Sunday Salon: Peeved!

I’ve been thinking this week about bookish pet peeves, those things in books that drive me crazy. These pet peeves are, in my mind, not necessarily marks of poor quality, like bad characterization. Nor are they failed attempts at doing something cool, like a complex plot that spins out of control. What I’m thinking of are qualities that the author might in fact have intentionally incorporated into the book and that many readers might appreciate. But they turn me off entirely.

I suspect all of us have our own idiosyncratic and personal pet peeves. I thought it would be fun to share a few of mine and invite you to share yours.

So without further ado, here are my top three bookish pet peeves. These are the things that will almost always cause me to put the book aside.

  1. Historical characters that are too modern.Clare sounded off about this earlier this week, and I thoroughly agree with her. Often, I think historical fiction authors want to make their characters relatable by also making them modern, but I read historical fiction to understand different times—and the people of those times. I don’t mind when authors make their characters ahead of their time, but for me to believe in them, they shouldn’t seem like people who have just stepped out of a time machine. To me, the insistence upon instilling modern values into historical characters also implies that the present is in all ways superior to the past and that people cannot hold old-fashioned ideas and still be likable and interesting.
  2. A message that must be heard. I imagine that a lot of authors write with some sort of message in mind. That’s fine, but I hate it when the message becomes more important than the story and the characters. When the message becomes of supreme importance, the author all too often ends up creating contrived circumstances to illustrate a point. Characters become mouthpieces for the author or representatives of a point of view instead of full-bodied people.
  3. Treating readers like idiots. I also hate it when authors need to overtly explain every action a character takes and every thought in a character’s head, sometimes repeatedly. Or when authors include info-dumps of background information. It’s true that some authors don’t explain things well enough (and I end up feeling like a idiot), but in general I’d prefer to have to work a little than to be told how I’m supposed to feel and what I’m supposed to think. (I can tolerate the idiot treatment a bit more in audiobooks because my mind tends to wander when I’m listening, and backtracking is a bit more awkward with audiobooks.)

So those are my top three. I can think of plenty of other things that bother me (like the obsession with bodily fluids in historical fiction or the bizarre trend of rejecting quotation marks for dialogue), but those things aren’t going to tip me over into disliking an otherwise good book. But the three pet peeves above will almost always push me into the dislike column.

How about you? Do you have any bookish pet peeves? Now’s your chance to vent!

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Read

Currently Reading

  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
  • The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton (audio)
  • King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (reread)

New Acquisitions

  • The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Found on the book discard shelf at my office.
  • Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami. LibraryThing Early Review book.
  • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates. Review copy from HarperCollins/ECCO.
  • The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. I’ve been wanting to try Zweig, and I found a NYRB edition in the remaindered books at the wonderful Politics and Prose bookstore.
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. The last National Book Award finalist for fiction. My trip to Politics and Prose was in pursuit of this book so I could read all the finalists before the winner is announced.
  • He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope. For the upcoming Classics Circuit.
  • Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. For my church book club.

On My Radar

  • Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi. A Hungarian novel about what happens when a 35-year-old women who lives with her parents goes to spend a week in the country. Thomas at My Porch says, “Although Skylark processes some very complex emotions and is alternately playfully humourous and gut-wrenchingly sad, its plot arc is rather simple.”
  • Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. A dark book about carnival workers that Sasha at Sasha and the Silverfish says is “one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
  • The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. A 1960 novel about a woman dealing with the consequences of on out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Danielle at A Work in Progress says, “Lynne Reid Banks is a wonderful storyteller; I was wrapped up in Jane’s life from the first page.”
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48 Responses to Sunday Salon: Peeved!

  1. TopherGL says:

    #2. Along the same lines, when an author uses characters to serve the plot (which usually helps get across the message), I get really, really mad. I always imagine that writing stories is more about finding or creating characters and seeing where they go. I’m not sure if that’s true, but when I read something, I need to feel that the characters are true in some way.

    I guess good authors can do both at the same time. So my peeve may be just about bad writing.

