The pleasure of reading stories that don't bore

"A good story is a dirty secret that we all share," Lev Grossman writes in "Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard, his essay in the August 29 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Grossman, the book critic at Time and author of The Magicians and Warp, believes that a strong emphasis on storytelling will once again becoming important in novels, after having been cast aside as being "disgraceful" for the last several decades. That's good news, he says, because novels without a strong plot, for the most part, suck.

Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Sales of hardcover young-adult books are up 30.7% so far this year, through June, according to the Association of American Publishers, while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Le's The Boat, one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn't include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You'll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they're lazy and can't hack it in the big leagues. But that's not the case. They need something they're not getting elsewhere. Let's be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins's young-adult novel The Hunger Games instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because The Hunger Games doesn't bore them.

All of this is changing. The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again.

Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard Work


  1. Literary doesn’t have to mean boring. Dickens wrote his stories to be serialized in magazines. People waited at the dock for the ship to come in to find out what had happened to the heroine.
    An essay on style by Herbert Spencer impressed Jack London. In essence he said to use conventional conversational language and to change the setting often enough that the reader wouldn’t be bored.
    As a story narrator I look at technical construction. Can you tell who is speaking? That’s a common problem.
    Perhaps the most difficult “literary” story I’ve ever looked at is Henry James’ “Daisey Miller and the Turn of the Screw.” It is a minefield of punctuation. I never was able to read more than 4 pages at a time without getting a headache.

  2. “Look at Thomas Pynchon—in ‘Inherent Vice’ he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.” That’s fancy talk there, considerin’

  3. Young adult novel sales are up? That must be some mistake, because I have it on good authority from my TV news and talk radio that kids today are a bunch of lazy illiterate stoners who only care about their Ataris and twit-blogs and whatnot.

  4. Confession: I have been purchasing my childhood favorites on my kindle and re-reading them during lunchtime. Because they’re what I love. And I just don’t want to invest myself in something I won’t love.

  5. A friend of mine wrote a really great reply to this article. Check it out here:


    you make this point: “The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie.” I…don’t recognize those Victorian novels you’re referencing there. Not that there aren’t orderly, complacent, and optimistic novels written during the Victorian era; however, the bulk of what’s written in the nineteenth century is almost anything but the three adjectives you chose.

    Orderly? Have you read Wilkie Collins? Complacent? Have you read Shirley? Optimistic? Have you read anything by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing? (Or, if you’re going to ding me for both of those gentlemen being too far removed from the heart of the Victorian era — and that would be a fine thing to ding me on — I’ll return that volley with Villette.) Heck, even reaching the end of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (which, I know, isn’t Victorian; it is, though, nineteenth century), one isn’t left feeling terribly optimistic that the marriage between Fanny and Edmund is going to be a success.

    It feels a little as if you’re pitting the nineteenth century against the twentieth; however, I don’t feel you make a compelling case of this. Put baldly, it seems as if you’re saying that the Victorian novel is muzak to James Joyce’s Beethoven.

  6. I was unaware that genre fiction over the “last several decades” had ever given up on sales, let alone plot.

    Well, except Ike Asimov at times, and that was more lack of characterization. But the second part of The Gods Themselves majorly made up for last part.

  7. Brainspore – they are! It’s adults who are reading these novels.

    Of course, the last generation was also a bunch of lazy illiterate stoners who only care about their Ataris, and they’re apparently buying lots of books now, so at least there’s hope.

  8. The editors are the problem because the selection process is so corrupt. It’s based on who you know and how much power you wield not how good a story you wrote. There is really nowhere to submit anything without an agent. And agents are dubious judges of literary merit. And by literary merit I mean true literature, not English professor snobbery written on sabbatical on a laptop.

  9. Roy @1, is Dickens literary? Many of his contemporaries looked down on his writing for its sentimentality and melodrama. Oscar Wilde famously commented “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” While Dickens was writing, I’m pretty sure he fell on the low side of the high-low culture divide.

    Since then, Dickens has come to be considered literary largely by people who aren’t very familiar with literature. CP Snow, in his 1959 lecture on “The Two Cultures” (the growing divide between the sciences and humanities) observed that when he asked scientific and technically-minded people whether they’d ever read any literary fiction, they often replied that they’d read some Dickens.

