When (not) to DNF a book

I DNF a lot. Life is too short to read a book that makes me feel less good when I’m done than I did when I started. After more than 25 years of reading romance novels, I know my tastes. There is some writing I find so problematic that no strengths in plotting or characterization will overcome it. There is some wallpaper so shiny that I can’t see past it to the rest of the room, er, book.

Nevertheless, when I’m reading for review, I make myself finish. Now, I’m more than happy to read DNF reviews like the ones by my DA colleaguesJanine’s in particular. Sometimes they can be more insightful than reviews of fully read books. It’s worth remembering that there are a variety of reasons readers DNF, and there is as wide a range of DNF reviews as of completed-book reviews. Some are one- or two-sentence dismissals (“it was a wallbanger”) with no further explanation, but others are informative and thoughtful. And as someone said (probably Robin), we don’t hear many complaints about the short, uninformative, “I loved it!” A reviews.

But despite my enjoyment of other people’s DNF reviews, I can’t seem to write reviews like that. And I’ve come to realize it’s important for me (and for anyone who thinks my reviews might be useful) that I review both the ones I like and the ones that didn’t work for me. Even when I know a book isn’t working for me, I feel that I have to read the whole thing, just in case I’m going to miss something that explains why the author went the way s/he did, or a late twist that redeems the book.

I finished a couple of books recently that failed on almost every level for me. I kept reading, thinking they were going to get better. But they never did, and one even got worse. Nevertheless, I wrote up the reviews, and I think (I hope) I was fair to them. The reviews aren’t favorable, needless to say, but they are pretty clear about what I found dissatisfying about the reads, and in one of the cases I think people who like the aspects I didn’t will go out and buy the book for precisely those parts.

I also read two books that I had serious reservations about in the early stages. One uses a trope that I don’t find particularly appealing (okay, that I generally hate). But I love this author’s books, so I kept going, thinking if anyone could pull it off, she could. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the end of the book, but I’m glad I read it. And when I went back to read parts of it again while writing the review, that trope made more sense to me and I appreciated it more than I had on the first reading. It’s still not one I’d seek out, but I thought the author did a good job with it and it was interesting to see it used thoughtfully.

The second used a setting that I tend to avoid. She’s written in this subgenre before and the books have been well received, but I hadn’t read those when I had the opportunity to review the book. I’ve loved the books I’ve read by her, so I thought, why not? I read the first 50 pages twice. I found them confusing and I wasn’t at all sure I could continue. But I said I’d review it, so I felt that I had to try again. So I started from the beginning, reading it only when I could really concentrate, and around Page 95, everything suddenly fell into place. It’s a story with a lot of characters, and I haven’t been reading a lot of those lately, so I was out of practice. I’m still not sure how well the book is going to work for me, but I’m sufficiently engaged that I will definitely keep going until the end.

I still DNF books I read purely for myself, i.e., books I buy or get as freebies from Amazon and other sites. And I imagine at some point I’ll be able to DNF a review book and write a post that conveys enough for me to be satisfied with what I’ve written. I understand why some authors and readers are so opposed to the idea of DNF reviews; authors in particular can feel that it’s unfair to their effort.

But reviews are for readers, not authors, and as long as there are readers who find DNF reviews useful, reviewers should feel comfortable in writing and posting them. And for people who don’t find them useful, once they see that DNF tag/title, they can stop reading and find another review. After all if there’s anything we have in abundance in the online romance world, it’s opinions about books and places to find them.

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15 thoughts on “When (not) to DNF a book

  1. You know, I can finish a bad book if it’s still at least readable. Some of the stuff out there isn’t even readable. But you know my thoughts on bad books: I don’t finish them. I don’t think anyone writes DNF reviews on a regular basis. Usually it’s a situation where a book is extremely popular or the talk of the internet and someone just can’t finish it. I see nothing wrong with those types of reviews. I guess I’m not bothered by them because I rarely if ever use reviews to make my final purchase decision. Nope, they don’t always make the sale. Sometimes I need three or four people of similar tastes to weigh in and of course there’s the voice of the author to consider, the person who recommended the book, the price of the book, the genre (etc, so forth). I can see how others might be annoyed? Because yes, a book can turn around and be a great book but if over half the book is over then that’s a little too late at that point (to me).

  2. Most of the time when I finish a book I do like it, and if it’s not working for me, I don’t make myself finish, because in my case, it would just make me crankier and crankier. I have mixed feeling about writing DNF reviews but I still write them because otherwise, readers wouldn’t get enough negative reviews from me to be able to gauge what my reading tastes are and whether those tastes align with theirs.

    Still, I have a rule of thumb with DNF reviews which is that I only review books I’ve read at least one-third of. Without reading the first third, I can’t write a plot summary. What this means is that the books I like least don’t get reviewed at all, because I usually quit them much earlier than that.

