Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Books Make Us Mad: a top-10 list (part 1)

A few weeks ago, an anonymous commenter wrote the following in response to a blog post I had written about Ellen Raskin:
“i would never have know about Raskin of i didn't have a book report of "The Westing Game" bitch!!! fuck her!!!” [sic]
I was personally taken aback by this expression of vitriol, and for a moment, considered playing censor and removing the comment. But then I got to thinking: while it’s in poor taste to attack an author because you dislike what they have written, anger is a perfectly valid reaction to a text. I can recall a few times when books have made me really and truly livid, as I’m sure most of us can if we rack our brains.

So what is it about books that can get people so steamed? Here are a few ideas pertaining to fiction specifically.

1. Reading Under Duress: It is a scientific fact that necessity diminishes enjoyment. Ancient cavemen did not go hiking and fishing for fun as we do today, they were obligated to do these things for survival and I’m sure they hated every minute of it. It’s the same with books. When I meet someone who loathes Dickens, it usually turns out that they had to read him in school—not unlike our angry commenter. Because the commenter read this perfectly delightful book in the context of a school assignment, he/she was predisposed to see it as a burden rather than a source of glee. As such, the reader probably spent the entire book nursing a steadily growing resentment rather than learning something new or allowing him/herself to get swept up in the plot.
2. The characters are unlikable/unrelatable. Nothing draws the ire of readers like bad characters, but characters can suck in more ways than one. Some characters are boring and whiney and you want to see them fail; some are underdeveloped and shallow, and who cares?; some are downright dastardly and you know that their success will occasion suffering for others. Now don’t get me wrong, evil characters can be fun and interesting, but they’re fun and interesting largely because of how much you hate them. A friend of mine claims that when she read The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, the deceitful ways of its eponymous anti-heroine actually caused her to throw the book across the room—this is anger at its most fun.
Kenneth "Anger" Anger: reader and author
People hate bland characters, too, but it’s not as enjoyable as with villains. The blands tend to leave you seething quietly, rather than raging around breaking anything that isn’t nailed down. Sometimes you don’t even know how much you dislike a boring character until you meet someone else who’s read the book and the two of you tease it out in conversation.
3. The characters are likable, but they constantly make terrible decisions: No! Don’t open that spooky-looking door! Remember the warning from the old crone? “Venture not past shadow’d gate?”—Wait, no. NOoooooooo!
     It bears mentioning that likable characters who make bad decisions often become unlikable characters as the book progresses.
4. It flattens entire categories of people: All the men are smug dicks, or all the women are clingy psycho bitches. Every poor person is either venal and resentful or a dirt-smudged saint. Every black person is hip and easygoing, or else they're an Angry Black Person with right on their side. I was going to try and keep this balanced, but let's be real here: most of the time when this flattening happens, it's in a book written by a white dude, and it's affecting a category of person other than white dudes. White straight dudes. Women get it worst in most of the fiction I read, but I'm not sure that means they have it empirically worst; it may just be that authors (=bookish white straight dudes) spend more time brooding over loving/hating women than any particular racial or ethnic or sexual minority.
5. The author is clearly using fiction to manipulate people into adopting their own evil worldview: I’m sure Ayn Rand isn’t the only author who does this, but no one else immediately comes to mind.

Well that's 5 points down, and 5 more to come tomorrow when this little haterade cocktail hour  recommences. In the meantime, a special thank you to my DC correspondent for collaborating on the list.


  1. Upon Sinclair is also guilty of #5. The jungle was pure propaganda. I didn't realize this while I was reading it until the last 100 pages of pure sermonizing. It made me angry because I liked the book until that point.

  2. Herman Melville in Bartleby the Scrivner is exactly number 2. I read the book for school and that is NOT why I hated it. I hated it because the whole thing felt so pointless. What is the point of their lives? Why are none of the characters sympathetic? Why does Bartleby prefer not to?
    I think, though, that it was designed to make people angry. The Good Earth made me really angry, but that was, I'm sure, on purpose as well.