Much like the political noise that is sweeping our country right now there is a topic in the bookish world that tends to split itself into party lines. For some it is something they are proud of and shout from the rooftops. For others it is a personal failure and something they’d rather not talk about. I am referring, of course, to the decision not to finish a book or as many of us know it—the DNF. For me, this is a relatively new acronym because I fell into the camp of readers who believed that if someone worked hard writing something then I owed it to them to finish it, even if I didn’t love it. Since I’ve started blogging my mindset has changed. Professionally, I am fortunate enough to receive enough books from publishers that I don’t have time to finish those that don’t work for me. Personally, it’s similar but more succinct: Life is too short.
Why this topic and why now? Because it is so much on my mind due to the schizophrenic nature of my 2016 reading so far. I have fallen in love with or been caught up by several new books, but have found even more that left me tepid and in some cases, angry. Without getting all existential on it, this is becoming a problem. There is the whole pain and reward theory: if you touch a flame and get burned you’ll stop touching flames (unless you’re my little brother and then you’ll continue to play with fire until Mom tells Dad and you get grounded. And I get your dessert.) But I digress…
I’m not going to stop reading, but these bad apples have made me dig in my heels to the point I am DNFing more books than I used to. And that means I have less to write about because I want to write about books I love and want others to love. And that makes me angry. So, today, I’m leaving you with some books that I could not finish and my reasons why.
Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack
Published by Vintage
Publication date: February 21st 2017
Much has been made of the “unspeakable things” in this novel and yes, there is a doctor who abuses not only children but their mothers and all remain silent. Beyond that very clear story line, the rest of Unspeakable Things is simply too muddled to keep my attention. Musicians who believe their instruments to be alive and hold them more dear than they do their wives? A wife driven insane because? Spivack takes obliqueness to new levels. I don’t need graphic depictions of horror, not at all, but I need to understand what an author is trying to say through their words and this is far too difficult in Unspeakable Things. Instead, things move at a sludge-y pace so that by 3/4 I had lost interest in whatever was being conveyed.The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: February 9th 2016
There is a whole lot of story going on in The Fugitives and while the author does a good job approximating a noirish hard-boiled conversational tone it was not enough for me to grab onto. There is a Native American casino, mob activity, a reporter, and a writer looking to get away from it all so he can finish his book.Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore
Published by Hogarth
Publication date: February 9th 2016
Remember how I mentioned earlier books that made me angry? This is it, folks. So much so that I’ll have more to say about it in the near future. For now, this was a novel I dropped after 50 pages. Not only did I not care about the protagonist I was furious that I’d given her even that much of my time.The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
Published by Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: January 5th 2016
Genres: Chick Lit
Everything about this novel was meant to appeal to me—food, making a living as a reviewer, husband/wife dynamics, contemporary life. And initially it did, but by the halfway mark the character of the husband had so curdled my interest that I couldn’t keep reading. He was too unrealistic and his belittling of his wife and control over her life didn’t work for me. It may have been a right book/wrong time situation but I’ve not gone back.
Sarah's Book Shelves says
Oh my god, Wreck and Order. I made it like 10 pages – of course I had your advance warning to go on! And The Restaurant Critic’s Wife interested me for awhile, but I kind of forgot about it. Glad to know I can skip it.
I love that you shared your DNFs. I guess I’m in the camp of bloggers who thinks it’s valuable info to know what people are DNFing…so I always share mine in my Monday update posts.
Love the banner!!
[email protected] says
Of course I DNF books! Otherwise I’d be afraid ever to open one. Just because a reader takes a book home and reads a few pages, is she obligated to read the entire thing? Do some readers approach a book like a movie in the theater — you’ve made a choice and now you’re stuck? I finish maybe 20% of the books I start. Why would I waste 6 or 8 hours of my life on a book I’m not enjoying, that I would most likely never recommend?
Ann, you are far more bold than I am! I’d say I only DNF 20%. Of course, you have to make decisions on books quickly- you have customers depending on you!
Cynthia Robertson says
More and more often, Catherine. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the book not being one that appeals to me, but I know (especially from reviews) that it’s liked by others. The ones that surprise me though, especially as a writer who would like/expects to have a novel of mine published someday, are the ones that leave me wondering how the heck the author got, not only an agent, but a publisher, to take on what appears to be a horrible book. I mean seriously, aren’t there enough good manuscripts out there? I can’t fathom wasting all the time and money on publishing poorly written, badly plotted, flat charactered garbage, when there are good books in the queue.
Last week I started two books in a row that were so bad I couldn’t continue reading them. And earlier in the year another that I had been expecting to be fabulous (the writer can write pretty sentences, and I knew that going in) turned out to be so insipid and slooooow; I realized knowing how to make a breathtakingly gorgeous description did NOT mean knowing bupkis about character, narrative tension and story. sigh
Thankfully, there are a lot of good books to be read. And I rely on great blogs like yours to light the way. 🙂
Thank you, Cynthia! You are forthright about something a lot of reviewers worry about- the author. Not that it’s personal, but when you have to say ‘this writing is BAD’ that is fairly personal. And yet, I agree. I can put up with a lot but bad writing and editing will make me DNF a book quickly. Especially because there are so many wonderful ones out there that never get press. It’s not good when the PR/marketing department’s blurb is better than the novel!
I generally do not DNF books. My reason, I believe, is twofold: 1) I hope the book will get better (eternal optimist); and 2) I want to know what happens to the characters, even if I don’t like them or think what is happening to them is boring. I tend not to pick up and start books of the “Unspeakable Things” type so that saves me having to DNF them, so it’s usually boredom with a book that challenges me the most. Oh, and length—obviously the longer the book the more likely I am to give up.