  10. Jarrad @#7

    Optimistic? Have you read anything by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing?

    Hardy was even a centerpiece of this BBC 4 radio In Our Time episode entitled “Victorian Pessimism“!

    Mid-to-late Victorians found that the discoveries of Darwin and the heat death of the universe were… well, freshly depressing.

    But it was a challenge to find things to be optimistic about, hence things like H.G. Wells painting a dreary picture of the future for the Time Traveller in The Time Machine, but still giving him something to fight to hope for.

    Which arguably is plot. Or at least a cliffhanger, the anticipation of plot.

  11. Aaah, Dickens. It’s as if he wrote for the movies…before there were movies.
    But literary or not, it’s popular fiction, and great story-telling.
    I prefer Poe, myself, when it comes to 19th C. storytellers.

  12. The debate about what qualifies as literature bugs me. Authors come in and out of fashion in the literary world just like fashion designers do in the fashion world.

    Is that really so surprising?

  13. “Cultured” entertainment cannot be enjoyed without discomfort. If it pleases you, it is base. So said my headmaster, Mr. Whippings.

  14. I think that it might have more to do with ability to identify with the characters than the presence of plot. YA novels commonly involve people who are kind of miserable being plucked from mundanity and becoming happier. Dickens and Austen fit that bill. Melville and Genet, not so much.

  15. @#11 Avram

    Dickens’ social impact outweighed the expectations of his audience to such a degree that he must be considered a literary figure. It’s certainly not the only route to literary relevance, but it is certainly a legitimate one.

    Donne, Melville, Tolkien, Gaiman: all considered unserious literature by experts at one point or another. Eventually you stand the test of time, or you do not.

  16. Cory @10 – Just like the old Monty Python line: “All the kids are on drugs and all the adults are on rollerskates.”

  17. Maybe some people feel this way but I don’t. I have over the past few years turned to classic literature because I have become bored with popular writers like Neil Gaimen.

  18. I really enjoyed reading Eric Bogosian’s Perforated Heart this past week. It’s about a writer looking back at his life. The language was so natural, it feels at times that you are reading your own thoughts.

    He writes about his relationship with women, writing, sex, drugs. He talks about other contemporary authors and artists and it feels like you are there.

    It is a relatively short, easy read, but its not one that insults the reader’s intelligence, which is nice.

  19. @21 Nezzyidy:
    If you want us to believe that you’ve ever read any Gaiman, you could start by spelling his name correctly.

  20. @Nezzyidy–

    I’m with you. I always read whatever my kids read, otherwise I can’t have any sort of meaningful discussion with them about what they’re getting out of their books.

    There’s no way I’d prefer a more steady diet of this stuff to more challenging fare. If I can’t find it on the “just in” shelf at the bookstore, there’s always a wealth of classics at Project Gutenberg.

  21. Am I the only one who thought Nam Le’s The Boat was entertaining, perhaps even out and out exciting? The story concerning the young assassin was just as intense as watching a good action movie, except way more suspenseful because you feel for the kid.

  22. Seems to be a bit of a straw man argument. Surely “Books should not be boring” is not news to anyone? I’m far from convinced that books ever were especially boring- surely for every House of Leaves, there are a thousand Kavalier & Clays?

    And entertaining literary novels are hardly a new thing; underlined by the fact that the above column cites Donna Tartt as someone who combines literary flair with narrative chutzpah- unless I’m missing something, Tartt’s only major work was The Secret History, first published 17 years ago (making at as old, I suspect, as many BoingBoing readers).

    The argument that literary dullness is the reason people are reading more young adult novels also fails to convince; surely an equally strong argument could be made that the main audience of YA novels are people who would not normally read “literary” fiction, but who have abandoned conventional thrillers, etc, in search of something with some more imagination. In other words, something a little more challenging?

    I’m especially annoyed as the article was linked as “the real reason people read Harry Potter is because literary fiction is boring” and not because Harry Potter is one of the few book series that they’ve heard of. I find it very hard to believe that there’s a paucity of decent reading material out there- surely there are more entertaining literary novels than anyone could ever read in a lifetime. The difficulty is in raising people’s awareness that literature is not intimidating, and that they’re perfectly capable of having a fun, rewarding time even if they venture out beyond the “Supernatural Romance” shelves.