    Nice list!

  2. leeswammes says:

    I totally agree with your peeves. I also don’t like it when an author seems to put in messages just for the sake of it, because he finds them important. It might not be the message of the whole book, but just some small political, environmental, etc. pet peeve that the author obviously has, and that doesn’t improve the story in any way.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, yeah, I can see that being annoying (although I can’t think of any examples). For me, that would probably elicit an eyeroll but not out and out peevishness.

  3. softdrink says:

    I totally agree with #2. I hate it when they bash you over the head with a message.

    Also, repetition of silly things. The Tower of London book was guilty of this, where the oddest things kept being repeated. It’s kind of like #2…it’s not necessary to constantly remind me that the main character’s great aunt Gertrude has a bunion on her baby toe (or some such nonsense).

  4. Aarti says:

    I hate modern historical characters, too! This is why I cannot bring myself to read Tasha Alexander after getting through her first book, and why in general, I tend to be very selective about historical fiction books I like, particularly ones with females. I think that is probably my biggest pet peeve. I don’t know that anything else bothers me QUITE so much. But generally, I don’t like girls in books that are stupid or very… shrill. I think that happens a lot in fantasy and historical fiction, and it bothers me to no end!

    • Teresa says:

      It does seem like a lot of historical fiction does that, and I just don’t get it. It’s a complete turnoff for me–and so like you I end up being really picky about historical fiction (especially when it’s popular, I’m sorry to say). And yes on the stupid, shrill girls. Do not like.

  5. anokatony says:

    In novels, I hate narrators who without a trace of irony are too satisfied with themselves, unless it’s a humorous novel, and we are supposed to be laughing at them behind their back.

  6. Jenny says:

    Oh my God, not using quotation marks really is one for me. That will actually ruin a book for me unless the book is the best book in all the land (i.e., The Color Purple). If an author isn’t using quotation marks, there ought to be a damn good reason for it (e.g., The Color Purple). If the Lord had wanted us to live unpunctuated lives, He wouldn’t have given us punctuation.

    Also, I hate it when there’s a disconnect between the character’s actions and the way the character appears to be viewed by the author. Like when you know the author intends a character to be sympathetic, but the character’s behavior is such that you genuinely think s/he’s a terrible person. And the author doesn’t seem to realize it. DISLIKE.

    • Teresa says:

      I knew someone would pick up on the punctuation marks! I thought of it because I’m reading a book now that does that (Lord of Misrule), and I’ve gotten confused a few times. But then Great House doesn’t have them, and it never bothered me. I still don’t understand the trend.

      And LOL on your second peeve. I find that in a lot of chick lit where I can’t tell if the author knows her protagonist is a flake.

  7. I don’t like forced happy endings. The book I just read had everything working out for 90% of the people in the story. And it takes place in Kabul. Not realistic.

    • Teresa says:

      Another good one! I don’t like that much either, except with horror novels, where I like the baddie to be defeated at the end, even if the author has to cheat to do it :)

  8. Gavin says:

    I agree with all of these and add rushed endings, as if the author had to finish the book and could not take the time or care to give it their best. Right now I am reading a book that I really want to love but, so far, the author has portrayed all the female characters as steampunk rock stars, harlots or sexual playthings. It is really pissing me off!

    • Teresa says:

      I think endings must be tough because the rushed ending is pretty common. If the rest of the book is ok, I can overlook it though.

      And I’d be pissed off by that book too!

  9. My new pet peeve (since it has happened so often lately) is getting to the end of the book only to discover it’s not actually the end! And a sequel is coming out later next year, or whenever….

  10. Lori L says:

    What a wonderful list of top three bookish pet peeves! I totally agree with each one.
    1. I always hesitate before reading historical fiction for fear that the characters will be too modern.
    2. If there is some message that is intrinsic to the narrative, fine, but if it is just the author’s opinion dumped in, not so fine. And don’t beat me over the head with it.
    3. If the readers are treated like idiots, then seemingly that is the audience for which the book was written – not a stellar recommendation for the book.

