The Collective: Books We Did Not Finish
Hosted by Andrea Johnson, The Collective is a round table involving editors, authors, publishers, reviewers, and other members of the speculative fiction community who share their take on questions ranging from the jovial to the serious, the interesting to the bizarre. Have an idea for a roundtable? Tweet us @BastionSF, send us a message on Facebook, or drop us a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. Go ahead though, and read on. We know you couldn't stop if you wanted to. Resistance is futile.
Like most of you, I enjoy the majority of the books I read. But what about the ones that just don't do it for me? Should I finish those books for the sake of completion? Can I guiltlessly put the book down, never to pick it up again? With that in mind, I asked this month's Collective panel the following question:
Do you finish every book you read? What makes you put a book down and not pick it back up again?
Mark Lawrence is the author of Prince of Thorns and other books.
As the author of a book that is famous for being put down within twenty pages by people who then maintain they know all about the trilogy it begins . . . I probably should be prepared to stick with books past the opening. Especially as I've dozens of examples of people returning to Prince of Thorns, urged on by friends, completing the trilogy and reversing their opinions.
However . . . I don't generally suffer books that I'm not enjoying. I have put down several famous fantasy books after fifty or one hundred pages. I won't name them. I'd have a lynch mob on my trail.
What makes me abandon a book early on is normally what I consider poor prose and/or poor writing. I'll also drop a book later on if it's not interesting me. I need a reason to care.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, critic, and bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has published short fiction and criticism in F&SF, Apex Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, and elsewhere. Her short story "La Héron" was nominated for the 2015 Prix Aurora Award. You can follow her bookish ramblings at www.once-and-future.com.
Yes, almost every book, no matter how much I hate it. In fact, the more I hate it, the more likely I am to hate-read to the end: if the book is really making my blood boil, there is something to it I need to engage with, albeit in an adversarial way. I have forced my way through books that literally caused me to throw them across the room—Dostoevsky's The Adolescent and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, for example. I mean, I read all eighty pages of John Galt's insane, self-congratulatory radio broadcast swearing out loud the entire time, but I read it.
But that isn't to say I never abandon books. I recently gave up Kate Elliott's Cold Magic. I felt terrible about it because I have enjoyed following Ms Elliott on Twitter and I really wanted to like Cold Magic, but it was intensely Not My Thing. It was too soft, too young, and too generic for my taste. I couldn't think of a single reason to follow through. It wasn't controversial, it wasn't teaching me anything, it wasn't surprising me. I think it is a comfort novel for readers who like a certain kind of story, which is to say that it follows a formula and delivers exactly what that reader wants. Well, I am not that reader. There was nothing there for me. I was just deeply bored, so I gave it up.
Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, Central Station, is out now to rave reviews. He is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning A Man Lies Dreaming, of the World Fantasy Award winning Osama, and many other books and short stories. He currently lives in London.
The author Tim Parks had a wonderful essay in the New York Review of Books a while back that really resonated with me, about not finishing books without necessarily taking away from the value of what you've read. A sort of exoneration, if you will: that it's fine not to finish even very good books, and still value what you have read.
I find that my reading habits have changed a lot in recent years, a function of time and availability. I am no longer able, nor desire to read big books, and so when I can, I am drawn to shorter works, which have always been my favourite, to novellas or short novels. I tend to read a lot of first, second, sometimes even third chapters of books and put them down. Just enough to get an idea of what the author is doing, what people are talking about, but a lot of the time, I won't pursue the book further. I look for something very specific, a certain literariness or playfulness—I get turned off by plain language or info-dumping or anything that doesn't feel to me to be new in some way. I look for a voice.
So in a given year, I might read thirty to forty books if I'm lucky, many of them short, but chances are I would have picked up many more books and followed them a short while into the text, and put them down, and not feel worse for doing so.