    I’m glad you found my review of The Spymaster’s Lady helpful because that was probably the one review I felt most nervous about posting in the four and half years I’ve been reviewing for DA. It seemed like everyone, including most of my fellow reviewers at DA, loved the book or at least liked it a lot. I was really nervous about putting such a different opinion out there. But I found what happened in this case and in other cases where I’ve done this, was that it turned out other people agreed with me, including some whom I hadn’t seen post those opinions before.

  3. @Keishon: Thank goodness for excerpts when it comes to the readability problem. I now regularly check out the excerpt if the author is new to me, because there is a fair amount of material out there that I know I can’t get through. Like you, I don’t decide to buy a book based on one or two reviews unless they are really trusted reviewers, but it does seem that quite a few people use a positive review as a spur to buy and a negative one to not buy. But maybe that’s just the tipping point rather than the true cause.

    @Janine: I’ve seen your review of Spymaster’s Lady cited in a couple of different places as an example of a really useful DNF review, so it’s not just me! And yes, I think the dissenting reviews can make other people who are in the minority view more comfortable about speaking out. It’s hard to be the only voice, especially on the negative side, for many readers.

  4. Great post. I agree. I don’t do a DNF unless I think there’s a good reason for it. Maybe the book has received rave reviews elsewhere and I have a different opinion, or maybe, very occasionally, the book uses a theme that enrages me (such as the alpha jerk hero). I will force myself to give the book a good try, then probably skim the rest to ensure there are no clever twists that turn the plot on its head. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood, and then it wouldn’t be fair to DNF it. But I always try to emphasise that it’s my opinion only, and other people may feel completely differently about it.

  5. I don’t really review, just blog about books that have an impact on me. Tthat tends to mean I blog about the ones I love, and occasionally the ones I hate. DNFs tend to be *meh* books rather than ones I hate so I find I never talk about them.

    As for the usefulness of DNF reviews, for me that question is the same as one about the usefulness of any review. If there’s an attempt to explain what it was you loved, hated, were bored by etc. then in works. It’s those one para sum up reviews I see no point in.

  6. @Lynne: I seem to remember a couple of really interesting DNF’s by you, is that right? Which reminds me that part of the reason I like DNF reviews by trusted reviewers is that since I have a sense of their taste and evaluation scale I learn a lot from the DNF.

    @Joanna: Agreed. The important distinction for me as well is between well argued reviews and summaries w/I liked/hated it.

  7. I clicked the first link and saw a lot of DNFs with my name on them! I tend to write reviews for books that I feel strongly about, positive or negative. I’m also a fickle reader, even more so before I got my kindle. For DA I try to write one review a month, and there isn’t much f/f out there. If I didn’t write DNFs I’d have nothing to submit some months.

    I think of DNF reviews as helpful to authors. I know I’m not supposed to consider them, that reviews are for readers and blah blah blah. But sometimes I feel like I can help an inexperienced author by giving an honest critique. Whether they appreciate my efforts is debatable. ;)

    As an author, however, I find mediocre reviews much more helpful (so far) than one-stars or DNFs. When someone hates my book, I didn’t *almost* win that reader over. I totally failed with them–and that happens. I’m more interested in the readers I might have had a chance with.

  8. @Jill: Don’t worry, that list is organized by date! It’s just because you’ve done the most recent ones. There are plenty more in the past. It’s good to hear that sometimes authors get something out of DNF reviews. I know that some authors do read their reviews and find constructive stuff there. When I say reviews are for readers, I’m essentially reminding myself who my main audience is. In peer review you’re writing for the author, so it’s tempting to think of this the same way, but of course published work is different. And I don’t have any special expertise to offer authors, unlike in the peer review situation.

    You’ve done some tough DNF reviews (tough in that you caught flack for them) but I’ve appreciated them.

  9. OMG! You will not believe my DNF pile. It would make you weep if you knew I paid for each and every one of those damn things.

    I only post a DNF review if I find the author forces me to DNF on more than one book and then I find the book that represents all the reasons why I find the author lacking and go for it. That may not seem fair but that is how I do it so a DNF from me usually represents maybe five books I have bought from that person.

    • Actually, I think that’s a great idea. It wouldn’t might not work on a review site, but for an individual blog or Goodreads it makes a lot of sense. That way the readers get examples of what didn’t work, and they also know the extent to which you think that’s true across the author’s books rather than just being the case for an individual book. I think I might steal that. :-)

  10. I don’t write reviews myself, but as a reader I often find DNF–and negative reviews in general–more helpful than positive reviews when looking for something to read (and I sometimes actively look for negative reviews of books that I loved, because it’s really cool when I find myself agreeing with every negative word but still think it was a great read). I notice that in general there’s a lot more detail in negative reviews that allows me to determine if I might like a book, whereas with positive reviews, even when thoughtfully written, I can’t seem to interpret them in a way that’s helpful to me. It’s why I won’t read blogs that rarely or never write negative reviews…I can tell more about a reviewer from her dislikes than her likes. There are books that I think are completely awful that seemingly every single reviewer out there adores.

    • That’s a good point; I think that good reviewers try hard to explain why they *didn’t* finish the book, since it’s not their preferred way to review. So you wind up getting more information sometimes.

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