I Want You to Know That I Forgive You*

We all have our pet peeves as readers. Of course, they’ll differ from person to person, but we all have them. If you’ve ever sent a book to Station DNF because it had several grammar/spelling errors, or because it was written in first person or present tense (or both), or because the author used a trope that bothers you, you know what I mean.  And yet, when you think about it, we often forgive those things in authors whose work we love. In a way, we have a double standard: one for our ‘auto-read’ authors, and one for other authors. I first got this idea from a terrific post by FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews. G’won, check it out. And check out her excellent blog while you’re there. You won’t regret it.

Back now? Thanks. FictionFan was discussing Denise Mina’s The Less Dead, but there are a lot of other examples of authors who are so talented that we forgive them things we night not forgive in other authors. As I say, everyone’s different, but here are a few examples from my own reading to show you what I mean.

Many people (I’m one of them) really enjoy character-driven stories. We want solid plots, of course, and when we read whodunits, we like to match wits with the authors. But characters are important, and so is character development. So why am I such a fan of Agatha Christie? After all, she’s not known for a lot of rich characters. Here’s why. For one thing, there are some Christie novels that contain strong, rich characters. Feel free to differ with me if you do, but novels such as Five Little Pigs, 4:50 From Paddington, and Cat Among the Pigeons, have interesting characters with some depth. More importantly, even those that focus less on character often have strong, well-imagined plots that are clever. Christie’s ability to manipulate plot threads and misdirect the reader makes many of her novels engaging, even if the characters are not as strong as I’d like. So, I forgive her that.

Another pet peeve that some readers have is that they dislike the use of the present tense. I know I don’t like it. In fact, in the case of most authors, using the present tense is enough to pull me right out of the story. And yet, I don’t mind it in Paddy Richardson’s work or in Elly Griffiths’ work. Both authors draw me into their worlds, and create rich characters, solid plots, and strong senses of place and time. Those are the things that truly keep me engaged in a story, so that as I read, I don’t feel as distracted by the use of the present tense. I put aside that pet peeve because the story and characters are so well-done.

Readers also sometimes dislike a lot of grit and violence in their stories. I certainly have my limits. But somehow, it doesn’t bother me in Timothy Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series. Those novels take place in contemporary Bangkok, and some of the plots involve real violence – things I wouldn’t forgive in another author. And yet, Hallinan’s plots and characters are strong, as is the sense of place and local culture. I get drawn into the world he creates, so that even if the violence is more than I’d like, I overlook it. It’s also worth noting that in the case of this series, violence falls out naturally from the story. It’s not gratuitous or overdone. Since it fits in with the story, it doesn’t pull me out of the story the way that it would in less capable hands.

One of the more common pet peeves I’ve found among readers is when a story is too long. Stories that ‘drown’ the reader in details, sub-plots, and so on can take a way from the central plots and characters, and that can pull people out of a story. I know that happens to me. And yet, length and detail don’t bother me in C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. Some of them are quite long (Lamentation is over 650 pages). But Sansom provides interesting and important detail that really places the reader in the Tudor England that serves as the context for this series. What’s more, the plots and characters are, at least to me, strong and well-developed, so that the reader is motivated to go along for the ride, even though the journey is a long one. In the case of most authors, I’d be hesitant to read a very long book. But when it comes to Sansom, that’s a different matter.

That’s the thing about readers. We’re sometimes inconsistent about the way we react to books, and that includes our pet peeves. In part, it depends on who’s committing the ‘sin.’ I’m sure you have your own pet peeves. Which authors do you forgive for those ‘sins?’ What is it about their work that makes it worth reading for you, even if the author pushes your ‘annoyed’ button?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration!

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from India Arie’s Wings of Forgiveness.


13 thoughts on “I Want You to Know That I Forgive You*

  1. I agree with you on all of these, Margot. I have been reading a ton of Agatha Christie lately, and I find some good in every story I read by her. And I like her characters too.

    I also dislike present tense, but I find that in some cases it doesn’t bother me at all. One example is the Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters. When I realized I was reading a book in present tense and enjoying it I was amazed. I had not even noticed it.

    And I do make exceptions for violence in books and chunkster books. Sometimes the writing just makes it worth it.

    Great post, Margot. And I appreciate FictionFan’s blog too. Lots of good stuff there. And variety.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more about FictionFan’s blog, Tracy. It’s a real treasure trove, and one of my ‘must visit’ blogs. Every time. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying your visits with Christie’s work, too. Even when she’s at her weakest, it’s a lot better than many people’s best. Thanks also for mentioning Ben Winters’ series. That’s another good example of a series that uses present tense, but where I’m not pulled out of the story. He really creates an interesting world, and that keeps my attention. So the present tense thing isn’t as hard for me. As you say, sometimes the writing just makes it worth it. Thanks for the kind words!