  23. Oh my god. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve read so many books recently that have utterly unfulfilling endings, like the writer got bored or just couldn’t be bothered to finish it – seems it’s just the latest literary trend. It may be a childlike need, or an old fashioned thought, but I like to know what happens to the characters I’ve been asked to care about for 500 pages. I like a story to have a climax and an ultimate ending that resolves the plot points. I don’t think it’s too much to ask! There’s nothing more annoying than spending a week or two reading something and then feeling gipped at the end.

  24. @#1
    Um, Roy, the James ‘story’ is actually two stories that are often published in one volume. But don’t feel bad; at least you didn’t conflate them, as a college friend did, into ‘The Screwing of Daisy Miller.’

  25. My grandson sent me this piece. He’s a big Steven King fan. I am not. However, King knows how to build a bridge; he’s a first-rate engineer, there’s no denying that. But when the woo-woo starts, I say bye-bye. Demons, clowns, vampires, etc. can all go jump off of those well-made bridges.

    Lev Grossman’s argument is against modernism* and the modernist novel, not Victorians and their turgid mile-long narratives. He means Joyce, Stein, et al; he does not mean Dickens, Thackery, and James.

    *look it up.

  26. As a children’s librarian, I have often felt that books written for YA and juvenile markets are better done than many of the ones aimed at adults. They have better grammar, better plot development, more interesting characterizations, and are overall more entertaining to read. My theory is that kids’ books may undergo a heavier vetting process than the grownup ones. Or it may be that kids are less invested in trying to impress anyone with the ‘literary merit’ of what they’re reading, and are going for what is just good.

    I have seen a number of books for ‘adults’ with plot holes you could drive the Titanic through, terrible grammar, dull characters. Spelling mistakes! A spellchecker is no substitute for a thesaurus and a dictionary, and a firm grasp of language construction. The editors of those books should be ashamed!

  27. I admire story flow. When the author grabs you and takes you along, that’s art. My favorite book is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.
    Now if you want to make money I think writer Don Marquis had it pegged when he said, “Write for people whose lips move while they read.”

  28. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a YA novel, except for a few unfinished Sci-Fi stories that may indeed have been written for fourteen-year-old boys. We used to have what were called “boy’s books” and girl’s books,” and got them at Xmas from well-meaning aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They were pretty awful, I recall; and usually about dogs or horses or roughing it in the wild or on the frontier. Otherwise, we started reading adult books at adolescence. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Chandler, London, and Twain were my YA authors.

  29. a) Why are we putting any credence in literary criticism which appears in the Wall Street Journal? As several people have already mentioned, the biggest problem with literature of any stripe at the moment is market economics (agents and editors know the market better than they know how to write a sentence).

    b) Mr. Grossman should learn the difference between story and plot. In his 1927 book, E. M. Forster (one of the more Edwardian modernists) had the following to say: “A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. . . . If we would grasp the plot we must add intelligence and memory. . . . The intelligent novel-reader, unlike the inquisitive one who just runs his eye over a new fact, mentally picks it up. He sees it from two points of view: isolated, and related to the other facts that he has read on previous pages.” Mr. Grossman is talking about story. There’s plenty of good story out there. Dan Brown’s books, for instance, have great stories but bad plots because they lack plausible causality. They’re also exceptionally poorly written.

    We do not need a revolution from the supermarket shelves. We do not need to uphold bad writing as somehow virtuous. We especially do not need to take advice from the very sector which has ruined publishing.

  30. My theory is that talent with plot and talent with prose do necessarily coincide. Some authors do both very well, but it isn’t a given. It’s always seemed to me that adult literary fiction put emphasis on prose, while genre fiction tended to emphasized plot more heavily.

    I’m a plot fan. I enjoy beautiful prose, but it doesn’t keep me reading. On the other hand I can sit through no end of repetitive descriptions, utilitarian actions, and boring sex scenes if I’m eager to hear what happens next.

  31. A novel can be ‘hard’ for a number of reasons. The sf novels of Greg Egan, or the ‘weird fiction’ of China Mieville, can challenge the grey matter with speculative technological developments or alt.worlds, confronting us with ‘hard’ philosophical/political/social/emotional questions.

