The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Not Finishing What You Started

DNF (Did Not Finish) reviews seem to be a bone of contention among reviewers, and I can see both sides of the argument-shaped coin.

On one hand, there’s the troubling issue of a person talking about a book when they haven’t read the whole thing. Some feel that this could be likened to disliking (and it is disliking, since people don’t tend to write a review based on a book they didn’t finish because they liked it too much) a house based only on the living room. It seems unfair to judge an entire book by only a portion of it. Problems that a reader encounters with an unclear plot, for instance, could be explained with perfect clarity later on.

Others argue that if a book is continually failing to interest a reader after a certain amount of time, pages, chapters, etc, then that says as much about the book as if the reader continued to the end.

Me, I’m in the latter camp. I don’t often write DNF reviews (thought I did do a short series a while ago, where I looked at books that I haven’t finished and talked a bit about why), but I see their value. I think that the reasons a person didn’t finish reading a book are just as valid as the reasons they did finish it. Maybe the characters felt flat and unrealistic. Maybe the plot didn’t appeal to you. Maybe the story seemed to be glorifying something you felt was abhorrent.

You don’t need to sit through the entire book to realise these things.

Part of the divisive factor on DNF reviews is the uncertain idea about who reviewers are reviewing for. Most of us take it as a given that when we review, we’re trying to boost a book’s presence in the public eye, give it some publicity, greater ratings, to try to convince other people to buy the book and support the authors and publishing team. That much we all get. But in that very idea there’s the notion that doesn’t get talked about as often: we’re reviewing for readers.

If all we did was spout buzzwords back to an industry that wants our buzzwords, then really, there’d be little use for our honesty, which is a word seen in a lot of disclaimers on book review blogs: “This book was provided by the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.” The publishing industry wants good words from us, and who can blame them? Everyone benefits when good reviews cause a book’s sales to increase!

But there’s an element of trust in this. While we often review into a vacuum (most of the people who read my reviews are, I strongly suspect, reviewers themselves), those who read this blog are readers themselves, and have put some amount of trust in me to be honest with my opinions, be they positive or negative. Readers of my blog likely have similar taste in books to me, or else why would they be reading me? It’s the same with blogs that I read. I read them because I trust the reviewer’s opinion and we share similar tastes.

So if they review a book positively, chances are I’ll enjoy the book too. If they didn’t like it, then depending on their reasons, I almost probably won’t. And if they couldn’t even bring themselves to finish it…

You see the pattern.

To simplify the matter, if I were to say that I’ve never gone skydiving because I’m afraid of heights, then other people who are afraid of heights might know that the activity isn’t for them. Is it fair to say that this opinion should not be made public because I can’t say, “I went skydiving and didn’t like it because I’m afraid of heights?” Why is it necessary to put oneself through continued discomfort in order to legitimize something they already knew? Why waste your time going skydiving, when you don’t really want to, when you could be using that time to do something you actually do enjoy?

But that’s just my take on the matter. I can also understand the opinion of those who think that reviewers shouldn’t write reviews about books they didn’t finish, because without finishing it, how can you get the whole picture? Sure, in the end your opinion on the book may not have changed any, but at least you can rest assured that you sat through the whole thing and know that the book wasn’t redeemed, rather than just suspecting it. And the idea of reviewer honesty plays into this as well, and in exactly the same way. Someone whose opinions I trust sat through the whole book and didn’t like it, and chances are I’m not going to either.

I think there’s also some lingering traces of, “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” in the mix. Some reviewers have expressed that they don’t write negative reviews at all, because that can do nothing but harm. And in a way, that’s true. Just in the same way that a positive review can influence a person to buy a book, a negative review can influence them away from it. If nothing at all is said, then it’s a crapshoot as to whether someone else will pick up that book at all, but at least you didn’t actively cause sales to drop.

But since the reasons people don’t finish books are often negative ones, I think there’s a great amount of intimidation at play. You’re badmouthing a book and you didn’t even read it all? Geez, what kind of jerk are you, to do something like that? It’s like piling badness on badness, and anything you say might be seen as twice as negative as it really is. Never mind that your opinions would probably be the same had you actually finished the book. I find that more people are actively discouraged from writing DNF reviews than they are from writing just general negative reviews, when often what’s written amounts to the same thing. It’s still a negative review. The only difference is the amount of time you spent on the matter, and whether or not you confess to not reading until the last page.

There’s no definite end to this debate, no certain “Yes you should” or “No you shouldn’t” consensus that can be reached. At the end of the day, it’s largely a matter of person taste and opinion. I do dispute that DNF reviews have no inherent value, though; as I said previously, the reasons a person didn’t finish a book are just as important as the reasons they did.

So what’s your take on the matter? Do you write reviews for books you didn’t finish? Do you find any value in them when other people write them? Do you think that judging a book based on only a partial reading is unfair? Let me know in the comments!

12 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Not Finishing What You Started

  1. I’m in two minds about it. I don’t do DNF reviews myself and find it somewhat suspect that someone could review an entire novel based on reading 50 pages or so before throwing in the towel. Most of the stuff I read are 500+ page tomes which, mostly, require time to draw you into the world and characters. I feel giving up before they get that chance would be a disservice to both the novel and people reading the review.