T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. She is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and numerous short stories. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is from Harper Voyager Impulse, and the Los Nefilim omnibus contains all three novellas: In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death in one convenient book. You can find out more about T. at her website, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
I have two types of books in my house: fiction, most of which I have read, or will read, and what Umberto Eco called the antilibrary—a collection of reference books that I have not read in the same way in which I read fiction. Most of the non-fiction that I've acquired is for research purposes. Need I mention my terrible addiction to print books that leads to great piles of books throughout my house?
In the realm of fiction, I rarely put down a book and never return to it. Most of the time when I quit on a book, it's not the story. Generally, it's simply a matter of me not being in the mood for that particular kind of story at that particular time. A good example is The Shadow of the Wind. The first time I read the novel, I got a few pages in, and then I set it aside. The next time I picked it up, I read it straight through, along with each of its sequels, in a week's time.
So for me, it's more about mood and timing.
The one thing that will definitely make me set aside a novel is a lack of characterization. I've never made it through Asimov's Foundation trilogy, because it reads more like a treatise than a novel. Great plot and lots of action without believable characters—the characters don't need to be sympathetic or likable, but they must be interesting—will turn me off in a heartbeat. House of Leaves is another book that I can appreciate as an artistic endeavor, but I've never finished it even though I've returned to it several times.
I'm very interested in the human condition, and that interest is often reflected in my reading choices. So unless characterization is left completely by the wayside, when I begin a book, I will very likely return to finish it at some point.
Charles Payseur runs Quick Sip Reviews, a home for his wayward thoughts on short speculative fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Unlikely Story, Nightmare Magazine, and in Lightspeed's Queer's Destroy Science Fiction! You can find him on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.
I try my hardest to finish every book I start reading, for a few reasons really. The main one is that I read in some ways to examine my own reading, and I want to give books a chance to tell their entire story before I fully make up my mind about them. I want to examine why I would want to put down a book and not finish and then finish anyway, just to make sure there's nothing lurking there I'd miss.
There are some books that kind of punch me in the face with how offensive I find them. There are some books that just bore me or that I can find pretty much nothing good to say about. But typically I find those readings a valuable experience to dissect, to pull apart. To understand how the book did it and why I reacted as I did. And, of course, there's the guilt. I just can't help but feel guilty for walking away from a book, like it's a little person who expects me to sit there and listen and I'm really terrible at saying no in situations like that.
I think as readers we're taught from a young age that DNF-ing a book is A Bad Thing because we're being "too sensitive" or "not giving it a chance." Which really only puts people in the situation where an inanimate book has more right to be read than a living person has the right not to be crapped on by said book. Which is unfortunate, and why I try to be careful about which books I do start, hoping they won't be awful, because I tend to be there for the long haul.
I will admit that most of the time if I do walk away from a book it's nonfiction, and I tend to walk away either because I am taking nothing from the text or I am taking too much from the text. As a writer there are certain nonfiction books I just have to put down and disengage with because they are too distracting. They give me too many ideas. I need to walk away or they will derail something I'm working on, so they wait (perhaps indefinitely) until I have time for them. But for fiction I'm much more likely to just power through a book I don't like so that I can try to articulate why I didn't enjoy it (and also because the guilt at not finishing a book and fear that someone will call me out for not finishing and . . .). I completely respect people DNF-ing books, though. Some days I wish I was better at it.
Yolanda Sfetsos is a Wife, Mother, Writer, Bibliophile, Dreamer, Animal lover. Intrigued by the supernatural. Horror freak. Zombie enthusiast. Movie & music fan. Slave to her muse. Yolanda Sfetsos lives in Sydney, Australia with her awesome husband, lovely daughter, and cheeky cat. Visit her on GoodReads to learn more about her 2016 reading challenge.
I love reading, and challenge myself to read one hundred books every year. Most of the time, I have no trouble sticking with a book right to the very end—especially if I'm hooked and just HAVE to find out how the story ends.
