To DNF or not to DNF: When does giving up make sense?

July 15, 2013 Uncategorized 14

Last Tuesday, Goodreads posted this infographic about “the psychology of abandonment” — specifically, why readers stop reading a book, and which ones they are most likely to quit reading.  (You can see a full-sized version of the infographic by clicking on the image.)

The topic seemed particularly apt, since I’m currently trying to decide whether to abandon a book I had agreed to review.  The prospect leaves me feeling horribly guilty: But I requested the book, implying I would read and review it! How can I turn around and say, ‘sorry, nope, not gonna finish it’?  Yet the book in question is just not grabbing my attention, in part because the prose is overly flowery, yet also sometimes awkward.  It’s also taking a while to get going, flitting from scene to scene with only one character to connect them, and that one hardly fleshed out.

This is the second time in as many months that I’ve run into the “do I quit or keep going” question about an ARC.  The last one was a book that ultimately proved quite interesting, even if it did take almost 200 pages to really get going.  The thing is, that book (call it Book A) was very well-written.  The characters were interesting even before the plot had taken off.  The world-building was intriguing.  And the prose was never jarring.  Since I’d read comments about the slow start in otherwise positive reviews, I knew that Book A would be worth it if I could just keep going — and persisting wasn’t too hard because of the aforementioned good writing.

This book? The one I’m reading — or trying to read — now?  (Let’s call it Book B.)  When I look at the reviews, I appear to be in the minority with my complaints.  Yes, a few people say that Book B also takes a while to get going, that there’s a lot of setup, and that it picks up in the second half.  Maybe I could deal with that better if I hadn’t recently finished Book A, with its own slow start.  As it is, I don’t know if I’ve got the patience to wait Book B out.   But most of the other reviewers are enthralled with the writing, the language, of Book B, and I’m simply not.  I’ll admit that there are some beautiful passages, but there are others that are too over-the-top.  And as I said earlier, there is the occasional awkward phrase.  Over all, it doesn’t feel smooth, if that makes any sense; it lurches a bit.

I plan to give Book B another 20 to 30 pages to catch my interest; if the story and characters can’t overcome the flaws in the prose by then, I think I’m going to abandon it.  It will be the first review copy which I’ve failed to finish. (Though there are one or two which, to my shame, I never started.)

But the whole thing has me thinking.  Why does this feel so wrong — and why do I so seldom abandon a book partway through?  I think in part the latter is because of the way I choose books to read.  If I’m considering a novel I’m not sure about, I dip into it before deciding to read it.  I read several pages from several points within the book, as well as from the beginning.  If those pages catch my attention — if I find myself wanting to read more — I know it’s a book I’ll probably enjoy.  If not. . . well, probably not. 

I’ve also been known to read the ending ahead of time.  I know — heresy, right?  But the thing is, if I’m reading for my own enjoyment and nothing else, I want to be sure the story is going to come out all right.  Obviously, there are plenty of books where I don’t have to “cheat” by checking out the ending.  Romance novels are more or less guaranteed to end with an HEA.  And reading the end of a mystery takes all the (you’ll pardon the repetition) mystery out of it, so I almost never look that far ahead in a mystery.  But fantasy and SF and literary fiction and even women’s fiction can have unsatisfying endings, and that, my dears, is not what I’m usually after when I read.*  So once in a while, I read the ending first.

In other words, the reason that I rarely give up on a book is that I weed out the ones I’m likely to abandon before I start them.  At least, I used to.  Since I started buying and reading ebooks, I find I’m quitting more books in the middle.  It’s less convenient to dip into an ebook midway through than it is to flip open a print book in the middle, and ebooks are harder to jump around in, so I have less sense of where the book is headed and of the author’s style than I would have for a print book.  That difficulty extends to digital ARCs, which make up most of my review copies.  Hmm. I guess I can expect to mark more books as “DNF” in the future.

