From ‘True Detective’ to Henry James, When Should We Give Up On a Story?

The best place to go to find an unfiltered critical take on today’s hottest novels is the book-oriented social network Goodreads. Goodreads users, I’ve noticed, tend to be a group of serious pleasure readers who are more honest than pretentious. They’re informed, too; rarely do you encounter the misguided outrage you might find on Amazon, but neither do you find the back-patting assessments of highbrow critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. I often go to Goodreads to find out what its citizens are saying about the latest book to get a gushing write-up in the Sunday New York Times or some equivalent. Sometimes the Goodreads masses agree with an effusive critic, but often they offer a completely opposite view — a full-on takedown.

What you find in these online reviews is very often an assessment of the temporal experience of reading itself — the initial expectations, the rewards, the letdowns, the respective levels of interest and boredom as the process of reading goes on. Statements like these abound: “the writing is good, but the middle dragged on, it was so boring.” Or, “started out promising, but really weak, muddled ending.” Or sometimes exhortations like this: “really slow getting into it, but amazing ending — keep going!.”

In other words, they’re judging the novel piece by piece, installment by installment, and then arriving at Goodreads to combine that piece-by-piece judgment with the whole. This is exactly the approach to art that TV critics like Willa Paskin are arguing in favor of in a spate of recent pieces that have added to the long-standing novels vs. television debate.

Paskin “gave up” on True Detective‘s second season partway through, feeling like the episodes themselves weren’t giving her enough reason to hang on for the entire season. She said the oft-bandied “TV-to-novel analogy generally encourages haters and quibblers and critics to hold fire from a series” before it fully develops, which might be beneficial in certain respects.  But, she continues, “that means it just as often guilts haters and quibblers and critics to hold fire from a series in the midst of unraveling.” She accuses True Detective of fully unravelling, displaying consistent humorlessness, “gibberish” dialogue, and more. None of these qualities are worth enduring, she says, no matter what happens: “Sunday night’s episode was really, really bad, and not as an outlier, but as an apotheosis.” Paskin was doing the TV watcher’s version of putting down a novel down midway through, which can actually be truly satisfying. It’s a declaration that your time, the reader’s time, is more valuable than this book deserves.

Paskin’s pronouncement has set off a wave of responses, mostly from TV critics, many of whom make really excellent points about how we have to assess shows by single units — scenes, episodes — as well as larger arcs, seasons and entire runs. This is how people read novels, too, they note — first as a page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter experience, and then as a total one.

But it can be agonizing to decide whether to stick something out or abandon ship. Once in a while, we’ll be wrong. Yet more interestingly, this debate made me consider my own habits of assessing books and television shows that have bad, dull, or difficult sections. For instance, I occasionally slog through difficult Henry James novels because I sense that there’s going to be an emotional and intellectual payoff. And there usually is — a brilliant one. Yet the reason I universally consider Edith Wharton to be a better writer than Henry James is because her novels have the same kind of payoffs but tend to engross me from beginning to end with brisk, alive writing. In other words, I don’t think James’ denseness is some sort of inherent virtue, a type of literary whole wheat. It’s difficult to imagine James without that denseness, and it’s part of his mystique, but I don’t have to think it makes him superior.

Similarly, I have always appreciated the fact that Mad Men used later episodes to bring back themes, characters, and symbols from its inevitably slow and perplexing early episodes. “See,” Matt Weiner defenders always cried. “It was worth it. It was all part of Matt’s master plan.” Though it was satisfying to see those threads get tied, I don’t think that makes all those plodding early episodes one of the show’s strengths. To me, it’s a weakness that was counteracted by other strengths.  And as for shows I have dropped when their quality dropped off — The Good Wife, Nashville, Downton Abbey — I feel mostly unrepentant about jumping off the train. I got to enjoy the shows when they were at their peak, and they remain un-ruined in my memory by mediocre later seasons.

Once, I stopped reading one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the early 21st century because I found it unbearably slow and pretentious. Over the years, I discovered a secret cabal of others who had put it down too, including my extremely erudite grandmother. This gave me a great deal of gratification, and an assurance that sometimes it’s OK not to “wait for the payoff.” Sometimes we just don’t like something, and we know that early on. There is so much good art to consume that occasionally, we can choose to leave a book or a TV show unfinished.