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  2. Thanks for the link and the kind words, Margot! I totally agree with you about both Christie and Sansom – those things would normally bother me too, but I happily make an exception. Actually I always think that criticism of Christie is a bit unfair – some of her characters are a bit stereotyped or underdeveloped, but the likes of Jackie from Death on the Nile, or Marina Gregg, or a personal favourite, Bunny from A Murder is Announced, are all great unforgettable characters, imho!

    The present tense thing tends to bother me more, but even that I can overlook if I’m really enjoying the book. In fact, The Less Dead is written in present tense (forgot to mention it in my review!) but after the first few shudders were over and I’d got sucked in, I pretty much stopped noticing…

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    1. It’s a pleasure to mention your excellent blog, FictionFan! You make a good point about Christie’s characters. Some of them really are memorable. I love Honoria Bulstrode from Cat Among the Pigeons, and you’re right about Bunny and Marina Gregg, too. I do like the depths Christie gave Jackie, too. It all shows that Christie didn’t completely neglect character development!

      As for present tense, I’m with you. If the book is really well written, and really carries me off, so to speak, I can handle the present tense. And I’m not surprised you noticed it (or rather, didn’t) with The Less Dead. Mina is that talented that I can see how you’d get lost in the story, rather than focus on the use of the present tense. Not many authors do that for me; Mina is one of them.

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  3. Hi Margot, I’ll read this. I have pet peeves, a few of which were in William Shaw’s Grave’s End.  A woman (cop, no less)going off into danger by herself, not suspecting a phony set-up and a liar.  So her life is in danger and just by coincidence, a roof falls on her attacker, disabling him.  So two peeves: a smart woman going offalone into danger and coincidence saving her. I liked Denise Mina’s The Less Dead a lot. Thought her sympathy with sex workers was a goodaspect of it. I’ll read the link to the review. Kathy D.

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    1. I know what you mean about those miraculous conveniences, Kathy. I don’t like them, either, and I always feel as though they’re an easy way out for the author, so to speak. And, yes, it just seems hard to believe that a smart woman would knowingly go off into danger by herself. It takes a very skilled author to get me to to go along with that. Still, writers such as Mina are talented enough that pet peeves like that don’t stop readers from enjoying her work. Readers still go along for the ride. And I heard that Grave’s End was good; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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  4. I am with you pretty much all the way, Margot, even to enjoying Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway books DESPITE them being written in the present tense. Once a writer has got you on board, you can forgive a lot. Though I have recently read a novel by a favourite writer which disappointed me because of the extreme sexual violence – too much . . .

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    1. That’s happened to me, too, Christine, where an author whose work I loved disappointed me. Sometimes violence (sexual or otherwise) or something else just pushes my limits, and I can’t go there, so to speak. But I definitely forgive things in some authors that I wouldn’t in others. The use of present tense in Elly Griffiths’ work is one of those things I forgive. As you say, if an author can get me engaged in a story – really engaged – then I forgive things I wouldn’t otherwise.

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  5. Sorry I’m late! I can’t read present tense, either, Margot. It feels…off to my reading ears. It’s funny how we’ll forgive some authors for their sins but others we’ll never read again.

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    1. There’s no such thing as ‘late’ here, Sue. The party never ends… 😉 I know what you mean about the use of the present tense. It doesn’t generally feel right to me, and I don’t use it in my own writing. And yet, as you say, there are a few authors for whom I make an exception.

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  6. I think the main gripe for me is if a series goes on for too long and the main character no longer seems credible. I just have to stop reading before it totally ruins my affection for what I’ve really enjoyed before. That said a new book and seeing people enjoy it, does still ank at my heart strings….. shall I go back? Shall I leave it? One such series – James Lee Burke and Robicheaux I abandoned. Michael Connelly and Harry Bosch – I just took a breather, though I haven’t gotten caught back up yet.

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    1. I agree with you about a series that goes on too long, Col. Once the main character isn’t credible any longer, it’s very hard to stay interested. And Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series has certainly gone on for a long time, so I can see how you’d get to that point with it. And yet, if it’s a character you’ve loved, it’s hard to say ‘goodbye,’ isn’t it? I wonder what you’ll think of the newest Harry Bosch stories if/when you get to them. I think Connelly’s still on his gave, but everyone’s different.

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