  11. Word. I think two and three can go hand in hand with each other–the author may be concerned that the audience won’t get their deep meaning. Pshaw, I say, pshaw.

    And I have to agree with Jenny–I can deal with a little fudging on grammar rules (such as Owen Meany’s habit of “TALKING LIKE THIS”), but tossing standards out of the window? Uh, no.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, 2 and 3 do go together, don’t they?

      Owen Meany is a great example of how rule-breaking can be purposeful. And unconventional usage in dialect is another. But so often it does seem to be about seeming hip or something. I don’t get it, but I can usually overlook it.

  12. I agree with them all, but #3 is my pet peeve. I especially hate it when authors explain something that they already mentioned 10 pages ago.

    I love a really complex plot – it is great when authors give their readers something to think about.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly! I love books that force me to put my brain in gear. I don’t mind a simpler book now and then, but a book can be easy without all the overexplaining.

  13. pburt says:

    I don’t like repetition in books where authors beat the reader over the head with a plot point, concept, etc. I get that some repetition can help with flow but let’s be conscious about it please. Poets repeat for a reason not just they can’t think of anything else to write.

    I am intrigued by your Church book group. Do they read a variety of fiction/non-fiction? Has your group ever read L’engle’s Walking on Water. It is one of my favorite books on creativity and spirituality but I find a lot of people are turned off by her intense feelings about her faith.


    • Teresa says:

      My church group reads both fiction and nonfiction. And we meet weekly and discuss about 100 pages or so a week. I really enjoy it.

      I love L’Engle’s spiritual writings! My favorites are the Crosswick journals, especially The Irrational Season. The church book club hasn’t read L’Engle since I joined (which was just this year), but I think her books would be a good fit for us. I may have to suggest one sometime.

  14. Eva says:

    I have a draft post like this somewhere on my dashboard! lol I was afraid to publish it in case people were all ‘But that’s my fave.’ I think two of my biggest that you haven’t mentioned are 1) when a book uses multiple narrators and all of their voices are exactly alike and 2) almost any novel written in present tense. The latter is weird, I know, but it takes a really good book for me to ignore my instinctive dislike of continual present tense.

    • Teresa says:

      Well, now you know that people will enjoy the opportunity to vent! (And your worry about insulting people was why I tried to make it clear that these are my idiosyncratic peeves.)

      I thought someone might bring up the present tense! I’ve seen a couple of other bloggers complain about it. It’s another trend I don’t really understand but it doesn’t bother me. And while a prefer multiple narrators to have distinct voices, I can press on and enjoy the book even if they don’t, as long as there aren’t other big problems.

  15. Nicola says:

    I agree with your top three and my own peeve is brand names. Contemporary literature is full of brand names and commercial products. Drives me mad.

  16. litlove says:

    I also identify with the three peeves you mention, particularly the first one. I’m sure there must be lots of others, too. I agree with Eve on multiple narrators who all sound the same (yes, that means you, Jonathan Franzen) and I’m not keen on the episodic (most of John Irving) – I really need to see characters being affected deeply by the things that happen to them, and I do like an overarching plot.

    • Teresa says:

      I think character is one of the most important things for me, and all of my pet peeves seem in one way or the other to lead to characters I can’t believe in. Episodic I don’t mind, as long as all the episodes are interesting and seem to be building to something.

  17. Sasha says:

    I hiccuped when I saw the pingback with the blog post title as “Peeved,” paranoid, yes, haha.

    Anyway, I don’t read a lot of historical novels, although I do read a lot of historical romances [it’s not the same thing, I know], but in my case, I let it slide because, well, characterization above all else, even historical accuracy. Of course, some writers do tend to get overboard, and common sense finally reaches me. As for that “message,” I get what you mean–I hate it too when the characters or the story are sacrificed to push forward a central theme, or even a thesis. More annoying when we’re force-fed moral lessons and whatnot.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh dear, I hadn’t even thought how that would look in a pingback! But at least there was good news at the end because you did get me all excited about creepy carnival characters!