But there are times when I find myself slipping out of the story and start to wonder if it's time to put the book aside. If it is, then I try skimming ahead, or pick up a different book before going back to try again. If I'm still not engaged, my mind keeps wandering. If I find myself constantly yawning or totally disconnected, then I put the book aside and don't bother continuing. I hate doing this, but there are just TOO many good books on my TBR pile to waste time on a story I'm not enjoying.
So, that's how I know it's time to give up and move on. If I'm bored, can't get into what's going on, I'm not invested in the characters, or don't like the narrator/s. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the character's voice, other times the writing, but mostly it's if I'm not excited enough to continue.
Because when the mere thought of picking up a book is a chore, there's no way I'm going to waste my time.
Jacob S. is a lifelong reader that enjoys sharing his thoughts on books, beers, and everything else. He joined the book review community a few years back and can be found online on Twitter, Instagram, and GoodReads under the username RedStarReviews or on his website. He can be found offline in his favorite city of Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and their puppy.
It is rare that I don't finish a book that I start reading but it does happen. The primary reasons tend to be:
1. Boring writing. I don't judge new writers as harshly as experienced ones here, but I want to be entertained. If the storytelling is missing then I'm leaving.
2. When the authors aren't true to their own characters. By this I mean when you spend the first half of the book having your character being the stoic silent type, and then the next half with them talking nonstop without explanation. There is a relationship between the author and reader and that is communicated by the characters. Trust is gained and lost in this.
3. Difficulty connecting with the POV characters. This isn't based upon gender, race, age, or perspective from the POV characters; this is based on the ability to experience the story through them. If the POV character can't connect with the world around them then how can I be expected to connect with the POV character?
4. Likability of the characters. Okay so this one can be an odd one, but if the characters (POV or otherwise) aren't likable then why would I want to waste my time reading the story? Characters should draw me into their world. The characters don't have to all be noble heroes. In fact I love reading stories from other perspectives and I love sad tales, but I dislike characters who are awful just for sake of being awful. Give your characters some depth, some life. Cardboard cutouts aren't likable.
5. When the author's message overtakes their story. It's ok to explore themes and concepts in the story, but don't bash the readers over the head with it again and again.
6. Rape, abuse, or torture as a throwaway plot just to make me see someone as a bad person. No. Just no. There are consequences to actions and if the only reason the author adds terrible things into their story is to titillate themselves or their audience then that's a deal breaker for me. Have a purpose to these actions and show the fall out if you choose to incorporate them into your story.
Before I took over as editor-in-chief of Apex Magazine, I would read most books to the end regardless of how painful and awful they might be. These days, I no longer give myself the luxury of optimism that if I keep reading the book will transform into something greater. If there's anything reading slush will teach you, it is that you don't have time to read content that you feel is sub-par because there are so many great works to find and mentally ingest.
Life is too short to read bad books.
I do my best not to be a literary snob, I really do. However, if a book is written in language that is too simple, or if I'm reading something that is a blatant popcorn book, I'll discard it. I have to be challenged by a work for it to be interesting. Yet . . . if I think the author has written something that comes across as pretentious, I lose interest and will pitch it into my Half-Price box.
There are some books that I can't finish because I can't get my head around . . . relate to them. An example is 400 Days of Oppression by Wrath James White. Wrath is an erudite, complicated writer, and it shows in 400 Days. The book is an intriguing examination of slavery, BDSM, racism, and class issues with a dark eroticism throughout. There is so much to unpack in Wrath's book that I became overwhelmed and had to put it away. Perhaps I'll return to it again one day.
I had a hard time finishing The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (*ducks thrown tomatoes from outraged fans*). I identify it with every aspect of lazy writing: clichés upon clichés, passive female hero, the poorly defined setting, and the 'outrageous' nature of the games (kids hunting kids).