I just finished (barely) “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” It was so long and full of meanderings that I was tempted to DNF, but I ended up skimming through huge chunks and did finally finish it off in the end.
I can see that, Kristin, because liking a character isn’t necessary for me and sometimes the best novels have unlikable characters, but boredom is the death knell. That and bad writing.
I did the same thing with War & Peace. Realized I didn’t care about the war and so skimmed the book for the Peace parts! 😉
Oh I was so needing someone to talk to about the Restaurant Critic’s Wife!! I wanted to slap them both!! What a crazy jerk and why was she putting up with it? I didn’t quite make it halfway – I gave up when she was sitting in the car in a snow storm for hours. Done done done.
I haven’t picked up Wreck & Order because I’ve seen so many DNFs – but now I’m totally curious. Not curious enough to read it at all – but wow it must be something. I haven’t heard of Unspeakable things, but definitely won’t be seeking it out!
I have the Fugitives to read still so we’ll see how I do with that 🙂
I know, Amanda! I wanted to yell the husband’s name out because he was so paranoid- as if he were the NYT’s food critic. Get over yourself!
Honestly, if you see Wreck & Order at the library, pick it up, and I guarantee by page 5 you’ll know why all the DNFs. Shock for the sake of shock but no talent. I would give it negative stars if I could. I’m going to do a review soon- just to vent.
I DNF a lot more books now than I used to because, as you say, life is just too short.
I find that I often get to the end of a book now and wish that I had DNFinished it. It is beyond me why I continue to struggle with books which I am not enjoying when there is a wealth of novels out there I haven’t tried and I might love. I do worry occasionally that I DNF the complex, hard books or those dealing with moral issues and I finish the easy, light reading – I am a bit worried about only reading lightweight fiction. Then I realise that I am in danger of becoming a book snob and that it really doesn’t matter to anyone at all what my reading diet contains.
I DNF a book for a variety of reasons – irritating writing style (can’t give a lot of examples but I know it when I see it), desperately predictable plots, characters who are characterless and so I don’t care, over use of foul language (not sure exactly where my limits are but I know them when the author oversteps them), and plot devices so worn they make me scream (amnesia, intercepted letters that never reach their destination, etc. etc.).
I DNF very few though – a handful a year – mostly because I have a reasonable idea what I don’t like and can steer clear of it as well as the fact that I can read blogs like yours and have an inkling of what I may wish to avoid !
Your criteria are awesome and very similar to mine!
I love the term “book diet”! It makes perfect sense and the fact that you recognize what your mind needs to read is great. Sometimes I need meaty and heavy and other times bring on the popcorn and sugar! I just got back from the library with 2 fun books and one serious. It’s all good as long as you read what you want!
Marisa @ The Daily Dosage says
Yes. Yes, I sure do. And we must be in the same mind set because I just posted something similar. However, I don’t review the DNF. At first it was because I really didn’t have much to say since some were put down after only 20 pages or so. But now it’s because I just don’t care about them at all. I just want to cleanse the palate and move onto something better. And I love it when you digress…cracked me up!
Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf says
Awww I loved The Restaurant Critic’s Wife, it brought me out of my loooong slump from fall/winter. But yeah, that husband was definitely over the top, ha!!
Also, re: Unspeakable Things: I don’t know any musicians who feel their instrument is alive. Weird!
I know, Monika and I wanted to love it too, but I could not get past him!
tanya (52 books or bust) says
I’m reluctant to put my DNFs on my blog because I know the writers worked hard, and I don’t want to belittle their efforts. On the other hand, I know there are readers of my blog who leave it to me to vet books for them. They trust my opinion and sometimes want to know if i DNF.
So what to do? I like what you’ve done here. Maybe it’s something i should give a try to.
I feel the same way, Tanya. I think it is something we all struggle with. I don’t do a lot of negative reviews and I’ve never done a DNF post before, but this year has felt worse than any other I’ve been blogging. I try and go with what you do- who the book might work for, but sometimes even that’s a no go.
Shannon @ River City Reading says
You may have sparked a blog post for me on this one, because I’m not really sure if I DNF or if I’m just a super-grazing mood reader. I’d say I “start” 3 or 4 books for every 1 I read, but by “start” I mean read abut 3 pages to see if I’m in the mood. If I don’t pick that book, is it a DNF? I have no idea!
I think what you do is definitely the mood reading. I don’t see it as a DNF- more that you don’t often find time to get back to a book you’ve paused. I’m coming to see that your way is the best- if not for having something to write about at least for the reading. More of my favorite reads this year are from backlist books I got at the library!
Andi (@estellasrevenge) says
It’s been a very stop and start, hit or miss type of year for me, too. Last year was like that also, and I’d hoped it’d go away. We’ll see. Arrrgh! Just try not to beat yourself up for it!
Hell no, I’m getting cranky at the authors! 😉 Give me something great to read!
Kathy @ Kathy Reads Fiction says
I’m just recently getting over my obsession to finish a book I started and have begun to DNF those that aren’t working for me. I always kept reading those I didn’t like in hopes that the book(s) would take a turn for the better. I do review books I didn’t like, but I don’t review DNF’s; I merely make mention that I DNF’d a certain book. This year, I’ve DNF’d more books than I have in years. But, it’s also allowed me to move on to other books that turned out to be winners; books that I might not have gotten to or kept putting off for focus on the bad book that I felt the need to finish.
I wonder if it is because we read so much more now? At least, I do now that I’m blogging. And this year has been particularly bad for DNFs. I’ve had much better luck reading backlist books- which is fun to do as well.