    On the other hand I can understand why people would do DNF reviews. They do have value, but I view them less as reviews and more as an expression of that reviewer’s personal taste.

  2. I’m in two minds about it. I don’t do DNF reviews myself and find it somewhat suspect that someone could review an entire novel based on reading 50 pages or so before throwing in the towel. Most of the stuff I read are 500+ page tomes which, mostly, require time to draw you into the world and characters. I feel giving up before they get that chance would be a disservice to both the novel and people reading the review.

    On the other hand I can understand why people would do DNF reviews. They do have value, but I view them less as reviews and more as an expression of that reviewer’s personal taste.

  3. When I reviewed, I always felt it wasn’t about boosting the book, it was about giving people an idea of whether it might be for them. I’m a very average speed reader: I’ve got a couple of books a month (3 at most) in me, and if a book hasn’t interested me in 50 pages I will put it down. If someone else has put it down, I want to know why, so if our reasons overlap, I can save some valuable time.

  4. I try to drop a line or two even on DNF’s. But only if I get to at least the quarter mark of the book. If it doesn’t grab me after a couple pages then nothing needs to be said. But if I have given it a few days I feel I should write about why I didn’t finish.

  5. I don’t DNF, but not because I don’t want to. You bring up valid points that I agree with 100% and let’s face it, life is too short to force yourself through a book you know you’re not going to enjoy. For me it’s more of a personality thing; I have mild OCD and I just get this uncomfortable antsy feeling if I don’t read something cover to cover.

    Theoretically: If I did DNF though, like Nathan said I think reading a book to the 25-30% mark at least gives it a fair shot, and I would probably still write a review as well, making it clear I DNFed and maybe provide a couple lines or a short paragraph as to why (because personally I do find it helpful to read DNF reviews from readers I follow). If it’s a review book, I’d also likely send that feedback to the publisher as well just to let them know I attempted the book and this is why I couldn’t get into it. All books I read generally get a review, no matter if it’s positive or negative.

  6. There’s a couple of reasons why I DNF. the easy reason is because I”m bored to tears. It’s just not my kind of book, it’s boring, i don’t care what happens, the book got zero reaction out of me. This happened to me recently. I probably won’t mention the book on my blog. The 2nd reason I’ll DNF is because the book pissed me off. Maybe the writing is just awful, maybe it’s trope-tastic, maybe it’s offensive, whatever. It’s something that’s giving me a reaction (a negative reaction, but still, a reaction). Those I’ll usually talk about on my blog. But i do try, most of the time, to be polite about how much I didn’t like the book.

  7. I think you have a very insightful post here. I’ve only ever written one review about a book that I didn’t finish, and it was very difficult to write. I did comment on how some of the ideas in it didn’t sit well with me, and I actually rated it higher than some books that I did actually convince myself to finish. There have been times I’ve thought to set a book down but, as you said, felt I might be judging the entire house based solely on the living room. I’ve been house-hunting a bit lately, and I’ve recently learned that if I don’t like the thing I see right when I walk in the door, I’m not going to want to live there—even if I love the rest of the rooms, that one room will sour the entire experience. I think books are much the same way. Only a few really have the potential to recover themselves once a bad impression has been left.

    Writing negative reviews is hard, but I think it’s a necessary part of the industry. In order for a reader to get an honest idea of what a book is like, all sides of the story (excuse the pun) should be presented as them. If they choose to only read the positive comments, that is the reader’s decision.

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  10. So I haven’t really found myself writing DNF reviews on the blog yet, but I have no intention of that staying that way permanently. I am fully 100% pro-DNF or negative review because I want you to help me decide which books I should and shouldn’t spend my money on! Just because I decide not to buy a book based on a review, doesn’t mean that I’m not reading, it means that that is more time to read a book that I’m more likely to enjoy, so it is still a net positive thing in my opinion.

    The only reason I haven’t written official DNF reviews yet is that I am generally so sick of a book by the time I DNF it that I don’t want to spend any extra time thinking about it in order to write a DNF review. This therefore makes me appreciate bloggers who do take that time because they are stronger than I, ha.

    I think the biggest thing is honesty. I hate the argument that DNF reviews are bad because the reviewer didn’t finish the book because the reviewer at no point is claiming to have finished the book. It is right there in the title that they ran into something they disliked so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to finish and I, like you, desperately want to know what that thing is so that I can make more informed purchases :)

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  12. I personally don’t rate DNF books but i will write a few shorty thoughts up and post them in a multiple DNF’d books post about why I DNF’d each one. Because I like to know what people start and can’t finish – I assume they’d want to know the same. I also think it lends to your credibility if you say give lots of things 4 or 5 stars and yet no one ever sees a 1 or 2 star from you until they see that hey – when you aren’t enjoying it you just chuck it to the side. I’m veering away from the MUST FINISH and review mentality because I’ve been reading so many books lately that just don’t get me excited – so giving myself more leeway to say hey – its not going well and here’s why, then moving on makes me feel better.

    I think everyone has a right to post their DNF thoughts others might find them totally helpful.

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