Lynn Williams likes traveling, reading, and the odd glass or two of wine! I have a blog where I mainly review books and occasionally discuss films and other things. The creatively named LynnsBooks is my book home (which demonstrates rather brilliantly why I am a reader and not a writer!) Fantasy is my first love in reading but just to even things out a bit, I also mix it up with a little science fiction, a little horror and a bit of historical fiction.
I used to finish every book I read, like it was a challenge, until somebody, a genius no doubt, said 'why do you make yourself read to the end if you’re not enjoying it? It’s your hobby isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be fun? You wouldn’t eat something you disliked or watch a series on TV if you weren’t enjoying it.' So, maybe a bit late in the day but a definite light bulb moment for me. Therefore no, I don’t finish every book I pick up. Life is short and I want to enjoy it.
Part two of the question is more difficult.
I love good characterization in a book so I’m tempted to say if the character was badly written I’d put it down. I do like to feel something for at least one of the characters—if everybody is just downright disagreeable then it’s a struggle for me to finish a book.
Excessive sex or violence would definitely stop me from reading a book. I read all kinds of fantasy, some of it is very dark—but I do have a cut-off point. I don’t want those things in a book just because they can be—they should be there because they’re necessary to the story.
Too much focus on romance. I don’t mind romance in my books but for me I don’t want it to be the main focus. I want a good story and if a romance is included that’s fine. I particularly dislike it when a book is called fantasy but it’s really a romance story with a bit of light fantasy dressing tacked on to entice a larger audience.
More often than not though it’s something I can’t define, I simply read slower and am more reluctant to pick up the book, even going to lengths to avoid seeing it lying around! Usually, at this point, I realize I haven’t read for days and that’s the time to move on for me. Perhaps it’s my mood at the time, maybe the plot is too convoluted or the writing too complicated but when my reading is slowly becoming none existent then I have to concede defeat with that particular book.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. By day he masquerades as a web developer and designer. You can also find him writing about science fiction and fantasy on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Tor.com, and Medium.
When I was younger, I was slavishly dedicated to finishing books, even if I wasn't enjoying them much. Maybe it was the allure of some incredible ending, which would turn my entire opinion of the book, and justify the hours it took to get there. Maybe it was resource management; my parents were generous with buying me new books, and my mom had a large collection of SFF, but there were only so many opportunities available to me and I had to treasure each one. I was also a slow reader, so I needed to convince myself that what I was reading was awesome. This might also be why I was an avid re-reader during this period of my life. I read Jurassic Park six times before I was thirteen-years-old. Picking up a new book offered an unknown experience, but also the potential for disappointment. Rereading something I loved was guaranteed.
As I grew older, however, and, more specifically, began to review books, and think about them more critically, I started to realize that life is too short, and the world's library too deep, to spend time reading books that I was genuinely not enjoying. It's important to recognize that not enjoying a book is (or can be) different than finding it challenging, or flawed, or fluffy. Instead, it's a mix of all those factors, and many others, that ultimately drive me to finish a book that I'm not enamoured with out of the gate, or choose to put it down for good. There are three books I've read (two of which I've finished) that touch on this variously:
Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, which is considered by many Star Wars fans to be the height of its expanded universe. After seeing The Force Awakens, I was motivated to jump into Star Wars' rich EU, and Zahn's defining work seemed like as good a place to start as any. I read through the first volume, Heir to the Empire, fairly quickly, underwhelmed, but with a glimmer of hope. The problem, I finally admitted seventy percent of the way through the second volume, Dark Force Rising, was that the story just wasn't any good. Yeah, it was great seeing pregnant Leia being awesome, and Zahn nailed Han Solo's dry humour, but the various plots were too disparate, and the antagonist's predilection for flawless leaps of intuition was lazy and, worse, boring. These aren't issues that would resolve themselves in the long term. These are not costs that are being accumulated which will be recouped by the ending, they're serious storytelling flaws. I realized it just wasn't worth my time anymore. I wasn't enjoying it. Wasn't even curious. I moved on.
