Experience has taught us that there are certain topics that will just never appeal to us. These are our "dealbreakers" - those certain words or phrases that stand out in blurbs or reviews and cause us to run in the other direction. Of course, none of these are hard or fast rules, but when navigating the thousands of books published each year, it pays to be a little judgmental!
Sarah from Clear Eyes, Full Shelves inspired this post in part with her excellent List-O-Rama!
I know that not everyone is like this, but I love world-building – the more inventive and detailed the better. I grew up reading The Hobbit about once a year and then of course I became a massive Lord of the Rings fan. So you know… I have certain standards. A map on the opening pages, several made-up races and languages, completely original magic systems – these are all things that I relish. I want to be surprised. I want to experience a world that I could have never even imagined. So, (and this is especially true recently) when I run across the same old historical European setting and the same old magic systems and the same old black and white good vs. evil struggle…meh.
I know this is a major stereotype that I have, but I can’t help it. Experience has proven that for me, “heartwarming tale” = schmaltzy unrealistic corn-fest. I just don’t like anything that’s too…happy. And I hardly ever read to escape. I don’t know if this means I’m a rigid stick in the mud or what, but I really like my books to feel like reality. And for me that means they can’t be too happy.
= No. I just can’t handle it anymore. I can’t handle whatever crazy-ass excuse (different classes, different species, he’s a murderer, he’s a sociopath, he’s a stalker but he’s oh so HOT anyway…) will be used to keep the love interests apart. And even MORE than that, I definitely can’t handle the stupid justifications that will be used to actually bring them together. You know what? If there’s a hot guy who might murder you someday…maybe you just shouldn’t, okay? Can we all just agree on that?
Dogs as narrators
I do fully intend to read Jack London’s books someday, but otherwise the story of the family dog holds almost zero appeal for me. I am a cat person through and through. Books that purportedly contain a “heartwarming tale” and a dog narrator have less than zero appeal. And if I ever come across “the heartwarming tail of the family dog” on a book shelf somewhere I can’t promise that I won’t barf.
The problems of rich white people in boarding school/prep school
Wedding planning angst
I didn't even angst about my own wedding plans - why would I want to read about someone else worrying for pages on end about which color of jordan almonds to serve?
The funny thing is, now that I've finished this list I can think of several exceptions to these dealbreakers. But I guess that's why I'm so thankful to have so many great reviewer friends: only you trusted people can convince me to break these rules.
This is a #1 dealbreaker for me. It's not that I am not morbidly interested in this topic, in general. Believe me, I am. Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex enthralled me. It's just as a romantic trope incest is full of fail. Contrary to how authors like Charlaine Harris and Mira Grant write about it, with heroines calling their lovers brothers while having sex with them (even if their brothers are not strictly biological), the issue of incest is complex and psychologically damaging. There has to be something unsettling and disturbing in a relationship between a man and a woman who have been raised since their infancy as siblings, for them to be able to cross that line and become full fledged lovers. There has to be some isolation, abuse, etc. involved. Incest is a taboo for a reason. Most people would feel sick at the idea of themselves sleeping with their siblings. They also, unlike characters in Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments books, would probably feel sick if they find out that people they've been making out with, are their brother/sister.
Let me make it clear - incest is not a smart tool for creating romantic wangst! Authors shouldn't exploit this issue if they are not equipped to address all psychological, social and emotional implications and consequences of it.
And speaking of wangst...
Now, this one is different for every reader. Each reader, I believe, has a certain level of angst that he/she is ready to handle.
I like thoughtful novels about suffering characters just like any other person. Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl I am reading right now has just the right amount of depressing angst, IMO. But a bit more than that, if the characters start throwing themselves around and cry and whine and contemplate suicide and wallow in self-pity in the most obvious and obnoxious way, like they do in Jennifer Donnely's Revolution, Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere or David Levithan's Every You, Every Me, I am immediately out.
Subtlety is key here. I don't need the characters to constantly voice their suicidal intentions to know their pain. You remember show-not-tell rule? The characters' pain should be shown through their actions, not their sad, sad monologues.
Now, maybe I am not a proper woman or something, but I just can't handle stories, both adult and YA, about pregnancies and child rearing, cute babies and whatnot. (Too much 16 and Pregnant watching possibly?) Maybe if I have my own I will change my mind, but as of now, I stay away.
However, I did manage to read a couple of YA books about teen pregnancies that didn't turn me off for some reason - How to Save a Life and Impossible. Why? Talented authors? Non-nauseating handling of the topic? I honestly don't know.
I am not saying that it is impossible to get the opposite gender's voice right, but from my experience, most writers, especially when it comes to YA or genre fiction, can't do it effectively. More often then not you end up with female characters constantly thinking and talking about penises and males ones with lust-less, chaste thoughts, who describe their girlfriends' dresses' in minute detail and constantly quote poetry.
Quilts, knitting, patchworking, macrame, scrapbooking, book clubs
I am saving these for when I am in my 70s.
Remember when we fast forwarded a hundred years and suddenly we were back to pagan rituals? No? Remember how annoying the movie The Village was with its ridiculously stupid plot twist? I definitely do. If you're going to set your book anywhere that is recognizable as earth, please, please explain to me how we got to that point. And I don't think I'm asking too much to request that your explanation make logical sense. If there are some weapons around, where are the others? Don't invent a disease that somehow only affects redheaded twelve-year-olds. I'm getting pretty sick of the "mysterious plague that wipes out nearly the entire population of earth" story.
I admit that I can't know about this dealbreaker until it drives me absolutely bonkers after starting. If you have a character who is repeatedly getting into awkward situations, having misunderstandings, being walked all over, harboring a vital secret...well, just don't do it. Unless you are somehow writing the equivalent of a comedy of confusion and mistaken identity, you are going to drive me up the wall. This seems to happen a lot in romance novels. "Oh, I'm a secret millionaire but I'm going to let you go ahead and think that I'm homeless and that you're giving me a leg up, even if that means embarrassing yourself in front of your peers, my family, and everyone you know. We'll all have a laugh about this later!" (I made this storyline up)
I once saw a thread on Amazon about how Christian fiction should be marked as such and many parties were getting really heated about it. I am sure that some of it is probably good. I may even like some of it if I gave it a try, but I'm not going to. In the same way that I'm sure many readers would say they want to read "clean" books, I feel an aversion to any books that leave out what I see as realistic progressions of relationships (to me) or books with a heavy-handed message. I'm sure not all religious fiction has either of these two elements. Nevertheless, not for me.
Sure, there are exceptions to these (as there are to all of our dealbreakers) but I am sick of these subgenres. When I see any of these topics mentioned in a blurb, it drops down to the bottom of my to-read list (or more likely falls off it altogether.) I almost added "teenager solving crimes" to my list but then I remembered how much I enjoyed I Hunt Killers and A Pocketful of Eyes and I had to retract that statement. I think that last dealbreaker is more of a "played-out idea that is rarely done well." Hmmm, I think there are a ton of books that fall into that category.
That should be a band name. Anyway, this one's a direct result of my first and only attempt to read from Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series. There was a free Kindle book on Amazon so I snatched it up and started reading...and had to put it down after less than a chapter because there was already an orgy happening with several different magical beings. Which brings me to my next dealbreaker...
The Female Main Character Who Is Irresistible To Everyone with a Penis
Yeah, that's right Sookie Stackhouse, I'm talking to you. I bet all the ladies of Louisiana want you outta there. But seriously, I'd like to believe that guys have varied taste. It is unbelievable (and annoying) when a character in a book gets with every dude around.