Literary No-No’s

And the irony is in a picture about poor writing that misuses "it's."
I almost always finish a book. It can contain misspellings, rampant heterosexism, yawn-inspiring action scenes, and enough clichés to propel an English professor toward the liquor cabinet. Heck, it can even feature the vastly overused Stumbling Woman and a Muscular Hero to Catch Her trope, use words like “member” and “womanhood” during steamy sex scenes, and consistently misuse “who’s” and “whose.” I will still read that bad girl.

Recently, however, I had to put down a book (double entendre invoked, although unfortunately not actualized) that violated two items on my literary list o’ doom. Because I am a giver, below lies a catalog of what turns me off as a reader, not to mention a writer. After you read mine, I’d love to know yours, since I consider this not only griping but super helpful research for my future books.

Elle’s List of Literary No-No’s

5. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. As a reminder, the Bechdel Test has three criteria: 1. The medium must contain at least two named female characters, 2. The two girls or women must at some point talk to one another, and 3. The women or girls must chat about something other than – wait for it – boys or men. Sounds simple, right? And yet. 

I’m especially ashamed when a romance novel fails miserably. Shameless androcentrism in a feminine genre? Et tu, romance novelists?

I used to avoid all novels that didn’t feature at least one woman main character. Unfortunately, this cut way, way down on my book choices. In order not to read and reread the same twenty-six qualifying novels, I’ve since chilled, although I still strongly prefer female or feminine main characters.

The horrible thing about this requirement, though, is that sometimes you don’t know if the novel passes till you read it all the way through. Damn you, lack of a standardized Bechdel grading!

4. The book is actively sexist, racist, or homophobic. After decades, sometimes centuries of human rights activism in these areas, I just can’t let this slide. I do tend to grit my teeth over ableism, ageism, and sizeism in novels, too, but these are more recent activist movements and haven’t gained as much traction. People just don’t think to challenge their assumptions that, for example, old age sucks and fat people eat too much. As such, I feel comfy giving authors a little more room to work through their unintentional bigotry. Besides, if I cut sizeist books from my literary fare, I’d die of starvation. (Like the metaphor? Yeah, I’m subtle like that.)

3. It contains a distracting, disturbing, and ridiculous number of grammatical, syntactical, and mechanical errors. We all make errors when writing, but when a book seethes with run-on sentences, chronic misspellings, and – choke – comma splices, I am too busy whipping out my imaginary red pen to let myself fall into the rhythm of the story. 

On a side note, I have to wonder why these writers’ editors still have a job.

Not to sound too self-righteous, especially since I’m a notorious comma overuser and abuser, but grammar websites abound on the Internet. When writing, I visit one at least once per day. Grammar Girl and me? We’re like this.

2. It contains a graphically written, completed or attempted rape scene. Really, people, given the rape culture we live in, why would we revel in a trauma that one in six women and one in thirty-three men have experienced? Authors of the world, please stop using a graphic violation of women’s bodies to further your plot.

My special and froth-worthy pet peeve? When these scenes are titillating, so that the reader learns to associate sexual arousal and sexual victimization. This is just unforgivable. Understandable, given the eroticization of rape in our culture, but still despicable.

I’m not opposed to addressing sexual assault in novels. In fact, I’m seriously considering making one of my next protagonists a survivor of sexual abuse. I object to explicit rape scenes, whether the author calls them that or not, in which the reader is forced to identify with the victim, which can often re-traumatize people, or the victimizer, which is just creepy. What about any of that sounds productive and necessary?

If a rape is somehow necessary, authors, please don’t devote a scene to it. Mention it and move on. Quickly, please. Rape is a trauma, not a plot device. 

The book I discussed at the beginning of this post, the one I abandoned before I reached the halfway point, included an attempted rape scene in which the shero did the obnoxious, “No, no, I don’t want this!” while secretly being swept up in the eroticism of the moment. (My lips say no, but my kisses speak a language all their own.) Her jerk partner, the story’s hero, kept going while urging her to give in. After she said no. Wow. Nice slice of sexual predation, author.

Yeah, I know “yes” is hard for women to say in this sexually repressed culture in which women are called sluts for having sexual desire. Sure, these quasi-rape scenes allow women to experience sex and desire without being slutty. I know all this. I just don’t much care. I have no use for anything that props up our rape culture, whether it be explicit rape scenes or acting out soft-core rape fantasies.

1. An animal dies. This should never happen in a novel. Never ever ever ever ever ever. Ever. Period. End of story.



  1. Elle, darling, you just reminded me that I have not put any animals in my novels! That has to be addressed!


    1. Gasp! Can it be? Yes, this is an oversight that needs some remedying! :)

      I've included animals in all of my novels but _The Tithe_, and that was because they didn't fit in with my utopian-dystopian vision of the future. Unfortunately, pets as such don't exist in that world. I thought about including a rat as a pet but decided I was stretching it a bit. ;)

    2. And OMG, I would love to see pets of all sizes in the FatLand universe! How refreshing not to hear the BS about Teh Dangers of Obesity in Pets(c)! I hear this all the time from my vet about Sabhu, my elderly, diabetic cat, even though studies show that, aside from euthanization, cancer is the number one killer of cats and fat helps mammals survive cancer.

      My angel, Velly, was thin when he got cancer. I always wonder if he would have lasted longer if he'd been fatter. Sigh.


  2. LOVE IT!!! I find it very hard to read books that I can identify with and that don't make me super angry! I think it's great to have criteria books have to meet!

    1. Thanks, Kris! I know you have some, as well: no homophobia; no rampant, persistent heterosexism. Those are rockin' ones, too. :)


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