Given that, I need to set out some guidelines for myself.  If I’m going to abandon a review copy, I owe it to the author and/or publisher and/or publicist to tell them why.  And I need to decide whether I will just quietly let a DNF book drop, or discuss my reasons for not finishing on the blog.  I’m leaning toward the former; I feel awkward and uncomfortable reviewing a book I haven’t actually completed.  On the other hand, as a reader I’ve benefited from DNF reviews on other people’s blogs, when the reviewer is clear and specific about what bothered them.

What do you think?  When and why do you give up on a book, and what do you do when you want to give up on a review book?   Do you write up the books you DNF, or quietly tell the publisher/author you won’t be reviewing it?

* Note that “satisfying” doesn’t necessarily mean a happily-every-after ending, and that there are books I love whose endings I am nonetheless ambivalent about.  The Lord of the Rings jumps to mind; it seems so unfair both that Frodo can’t stay in Middle-earth, and that Sam can’t go with him, even though I understand what Tolkien was trying to say (or think I do.)  Yet I truly love those books.

14 Responses to “To DNF or not to DNF: When does giving up make sense?”

  1. Bea

    That infographic was interesting.

    The older I get, the more willing I am to give up on a book. There are too many books and not enough time.

    I don’t have a specific place where I’ll stop but generally if I’m not pulled in by about 30% or 1/3 of the way in, I’ll give up. I am quicker to give up on books I’m reading for pleasure than I am books I’m reading for review. Books for work, well, I have to finish those.

    If you send the publisher or publicist an email and explain that you won’t be reviewing it because you were unable to finish, they’ll appreciate that you took the time to tell them.

    I don’t write up the books I DNF though I often put notes on why I stopped reading over in the review box on goodreads.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Yes, I have to finish books for work, too! Re sending the publisher/publicist/author an email (or a note through NetGalley), I think that’s a very good idea, and it’s what I’ll do if I really can’t finish this book. I like your idea about not reviewing but noting why you couldn’t finish on GR.

      And I’m completely with you about too many books, too little time!

  2. Jennifer Hartling

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit myself lately. I’m pretty good about knowing in advance what kind of books won’t work for me. BUT when I do dive into something and it isn’t speaking to me it’s fairly easy to set it aside. Unless it’s a review book. Sigh. That’s where the real problem is. I’ve decided to be MUCH more selective about the review books I agree to read. I broke my own rules a few times (No self pubs) and more often than not I’ve regretted it. 🙁

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      It is really hard to set a review copy aside. I’m starting to get a lot more selective, too. I think I’ll have to be, in order to get through the backlog of review copies I’ve got in the house right now. I’ve been pushing out of my comfort zone a bit with some of the review copies I requested, and for the most part, I haven’t regretted it. I’ve been exposed to some authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and found some I really like. But I need to find a better balance between the books I really want to read, and the books I think could be interesting.

  3. kimbacaffeinate

    I did a whole Caffeinated Confession on this, since I never was able to DNF a book before I became a reviewer. Thankfully my first experience with a DNF and publisher was a good one, I explained what wasn’t working for me and moved on. It has taken a lot of pressure of me, and opened me up to try new books, and authors. I have also increased my reading and enjoyment levels. While I still rarely DNF, I let go if by 100 pages it still isn’t working for me. I do not review or rate books I do not finish, instead I state why and place them on my DNF shelf and if necessary let publisher or author know.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I loved that post, Kimba! It’s one of the things that made it possible for me to even contemplate giving up on a review book. I’m leaning toward not reviewing books I don’t finish; I certainly don’t intend to rate them. I do like the idea of noting why I didn’t finish on GR, if there are serious flaws in the book that other readers would likely be bothered by (proof-reading/editing flaws, formatting errors, very poor writing, etc.)

  4. Herding Cats - Burning Soup

    I’ve had to deal with this recently as well with a review book (3 actually eep!). I rarely ever quit a book. Mainly because I just enjoy most of what I read. Thank goodness. But sometimes I’ve learned you just have to move on.

