The question for the 5 January 2016 installment of The New York Times‘ “Bookends” column is too interesting for me to pass up without taking a crack at it. This column asked Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Moser, “Are there any unforgivable sins in litearture?” Both Galchen and Moser answered the question by looking at authors themselves. The more I thought about the question, the more I realized that “sins” I found unforgivable all have to do with the literature itself.

I find the following unforgivable:

  1. Extreme and gratuitous violence to women. I’ve mostly stopped reading thrillers and mysteries because I can’t bear to see characters—especially female characters—abused and killed for no narrative purpose. If I sense that an author is writing the most depraved things they could think of just to top other mystery writers, rather than just establishing their villain, I stop reading and never go back.
  2. Unedited story sprawl. Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing forbids writers wasting readers’ time. There are some authors I have stopped reading because they include so much extraneous backstory or exposition that I get bored waiting for the action to happen. Everything that appears in the final version of a story should be there for a good reason. I recognize that authors can feel that all their extra prose is necessary, but this is when they should lean on their editors.
  3. Overly expository dialog. No one is ever as eloquent in real life as characters in stories are, but I do demand a certain amount of realism in the dialog. If a character starts explaining the entire history of their country and/or its recent political history, how recent events have motivated them or other characters, or explaining cultural practices that that should be common knowledge to other characters…I’m out. I’ve stopped reading books within pages because of this.

I have peeves—characters who change their minds too suddenly, plots that follow tropes too closely with no apparent sense of irony, etc.—but these three are the only problems that have stopped me dead in the middle of a book and caused me to swear off an author entirely.

I’m curious to hear what other readers find unforgivable.


2 thoughts on “Unforgivable

    1. Annie

      They clearly approached the question from the perspectives of writers. I answered how I did because I’m a reader. At least, that’s my explanation for what Galchen and Moser did.


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