    What tends not to be ‘hard’ is decyphering what on earth is happening on the page, largely because the writing is crisp and uncluttered. Not the most richly crafted prose, perhaps, (though China has his moments) but – as a non-fic author – I’ve always worked on the basis that the clarity of the writing should vary with the complexity of the content.

  32. Being bored tells us more about the reader than the book. One person’s boredom can be another’s excitement. To say a book is boring is unreliable as literary criticism, but might be helpful for psychological analysis.

    There’s a reverse snootiness at play here, maybe even a defensiveness against feared accusations of middle-brow taste and enthusiasms.

    What if there is more to literature than story and plot and we’re somehow missing it?

  33. Reading this article and the resultant thread reminds me of something sadly funny. A number of years ago I edited a novel written by an elderly woman who had never had anything published (and had apparently never written anything other than some little poems in doggerel verse). Despite having a pretty good last couple of paragraphs, it was kinda… well, terrible. I had to fix some really weird continuity & technical gaffes, like a character who was pregnant for over a year, another who had two birthdays in one year, and another who took crack cocaine intravenously. (It was what I call a “6:00 News book” – inspired by sensational TV news items about which the author knows almost nothing.) I was doing what I could with it, when the woman presented me with 50 more pages. I read them, and they did absolutely nothing to further the nearly nonexistent plot. In fact, they were nothing more than repetition of behaviors exhibited by the various characters. When I asked the woman why she wrote these 50 pages, she said it was to make the book 250 pages long. It turned out that a friend of hers had once had a career as a writer of Regency romance novels, each of which averaged 200 pages — and she wanted to “outdo” her friend by writing a longer book. I tactfully tried to steer her toward outlining some sort of plot that could aid in characterization and development thereof, but she insisted that her book was “perfect.” When I finally told her that it spends far too much time not going anywhere, and the addition of 50 pages of more nothing just makes it, frankly, boring to the reader, her reply was: “I want to write a boring book.”

    This makes just a little more sense if you know that she rarely finished reading ANY books, as she found them all “boring.” She probably figured that “boringness” was a prerequisite for getting published.

    She wound up self-publishing, and although she sweet-talked local booksellers into carrying her book, none of them sold. At least the continuity gaffes are fixed…

  34. What a strange person. She wanted to write a boring book? Well, at least she succeeded. I did that without wanting to.

  35. Stephen King was a revelation in high school. I especially loved reading Christine, sometime in 9th grade. I remember trying to convince my English teacher that he was right up there with Charles Dickens with regards to character development. :)

    Cannery Row I did as a book report. 6th grade. That was the same year we read Animal Farm. I had a terrific teacher that year.

    When I was teaching young adults with emerging literacy, I had good luck with a series from Scholastic, the Dear America series. They were diaries from various historical periods, told from the point of view of a teenager going through the time. My students loved those.
    Looking out on a roomful of kids reading those was very gratifying. (A number of the kids told me it was the first book they had ever read all the way through.)

  36. What about Ulysses? It’s perfect fodder for what LevGross is talking about: self-indulgent twaddle.

  37. Avram: “Dickens has come to be considered literary largely by people who aren’t very familiar with literature.”

    That would have come as a surprise to the middle-aged Harvard Ph.D. who was our Dickens specialist when I started grad school in 1966.

    On a more general matter: People read stories for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with a strong narrative line. But there are other kinds of payoffs available, and the nifty thing about the novel is that it accommodates a wide range of effects and emphases. Whether any given set of effects and emphases has social prestige has less to do with aesthetics than with which group of readers claims to appreciate them.

    Re: Agents and editors and acquisitions. As editors have been drawn away from acquiring books to other duties inside their organizations–and as every second citizen decides to take a whack at producing a book–agents have become the de facto gatekeepers. It is now harder to find an agent than it used to be to get through the slush pile.

  38. “People like popular books, not boring books” is a funny argument. That aside…

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I don’t read for plot. I honestly would rather watch the movie version. I read for the words. Playing with language is what I appreciate in fiction. Plot is the vehicle to deliver symbols.

    I guess that makes me a boring mutant.