  18. Great post! I myself have several pet peeves:

    1. Writers who appropriate the plot/characters of classic novels. Make up your own stuff, people!

    2. Incorrect punctuation, i.e., no quotation marks. What is the point of that? It just annoys me.

    3. Info-dumps at the end of books — when a writer gives a wrap-up of what happens to the characters after the denoument, in a just a page or two — it’s as if they didn’t care enough to actually FINISH the book — “Oh, yeah, and by the way. . . they all died.” Don’t tell me, SHOW me. It makes me think they just didn’t care enough to finish it properly, or that they ran out of time.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, yes, I’m always suspicious of sequels/rewrites of classic novels–with the ever-important exception that is Laurie King, who manages to appropriate Holmes with aplomb. So it can be done, but I approach such books with skepticism. And I’m even more suspicious of the “let’s take real people and put them in improbable situations,” usually as a detective or a vampire these days. Why?

  19. Deb says:

    I hate, hate, hate the following construction:

    A (or An) [adjective]-looking [noun].

    As in “A tired-looking woman,” “A ragged-looking sweater,” “An angry-looking cop.”

    Please! Just tell me the woman is tired, the sweater is ragged, and the cop is angry.

    Thanks for the space to vent.

  20. Deb says:

    Oh–and one more: The use of different fonts to indicate narration by different characters (or, as I like to say, “the psycho always speaks in italics”). If a writer can’t differentiate narrative style effectively enough without resorting to visual clues to let us know who’s talking, perhaps he/she shouldn’t be writing in the first person.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, Deb, you’re making me laugh!

      I don’t mind the different fonts for different characters, but it’s better if they sound different.

      Actually, Kate Atkinson uses that device beautifully in Emotionally Weird—extracts of books by the characters have different typefaces, and each one reflects the style of the book the particular character is writing. It’s ingenious, but it doesn’t depend on the typefaces. They’re just added for comic effect.

  21. rebeccareid says:

    I don’t even attempt historical fiction because of Number 1! Dialogue just is off much of the time. Unless I want a really light read and then I try to ignore it and just have fun.

    I think the things that annoy me most go along with content. I can normally forgive stylistic things if it has a purpose. But I hate unnecessary sex scenes, for example. If a writer can’t write well it’s just so horrible to read..

    • Teresa says:

      I love historical fiction, but I’m extremely choosy and like to wait to see what certain dependable readers think before I try out a new author.

      Oh, and terrible sex scenes are the worst!

      Actually it’s funny that you mention these two things, because I’m rereading one of my all-time favorite historical fiction novels, and just today I read a very well-done sex scene in that self-same book. (King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, about Macbeth)

  22. I must have missed this post! I agree with the message pet peeve – I like finding lines and anecdotes that illustrate a theme of the story, but I hate when it’s too obvious or simplistic.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, I wonder if authors know how obvious they’re being, or if they think they need to be obvious so that their readers will understand. Either way, it puts me off, even when I agree with the message.

  23. Lisa says:

    #1 is my pet peeve along with “ick” sexual moments that just don’t belong in the story (example: p. 2 of “Daniel isn’t Talking Yet” or even worse). And the seemingly mandated political correctness list of characters–must have a, b, c or can’t be published. I’m not a hater of anyone, it’s just that in a novel about X, Y doesn’t fit so why hammer it in there!

  24. NyNy says:

    A nice list you have here! I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! Haha, the first one is something I have noticed on most stories. What writers need to do is revise their study in that era they are trying to write about and the attitudes/views in that time. By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own opinion telling me what you think!

    • Teresa says:

      I think a lot of writers assume readers won’t like historical characters if they don’t modernize them, but I think it’s possible to make characters appealing and true to their time–and it’s much more interesting to read.

      • NyNy says:

        That’s true and I think because – unless the reader was to take a look at the history of that era – they believe the reader wouldn’t have much knowledge of that historical era’s technology or attitudes towards things. But It is definitely possible.

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