Tad Williams' The Dragonbone Chair, and its related trilogy, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is my favourite fantasy series ever. It's rich and full of myth, endlessly deep, and satisfying to sink into for days (or weeks, considering the length) on end. Thing is, when I first read it, at sixteen, I dropped it before I got a hundred pages deep. Same thing happened when I read it the next time. The third time, I made it to the end (an improvement), but dropped the second book in the trilogy after a chapter or two. Why was I so determined? Well, being young, I was swayed by a lot of other readers that I trusted. I loved J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, who also wrote epic fantasies, and the sithi were a lot like elves, which was a minor obsession of mine at the time. Plus, it felt more adult than some of the other fantasy I was reading during that adolescent period—not in a gritty blood-sex-and-violence kind of way, but slower, more thoughtful, and challenging. So, I went back for a fourth go around, after reading Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, and Williams' newest epic fantasy novel, Shadowmarch, and fell absolutely head-over-heels for Osten Ard. As an older, and more experienced reader, I was able to better appreciate Williams' dedication to slowly introducing the reader to his world, peeling it back a layer at at time, so when the full stakes of the trilogy were revealed, you cared deeply for the land and its people.
Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a modern classic; but, the whole time I was reading it in my early twenties, I was bored. It was slow, complicated, and more seemed to happen beneath the surface than up top where I could see it. It was a lot like a meandering river full of sturgeon. I was stubborn, and Gaiman was highly recommended, so I stuck with it, and, by god, am I glad I did. A few things happen at the end of the novel, some secrets are revealed, plot twists abound, and suddenly I realized that the sturgeon were actually sharks, and the river was headed towards Niagara Falls. All of those puzzling, seemingly inconsequential events littered throughout the novel collided, and I realized that Gaiman had cleverly and patiently constructed something wonderful. If I'd given up earlier, I never would have discovered this.
I think these examples show that there's value in persistence, sticking with a book, or going back to it for a second (or even third or fourth) try, but also in cutting your loses and accepting that something just doesn't work for you. It illustrates the complexities of evaluating books as you're reading them, and also shows that a reader's reaction is subjective, informed by so many variables (which can change over time, or be affected by outside factors) that even opinions that might seem like objective truth to a reader one day may later change. A book is a conversation between the author and the reader, with the reader being an active participant in its success. As a critic, it is always important to recognize that I might deem a book poor or unsuccessful because of factors that are as much mine as the author's. This is one of the things I love most about reading. Such relationships are fluid and complicated.
And then, of course, there are just bad books.
Tiemen Zwaan is the scifi & fantasy buyer at the American Book Center in Amsterdam. He turned his hobby of reading scifi & fantasy into his job. When not reading he thinks about which book he will transform next into a Blind Book Date. If you want a recommendation or just chat you can say hi to him @tiemenzwaan.
A few years ago I calculated how many books I would probably read during the rest of my life. I read on average fifty books per year and and estimating I will hopefully reach eighty—assuming I won't die in a car accident, zombie apocalypse or Trump presidency—I will probably read about 2350 books before I die.
That is a big pile of books, but it pales in comparison to the amount of great books that are available to read. And we haven't even taken in consideration all the wonderful books that will be published in the future, again assuming we all don't die when the machines rise up.
The fact remains that there will be many books that I won't read, even though I would really like to. So with that in the back of my head I have no bad feelings about putting a book down and not pick it back up. Time is just to valuable to waste on a book that I'm not enjoying or learning anything worthwhile from.
So I have to enjoy a book if I'm not going to put it down after the first fifty pages. Biggest thing for me is that the author has to make me care about the story or message he or she is trying to tell. It doesn't matter what kind of book it is, if I don't care about the characters and the things that are happening to them I'm not going to invest time reading it.
That doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad book, although bad writing will make me stop rather quickly, but sometimes there is just no click and why force yourself to read something that doesn't work for you when there are many more books to read?