Book descriptions that scare me

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I’m a fan of foreign fiction. As a result, I pay attention to book awards involving such books, including the BTBA. But when this year’s winner was announced it got me thinking about things that tend to cause me to prejudge a book.

The NPR review of the winner, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, notes the book has “[n]ear-infinite sentences in a nonlinear narrative shuttling across time and space.” How long are these sentences? The “at times vertiginous sentences can extend to eight pages or more.” Perhaps the key word here is “nonlinear.” Wheter it’s becaues I’m an illiterati or for some other reason, I’ve generally found so-called nonlinear books to be more of a fatiguing undertaking than I want. Nonnlinear also tends to strike me postmodernism.

Yet it’s not the only word I consider a tip off that can keep me away from reading a book. While my prejudices predilections keep me away from certain genres (horror, adventure, self-help, mysteries), these words can cause me to filter books that are in categories I like. My list includes:

“Dreamlike,” “surreal, “stream of consciousness” — These, too, evoke a sense of there being perhaps a bit too much postmodernity for my tastes. Granted, they aren’t always used in the context but they clearly are a signal to me to investigate a book further before reading it.

“Passionate,” “love story,” or, worse yet, the two combined — My reasoning is quite simple. Love stories are, of course, romances and “romance” inevitably makes me think “harlequin.” I know that’s guilt by what may well be an entirely unwarranted association but even setting that aside I’m not one of those who make this genre the biggest moneymaker for publishers.

“Genre-bending,” “genre-blurring” — A hint of postmodernism but also indicative of an author or publisher who doesn’t really want to slot the book into a genre for fear the classification will hamper book sales. For me, though, I prefer the genre label because, for example, I like certain science fiction but I don’t like fantasy. While I admit at times the effort to blend or blur genres works quite well, I’ve also found that without looking closely I may be holding a fantasy or even romance novel.

“Ambitious, “epic,” “definitive” — Unlike the majority of the preceding terms, these words are easily used for both fiction and nonfiction. But regardless of which realm they’re used in, they mean one thing to me: long; often really, really long. I’ve only got so much time left to read books. That means if you’re talking about a commitment to 500+ pages, I’ll probably go elsewhere. Of course, it’s fair to ask whether these words scare me only because of my own mortality?

There’s plenty of other terms out there that will cause me to look the other way, regardless of whether it’s on a book jacket, in an advertisement or a book review. But if we’re not reading what we want to read, what’s the sense?

Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?

David Baldacci, The Camel Club

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