  39. as a member of the more recent lazy stoned generation, i would like to say that gravity’s rainbow might be the best book i’ve ever read.

    plot isn’t everything. :)

  40. Grossman starts his argument with a little tale about the Modernists’ war on plot, and then half the novels he lists to set the scene are books with strong, even lurid plots: The Sound and the Fury, The Age of Innocence, An American Tragedy, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, A Passage to India – these are not easy reads, maybe, but that he specifically says “[The Modernists] took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury” makes me wonder if he and I read the same books.

    This is what happens when you build an argument around a false dichotomy. Strong stories don’t actually make a book easy to read. Light in August has a much more gripping plot than The Plague, for instance, but you really have to want it. Few of my favorite novels – The Remains of the Day, Things Fall Apart, Anna Karenina, Housekeeping, Lolita, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – are particularly difficult reads. (Okay, I’ll give him Gravity’s Rainbow.) But none of them is distinguished by the kind of rollicking genre-fiction storyline Grossman’s talking about. (Well, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter has one every two chapters, but it’s sort of a special case.)

    And his claim that writers and readers are just now discovering the wonders of plot is just bizarre. Some boring-literary-establishment National Book Award winners from the 1980s: Sophie’s Choice, Birdy, The World According to Garp, The Color Purple, World’s Fair, Paco’s Story…granted, things get a little etiolated once you move into the 90s, but even then we have Sabbath’s Theater and Cold Mountain. Plotless these books are not.

    Oh well. Setting up false dichotomies is how you write a column like this. It’s disappointing, but it’s not reprehensible, like that nasty piece of work by the always-horrible B.R. Meyers cited above.

  41. What Grossman fails to acknowledge or, worse, to understand, is that readers derive pleasure from many sources, not just plot. Richness of language, the images it evokes, the psychological insights it reveals when handled by a master — this is pleasure that has nothing to do with plot. Simply put, you get from Saul Bellow what you cannot get get from Stephenie Meyer, and vice-versa.

    But here’s the difference: the worlds of Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are not closed to me, whereas those of Bellow, Pynchon, Joyce and other so-called “literary” authors are, in fact, closed to the average reader. Not because they’re inaccessible (the gates are wide open), but because many readers don’t develop an interest in exploring those worlds with wonder and appreciation. And why would they, when faux populist, intellectual anti-intellectuals like Lev Grossman continue to reinforce the absurd idea that “difficult” novels are boring?

    So who’s in the more enviable position? Readers who can and do enjoy both genre fiction and high literature depending on their mood, or readers who limit themselves to vampire novels and books written for children and young adults? Books about zombies? Comic books? All of which are great (I enjoy them myself) but represent only part of the big conversation of literature.

    It’s funny how champions of solid, plot-driven genre fiction are so vocal in their denunciation of the literary. Funny and sad. These people can explain with utter fanboy conviction why one genre writer is better than another, or, in film for example, why the original “Planet of the Apes” is superior to Tim Burton’s remake, and yet they sneer when you explain why Nabokov is a better writer than, say, Neil Gaiman. Like them, in the end I can only shrug, say, “Trust me,” agree to disagree, and leave it at that.

  42. Arguing about the perceived value of art is about as useful as arguing about religion or politics. Most people are so dogmatic about their opinions that you might as well be barking for all the good it will do. And in the end, most people will just read what they like, sneer at what they don’t, and belittle those who dare to disagree.

    Open a book and read. If you don’t like it, try another. But always be willing to come back and try a previously discarded book again later. When I was in college, I got a part in The Three Musketeers. I tried to read the Dumas novel and it bored me to tears. 10 years later I gave it another shot and it was wonderful. A book series that I loved in my 20s seems trivial and pointless to me now in my 40s.

    Just my opinion, though.

  43. You want to read a couple of excellent stories? Check out the first two in Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. They are the best stories I’ve read in a long time. The characters are interesting, the plot is engaging and well paced and the reader is kept constantly on his toes.

  44. Two definitions to work with:

    Literary Fiction: A genre of fiction characterized by being about either A) boring people doing boring things for boring reasons or B) the author showing off their command of the language. Occasionally refered to as “mainstream fiction” inspite of the fact that it’s regularly outsold by just about everything else. Primarily of interest to people who value pretension over actual quality.

    Literature: Any fiction that’s actually good.

  45. #56) Sure, Daemon, but who decides what’s “good” and what’s not? Your argument turns a wide circle and puts us right back where we started. Not particularly helpful, that.

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