Cliffhanging

I’m reading a novel now in which a person is about to be caught doing something wrong. The chapter ended with the discovery imminent. I’m eager to get back to the book to find out what happens.

The cliffhanger ending of a chapter is a long-standing, much respected tradition in writing. In some genres it is the convention. As a technique, it works.

Still . . . (you knew that was coming)

Doesn’t it seem a bit manipulative? Maybe that’s an overstatement. I guess what I mean to say is that I don’t think I’m the kind of reader that must be induced to keep reading. By and large, I open a novel in the same spirit I enter a contract; I feel obliged to finish a novel not only to respect the writer and the writing but myself as well. (There are perhaps fewer than a dozen novels I have not finished in my entire adult reading life, and the last one I left only because it was far too dense and complicated for me to understand: the writer is considered the Portuguese Faulkner.) I’ve heard of many readers who will give a book a two-chapter chance; if the novel doesn’t “grab” the reader by then, it gets thrown across the room (sometimes literally). While I can see how this would make sense for, say, an agent who has to get through a dozen or more manuscripts a day, it doesn’t seem to me to be the contemplative, thoughtful, enriching experience I want my reading to be.

My point is that I am going to read a serious work (of whatever genre or approach) regardless of its (lack of) structural inducements. In fact, if a novel doesn’t “grab” me by the second chapter, I tend to be even more intrigued by it because I want to know just what the writer is doing that I seem to be missing. (Perhaps in this way I am induced to keep reading.)

I look at novels as being wholes, not parts. I’m not going to pass judgment on a novel until I’ve read all the way to the very last sentence. (In some cases, the last sentence illuminates all that has come before it — Portnoy’s Complaint comes to mind — and really, what else would a last sentence be in the story for if it didn’t have important work to do?) The idea that I could make an up or down decision about a novel by the second chapter seems shortsighted and naive — even impatient — to me.

I don’t want to disparage any readers; the world needs more of them. I suspect, however, that many readers have been trained to expect and thus require these kind of manipulative mechanics in stories, which may leave them unable to attempt another, more measured kind of reading enjoyment.

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