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A Dilemma: Books I Can’t Finish Reading

I have a dilemma and I’d like your help. I have amassed a few of books I can’t finish because I don’t want to spend any more time reading them. Do you want to know about these books? Before you answer, let me explain why I consider it a hard decision.

Here at SFSignal we get a lot of emails from people asking us to review their books. Almost all of the requests are from major publishing houses and are part of the overall book hype machine. I’d like to think I have some integrity and will tell you when I don’t like a book, but disliking a book doesn’t seem to happen that often. Looking back over all the novels reviewed I reviewed so far this year, none have received less than 3 stars. In some ways I believe it goes to my argument that major publishing houses are unlikely to publish a bad book because 1) they have editors who work with the author to polish a book prior to publication and 2) they don’t want to lose money.

But of course, that’s not the whole story.

Update: Folks I owe an apology to the reviewers here on this blog. I did not intend to imply that the people here wouldn’t tell you when they didn’t like a novel. They certainly will and there is a ton of evidence of that here in the archives. I meant this to be about me and my dilemma involving small press/self-published works – not about the other fine folks who review here. I changed the paragraph above to be clearer and (I hope) remove the offensive language (and to be clear, it was offensive – I can only apologize again and humbly state that it was not intentionally so.) – Scott


Some of the book review requests we get are from self-published authors or from very small independent publishers. I have a soft spot for these folks. My mother self-published a non-fiction book a few years back and I know how hard this road can be. As a result, I usually accept these books for review, hoping to find a diamond in the rough (and so far I’ve found one – The Wannoshay Cycle). Unfortunately this is rare, and instead I find myself with several books I can’t even finish because they are simply so poor I don’t want to spend any more time with them. But what do I do about this? Should I even review the books here if I’m going to give them zero stars and announce to everybody that I didn’t like them? It hurts their already small chance of success and what right do I have to do that?

But what do I owe you, the readers of this blog? Do I have a responsibility to warn you about titles I dislike? Is this just the risk the authors took when they invited me to review them?

I’d like to know what you think.

20 Comments on A Dilemma: Books I Can’t Finish Reading

  1. I think that a book so bad it warrants zero stars should not be reviewed. If there are any redeeming qualities, then maybe. Did the author try something bold and new with plot or language, but fail miserably? Does the author have other noteworthy books and this one is an odd aberration? There are plenty of good books out there, so don’t waste review space to trash something no one needs to hear about in the first place.

  2. I think from an ethical standpoint you shouldn’t say anything about a book you haven’t finished. You might hate the book, but since you didn’t “finish the job” you can’t really say anything. It’s like saying you think the hamburger is gross even though you didn’t bite all the way through and chew. You know what I mean?

  3. Although I’ve never seen it done, in my opinion “I couldn’t finish the book,” is a valid review. That means it’s a crappy book, at least in the reviewer’s opinion. However, I can see your point about not wanting to damage budding careers. If you feel it’s hurtful, you may not want to publish the review at all. Honestly, it would just seem that you ignored a book that most of us wouldn’t pick up anyway.

  4. By coincidence I made a recent post on the subject of not finishing books. While I’ve definitely moved to the camp that if you’re not enjoying it, don’t waste your time on it, I also think that if you’re reviewing it you have to soldier on to the end.

    So if you can’t bring yourself to finish them, I’d say don’t review them.

    If you feel that you owe these people something you could simply do a roundup linking to their sites without offering any commentary on the quality. Otherwise I guess silence is golden.

  5. The very fact that you asked means you’ll feel guilty about zero starring them so you’ll end up being a bit easy on them and that will result in a review that is still poor but not quite honest to your readers here so you’ll disappoint both groups.

  6. Matt Good // April 20, 2008 at 11:27 am //

    I believe that you should review the book but clearly advise that due to whatever reason that you were unable to finish the book. As long as the review is your honest opinion and if someone else disagrees, then they can go read the book and judge for themselves. For example, I read numerous positive reviews of Glen Cook’s “The Dragon Never Sleeps”, but I only made it half way through before giving up. The plot, IMHO, was all over the map and impossible to follow. Does this make all the other reviewers wrong? No, it is just my opinion.

  7. I agree with Matthew.

    “I couldn’t finish the book” is a valid review. It provides useful information and is complete in and of itself. It says volume when an inveterate reader simply cannot finish a book.

    I DO want to know if that is the case. Such a judgement is rare, powerful and should be known.

