British Columbia

Fear of abandonment: Is life too short to stick with boring books and TV shows?

There are two kinds of readers in the world. Those who think it's OK to leave a boring book unfinished, and those who can't bear to abandon the most tedious of tomes. Should the same logic apply to TV series? And in which camp are you?

English writer sparks debate imploring readers to 'angrily' toss books that bore beyond 20 pages

Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. It's unknown how he felt about readers who didn't have the patience to make it to the end of the classic doorstopper. He never had to contend with Netflix. (Getty Images)

I have a confession to make. Due to my profound disinterest, a number of serial killers will remain forever at large.

I'm talking fictional murderers of course. The ones found on various streaming services.

The latest victims of my indifference are the Danish targets of Netflix's Chestnut Man. Though I've also left Norwegians, Finns, Americans and even Canadians hanging mid-TV series.

For that matter, I've also abandoned families coping with multi-generational trauma, wacky workers laughing their way through dysfunctional office spaces and keenly researched documentaries on really dull topics.

But a book — I can never give up on.

That approach flies directly in the face of advice from bestselling English crime novelist Mark Billingham, who reignited an ages-old debate in recent weeks by advising readers to "angrily" toss any book that doesn't interest them after 20 pages.

Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee says she agrees with Billingham.

And if life is too short to stick with bad books, she says she has even less patience for a TV series that can't sustain her attention.

As long as they pay the cover price, Lee says she doesn't take it personally if readers don't finish something she's written. It's not her, it's them.

"I think most readers will give it about 30 pages, but, I would say, in the first 30 pages, what the author is trying to do is build trust with the reader," says Lee, whose 2016 novel The Conjoined was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award.

"It's like a first date. And if it doesn't work out, then it doesn't work out."

Tedious books, dull housework and milquetoast men

Billingham's comments have sparked a firestorm of commentary.

Guardian columnist Rebecca Nicholson professed her admiration for the author whose Tom Thorne crime novels have been adapted for television. She described her own miserable attempts to make it through Wolf Hall and The Luminaries.

"The ability to chuck a book that doesn't immediately appeal is a superpower, a recognition of the value of one's time and something that shows great confidence in one's own taste," Nicholson wrote.

"There are far more brilliant stories than any one person could read in a lifetime and there are far more books I wish I had binned than ones I'm glad I did not."

Jen Sookfong Lee is the author of the novel The Conjoined. She says she doesn't take it personally if a reader doesn't finish one of her books. As long as they paid for it. (Sherri Koop Photography )

New Zealand journalist and author Rosemary McLeod wrote that she has the same amount of patience for tedious books as she does for dull housework and milquetoast men.

She has given up on Moby Dick and Under The Volcano. And don't even get McLeod started on Eat, Pray, Love.

"There is no power on earth, or money, that could make me either read it or sit through the movie unless I was both sedated and in a straitjacket​," McLeod wrote in a recent column.

Rupert Hawksley, an editor with the Independent newspaper, was one of the few voices to stand up for completists.

"Reading should challenge and confound us; it should take us into the minds and lives of those we don't like or find hard to understand. This may not always be gripping but it is often rewarding," Hawksley wrote.

"We owe it to writers to give them a full hearing before passing judgment —and finishing a book is the only way to do this. To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting."

As a celebrity gossip blogger and author, Elaine 'Lainey' Lui is an avid consumer of both books and television.

The former Canada Reads panellist sees the explosion of great content on the small screen as one of the main reasons that people are less prone to persevere with any kind of cultural product when the going gets tough.

"I used to be the kind of person who, even if I hated a book, I would finish it. And that only changed recently," says Lui, author of Listen to The Squawking Chicken.

"I've given up, and I've been OK with not finishing a book after whatever — 50 pages — because, of course, life's too short, but there's also so much content to consume."

Lui calls it FOMO [fear of missing out] in reverse.

"You would make yourself finish a book because you would have FOMO, you would check it off the list," she says.

"But in fact, now I have FOMO about, 'Oh, I'm wasting time on this book, and everybody's talking about this show.'"

Not all stories have to be for you

For the record, I have abandoned a few books, including Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

But I slogged my way through the endless ballroom scenes in War and Peace and a particularly dull biography of Fidel Castro. I don't think either accomplishment revealed any depth to my character — beyond being stubborn. Years later, I also can't remember what either book was actually about.

Gossip maven Elaine 'Lainey' Lui is the author of Listen to the Squawking Chicken. She says life is too short for bad books. (Jason Proctor/Zoom)

I've also watched many TV series to the bitter end. But I don't feel the same loyalty to TV characters, and the sense of time slipping away becomes acute as the seasons of supposedly binge-worthy shows I've missed out on pile up.

Lee says the same logic applies to TV series as to books. Although she feels even less guilty about giving up on a TV show because the creators are more likely to be making money than the average author.

Even so, she says, it's important to bear in mind that some episodes are likely to be less interesting than others.

Elaine Lui believes people read and watch TV for the same reason: the desire to immerse themselves in a different world.

It may be controversial, but she didn't really care for Seinfeld. She couldn't get into Mare of Easttown. And as far as books are concerned, Lui has no time for On The Road.

Lui advises viewers to hold their judgment on a series until they've seen two episodes. But then, she says, don't be afraid of going with your own taste.

"You're going to get that immersive experience in a different story," she says. 

"Not all stories have to be for you."


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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