    One I let go quietly and didn’t do a review. It was well written just not for me (or not for me right then–I’ll probably try it again at some point– it was just too sweet).

    But the other two. I had major problems with them. I was actually getting agitated and really annoyed with both and decided that was the time to quit. That it wouldn’t be worth it to suffer through the second half of either.

    One because of the way a subject matter was handled and one because it was a raved about author and the writing was nothing to rave about. I was so bothered by both I actually did a DNF review for the latter and have one scheduled for the other. I didn’t attack just explained why. I’m actually glad I gave up on both of them. It wasn’t easy but there are too many books out there that’ll make me feel good and happy to waste it on books that are going to leave me angry.

    Great topic Lark!

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      “too many books out there that’ll make me feel good and happy to waste it on books that are going to leave me angry”

      Or even bored, or uninterested. I totally agree! Actually, there are signs that this one is going to pick up a bit; the writing gets smoother as I get further in. But it’s still not really holding my attention — possibly I’m just in the wrong place for it right now.

  5. Melissas Eclectic Bookshelf

    I used to feel just as you do…but then I realized that this is ultimately a hobby for me and that there are just too many interesting books out there to push through something I really don’t enjoy and probably wouldn’t write a great review for anyway. Which is more of a disservice…DNFing a book or writing a bad review.

    I DNF maybe 6 books a year and put them on my DNF goodreads shelf. I don’t review them per se…but I do write up a DNF thoughts post about 2x a year (or plan to anyway) with a quick paragraph about why the book didn’t work for me. I find this sort of post (as well as negative reviews) to be invaluable.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      “…this is ultimately a hobby for me and that there are just too many interesting books out there to push through something I really don’t enjoy and probably wouldn’t write a great review for anyway.”

      YES. That. Exactly. It’s what I’ve been feeling my way toward.

  6. Belle Read

    It is interesting to see what, why and when books are moved to the DNF pile. I loved Wicked, but I can’t imagine going into it thinking that it would be similar to the Broadway show. It is nothing like that, for sure. As for Atlas Shrugged, I hate to see it on the list. I have a copy and already fear that my mind wont be able to get it.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      I thought the list of most-often abandoned books was interesting, too. The Casual Vacancy didn’t surprise me; there were bound to be people who didn’t like it because it wasn’t HP, no matter how much the publisher and author talked up the differences. Same with Wicked; I know the show departed significantly from the book, but I can see how that would bother people who love the musical. OTOH, I was really sad to see The Lord of the Rings on the list.

  7. Sandy Farmer

    Great post. I haven’t really made up my own guidelines for DNFing yet. I’ve only DNF’d two books ever and I don’t know if one of them even counts because I never really started it. I’ve got two review books that I am periodically reading 2% here and 3% there just trying to push through them, and two other review books I haven’t started that I already don’t expect to love either. It’s so hard. I can’t really add much here though because I’m still undecided about the whole thing.

    The hardest part about DNFing is explaining why the book wasn’t working for me. To just say “I didn’t like the writing style.” I don’t feel like is enough. I need to be able to provide a reason for not liking the writing style, but I’m finding it hard to spell it out. It’s much easier to say “BookXYZ has great writing and I loved X about it.” But I can’t really say “This book’s writing style doesn’t even compare to BookXYZ that I was reading the other day. And that’s why I don’t like it.” either. Tough decisions here and I still don’t know the answers.

    Sandy @ Somewhere Only We Know

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Explaining why the book isn’t working is really hard. I think it would be easier if a book is badly edited or formatted; then I could point to the lack of professionalism in the production values. But when there’s nothing wrong with it on the production side, and the lack is either in the writing (difficult to explain without hurting the author’s feelings) or worse yet, in me, in my admittedly subjective ability to connect with the book — well, that is really hard to explain.

      Like you, I’m still feeling my way on the whole DNF thing. But I did abandon this book, at least for the time being. I tried to leave the window open for returning to it in the future, because I do think part of the problem was in me and where I am right now.