  8. I’ve got a couple of perspectives on this issue.

    As an author of a self-published book (one that was reviewed here on SF Signal, thanks very much gents), I obviously applaud any site that includes books from small, independent or self-published sources. You do, unfortunately, have to wade through a lot to find ones that are interesting and worth reading, but it is great to find and review/promote a book that few have heard of…word of mouth is the best marketing people like me can have.

    As a reader, and someone who reads your reviews, I’d like to know if you didn’t finish a book, as long as you can state why. I would suggest that you don’t even have to put a star rating on a book you couldn’t finish, but it would be helpful to readers if you would at least state why you didn’t (boring; couldn’t get through the editing and grammatical mistakes; plot didn’t hold the reader, etc.). This would be a service to your readers, who could use this information to make up their own minds.

    As a blogger, reviewer and guest reviewer here, you guys know I’m something of a puss when it comes to giving low star ratings. On my own website I’ve stopped giving stars, and review only books/movies that I would recommend to a friend, or that are so horrifically bad that I wouldn’t want a friend of mine to waste their time.

  9. Matt Good // April 20, 2008 at 11:38 am //

    I believe that you should review the book but clearly advise that due to whatever reason that you were unable to finish the book. As long as the review is your honest opinion and if someone disagrees, then they can go read the book and judge for themselves. For example, I read numerous positive reviews of Glen Cook’s “The Dragon Never Sleeps”, but I only made it half way through before giving up. The plot, IMHO, was all over the map and impossible to follow. Does this make all the other reviewers wrong? No, it is just my opinion.

    People will respect a reviewer that will give their readers an honest evaluation, both good and bad, instead of some hack that regurgitates the publishing companies spiel.

    Look at this way, I have read movie reviews in which the reviewer walk out before the end of the movie. Does this disqualify them to do a review? No. As long they explain what caused them do so.

    Just my two-cents.

  10. Cynthia K. Dalton // April 20, 2008 at 11:48 am //

    In these cases I think you should send the publisher (not the author) a note stating the book will not be reviewed because you couldn’t finish it, giving the reason you couldn’t. This may prompt better editing or selection of future books they publish.

  11. I can tell you how I handle it over at Spiral Galaxy: I don’t review books that I don’t finish, but I do review short stories that I don’t finish.

    I’ve got a very different mindset for reviewing books vs. short fiction. For one, the short stories are usually part of a magazine or collection, so it’s useful to the prospective buyer to know about dud stories. Also, I’m trying to examine what makes some fiction not work for me, and it gives me a way to write about that.

    However, for fiction I feel more like a traditional reviewer, and just like you say, I’d feel like I hadn’t done my duty if I review something without finishing it.

    However, what I’ve heard from self-published authors is: any review is better than no review, even if the review is negative. No such thing as bad publicity and all that.

    No answers here obviously, just another perspective.

  12. Scott wrote, “But what do I owe you, the readers of this blog? Do I have a responsibility to warn you about titles I dislike? Is this just the risk the authors took when they invited me to review them?”

    Responsibility, no, but to only give out reviews on books you can star makes it look like you really don’t have standards. :o) I say yes, it is “just the risk the authors took.”

  13. “It’s like saying you think the hamburger is gross even though you didn’t bite all the way through and chew.” – SMD

    I’m not sure this analogy is fair – isn’t it closer to the truth to say I did take a bite and eat it, but couldn’t stomache eating the whole burger? I do read at least a third of it before giving up.

    “The very fact that you asked means you’ll feel guilty about zero starring them so you’ll end up being a bit easy on them and that will result in a review that is still poor but not quite honest to your readers here so you’ll disappoint both groups.” – Robert

    That cuts very close to the truth. It is not so much the zero star as it is the commentary on why I didn’t care for it that I’d have a hard time writing.

    “…to only give out reviews on books you can star makes it look like you really don’t have standards…” – Maria in Iowa

    Ouch, but another kernel of truth.

    This commentary helps. Here is another concern I have – is it cowardly to not comment on them?

  14. It’s a tough one, and there are several issues here.

    (1) If you haven’t finished the book, then that may be a sign that the book sucks (or just wasn’t to your taste). That may be worth telling, but on the other hand if you didn’t actually read the whole book then you can’t really *review* it properly. Reviewing isn’t just saying “this book rocks” or “this book blows”, it’s giving the reader a sufficient overview and some critical analysis. Now if you couldn’t read the book because it is full of errors and infelicities that an editor would have caught, then that’s constructive feedback. If this is just a book that no professional publisher would have touched with a long pole, that’s maybe not such a constructive thing to say.

