sword strong imagery in a story can be.    Hopefully I’ll be able to put some of this knowledge to good use as I get back to my own manuscript.

So, what books have you read, start to finish, that you wish you could write your past self a warning note to avoid (and why)?

5 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Reader’s Remorse

  1. I have a terrible time retaining even the books I like (-:. So, the books that I regret reading are generally gone, gone, gone in a few weeks time.

    I will say that I actively disliked one of the Gone With The Wind sequels. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember it blatantly messed with Scarlett’s characterization (it made her nice! she had no business being nice, after all she went through), and I remember it had some sort of super-contemporary motivation. She wanted to get in touch with her roots or something so she went to Ireland? Although it was all technically possible in her era, that’s not where the most interesting post-war stories were.

    Oh, the flashbacks! I think my head is going to explode! Fortunately, I don’t tend to make that kind of error when writing. At least, I hope I don’t.

    • There were Gone With the Wind sequels? Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know that. I think it can be very challenging for sequels of popular stories to measure up to the originals, especially if they were not planned sequels or if they were something written by someone other than the initial author.

      • Sequels hardly ever measure up to the original in my experience. There are a few books by the same author that do get better and better, but often, even if the same writer is writing it, the wad gets shot on the first book. They polish it the most, send it through the most critiques (possibly even classes) and really tear the thing apart. Then, for book two, some authors seem to coast. They don’t get enough outside input, or they lose the original juiciness, but because series are so profitable, feel pressured to continue even though they want to write something else.

        In the case of Scarlett (the novel), I think it might have made a decent romance novels if the serial numbers had been filed off (as they say in fanfic, which this basically is). The character violations wouldn’t have been, because Scarlett of GWTW was a different person than whoever was starring in Scarlett (the novel). But of course, there’s the greed involved. A GWTW sequel (and this one was sanctioned by Mitchell’s estate, IIRC) has a built-in market of people willing to take the chance. But as it was, it was a different brand of crazy sauce from the crazy sauce that was GWTW.

        I’ve read at least one Harry Potter fanfic/semi-sequel that was even more delightful than the original series. We’ll probably see more of that sort of thing with the advent of the internet. But I think a lot of the best stuff is a labor of love, and not meant to be sold. Then, after it’s been given away on the internet for free, it’s harder to sell it to an estate, I think. Maybe things will change if writing sequels and fanfic becomes more normalized and monetized.

  2. I’m a fan of PD James, so it’s surprising and disappointing to learn that she missed the target on this one. I saw on Amazon that the TV adaptation has better reviews than the book; I guess the BBC experience in filming historicals pays off. Like Michaeline, I don’t remember the titles of books I finished and didn’t like. I’m not apt to wait until the end if the book’s not going well for me. In fact, I don’t always finish a book I enjoy. I’ve been reorganizing my bookshelves, and I’m embarrassed to see how many books have bookmarks inserted 50, 30, or even 10 pages from the end. Was I not interested enough? Or just confident of what the ending would be? We’ll never know. Those volumes are going to the used bookstore.

    • Kay, glad to hear you’ve enjoyed other books by PD James. The reviews for Pemberley have generally said that it is not like her other books, so I’ll have to give her another try. Is there any title of hers you would particularly recommend?

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