    (2) Even if you do read the whole book and have nothing good to say about it, are you sure this is because the book has no redeeming features, is both unoriginal and poorly written, and the author deserves to have their ego crushed until they can never lift a pen again? Or is it best to pass quietly over, perhaps with some private feedback, and let it lie?

    (3) On the other hand, being slaughtered in a review is good experience (what doesn’t kill you, and all that); it’s going to happen again, even if you’re good and successful one day. Suck it up. (Anyone tell Mr Pavlou?) If you can be constructive and specific in your criticism, then they can even learn from it. (“This book needed an editor”; “too much unimaginative macho posturing”; “stereotyping borders on the offensive”; “too much head-hopping”; “predictable plot”; “the protagonist is too passive”. In combination these sorts of things can lead to an unreadable book, but how can the author ever improve?) Of course the reviewer’s number one duty is to inform potential readers, so being both honest and constructive is the best way to do this: maybe I *like* macho posturing and passive protagonists…

    (4) Finally, I’ve heard plenty of small publishers who totally back up Karen’s point: it’s far better for business to get a bad review than to be ignored. I’m not quite sure how that works, but some people will clearly go out and buy a book that’s just been shredded. If someone is publishing with an indy or even a vanity press, saying that their book sucks may just be giving them a little bit of a break. (And you’re being honest.)

    Not an answer, but if I read a book that I just can’t stand, by an unsigned author, I’ll usually pass it on to another reviewer who may be able to be more fair with it. (Is that cowardly of me? I don’t think so. Lazy? Maybe.)

    A shitty book by a big name author–sorry, but that’s fair game.

  15. A book you don’t finish should still get a mini review, in the sense that it is fair game to talk about why you didn’t finish the book. Shoot, this is a blog, not the New York Times. As long as you’re up front about not finishing a book, talk about it.

    Please talk about it. If you think a book sucks donkey butt and if I tend to agree with your opinions on books, then I want to know this is something that sucked so badly that you couldn’t be bothered to finish the book.

    I think that’s vital information, personally.

    Reviews don’t have to be positive and shouldn’t always be positive. Generally, I think we have enough taste to pick out books we think we’ll like…but some of them suck.

    I didn’t finish Halting State (a book that didn’t suck, but didn’t do it for me either) and I think it was fair game to write about that.

  16. As a reader reading reviews I really want to find those books that are OUTSTANDING! If you can’t get through a book why promote it? I really want reviewers to be those guys who wade through the crap to find the gem. I don’t care about hearing stories about how hard it was to find that gem.

    There are too many great books going unnoticed to worry about the books that don’t deserve attention. It’s a cruel Darwinian world out there, but that’s how it is.

    Book buying and reading isn’t a charity. It’s a business. Publishers will take a chance and send SF Signal a book hoping to get attention, but that doesn’t mean you have an obligation.

    Actually, I’m finding even single reviewers chancy. I’d prefer reviews like Bookmarks Magazine where they aggragate reviews so you can really spot a book that getting some attention.

    I only read a handful of SF books each year, so why should I waste time on anything less than one of the best books of the year. What I desparately need from reviewers is help finding those books.

    Jim

  17. This happens from time to time in the romance genre. Most blogger reviewers have a DNF (Did Not Finish) rating, in addition to their stars. They review DNFs, and state what didn’t work for them. The comments usually flesh out such reviews by adding pertinent opinions from other readers. It’s a system that works well, imo.

    It should be said that just as not everyone will enjoy the same books, so everyone will not enjoy the same reviews. Readers will use your past reviews to come to a conclusion regarding your taste and a DNF for you may end up first on somebody else’s TBB (To Be Bought) list. You never know. Best just to be honest and forge ahead.

    PS Here’s a link to the DNFs at the highly respected Dear Author site, if you’re interested.

  18. I haven’t done a “did not finish” review yet, but I think it’s valid. Personally I like it when reviewers do that. If your reviews only say that you love everything you read then I can’t really trust that you’re being objective. I think reviews should be the good, the bad and the ugly.

  19. I think a self-published book you read out of curiosity that turns out to be wretched then I wouldn’t even mention it. Now a good one should be held up in a bright light.

  20. If you say you couldn’t stand it and couldn’t finish it, nothing wrong with that. No-one is paying you to do this.

    :-@

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