Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Broke My New Years Resolution

In November and December of last year several of my peers and professional authors beat me up over my reading habits. I finished everything I read, no matter how much I hated it. And for years I wrote reviews of all but five of the books I’d finished.

This was, they explained, “life-shorteningly dumb.”

The negative reviews potentially made those authors my enemies before I’d ever met them, and I’d wasted my time by completing books I didn’t enjoy. Sometimes I’d tried to study how novels were failing to better my understanding, but no matter the approach, I never actually got much out of analyzing a book that stunk. And because often I hesitated to read at all when the present book was bad, I slowed down my overall consumption.

Thus all I got was a lugubrious experience with the option of additional negative experiences some day should an author find the review and take it personally. There are nightmare stories of major authors whose careers were hampered not by authors, but the author’s vengeful agent or publisher. It’s something to think about the next time you bag on Dan Brown.

My 2011 resolution worked great: to write a damned novel. I’d gone too many years without a new one. If you’ve been following The Bathroom Monologues for long, you know I conquered that bastard. I’m drawing up skeletons for additional ones now.

So my 2012 resolution was to put some books down. If it didn’t show promise, insight or improve toward the end of the first hundred pages? Then give it back to the library, or lend it to a friend who might like it better, or just shelve it.

Also less of that secondary policy of mine: shelving a book over and over again, to give it another chance in six months, or when I was in the mood for Gothic Horror, or whatever caprice would inevitably strike.

With over a hundred unread books in my closet, shelves and hard drive, keeping old ones was bloating the list. Also, historically? Most of the books that didn’t appeal on the first go usually didn’t fare better on the third or fifth. I had to get the guts to fire some novels from my employment.

It’s April, and I’m uneasy about the policy. Outliers still haunt me. It wasn’t until my fifth reading that the brilliance of Animal Farm struck me. I stand by my belief than the first hundred pages of A Game of Thrones are the dullest in the whole series; what great characterization I’d have missed if I gave up on it there.

It’s April, and I’ve finished eleven books. I’ve discarded six others midway through and feel no guilt, because regret has been paved over by the good works that have taken up more of my free time. It’s better that I got to P.G. Wodehouse’s Mr. MullinerSpeaking and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers sooner, or so I insist to myself when the outliers start a-haunting.

I’ve reneged on the resolution three times so far. One is obvious: for National Novel Reading Month, the activity devoted to catching up on classics, I slogged through all of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which led both to much personal groaning and much public scorn for my lack of taste. True to form, I reviewed it. I’m not afraid of Austen’s publishers, and probably not afraid enough of the damage this could do to my reputation. 

The best news is that in this period I’ve felt roughly equally bad reviewing what I disliked and ditching books that failed to impress. Why is this good news? Because if I can even convince myself of the parity, then I can make an easier dash for the exit on the next clunker.

Doubts and outliers still haunt me, though, and I’ll have some questions about your reading and unreading habits tomorrow.


  1. I can see both sides. I like to give a book a good honest shot before I give up on it, but if I'm starting it for the fourth time without finishing, or forcing myself to read on, it's not really worth it, is it?

    I htink you can learn from a bad book without finishing it. All you have to figure out is why you don't want to read on.

  2. I'm a slow reader, and a generally grumpy reviewer. Around the same time I decided that my New Year resolution should be to not buy more books (I have too many unread books), I decided that I didn't have time to push through books I disliked. But, yes, I feel slightly guilty about it. Or rather, that I feel I'm not seeing some quality that should make the book compelling to me. I've never considered going back and rereading a novel I didn't like, though a few come to mind that I might take a second look at. (Like Animal Farm, in fact.)

  3. I used to feel that I was 'quitting' if I stopped a book because I didn't like it. So what happened was I just stopped reading until I slogged through the book I should have dropped. This is not a good thing. So when I get bored with a book, I just drop it and move on. Too many good things out there to read to read something I'm not interested in.

  4. My hubs very seldom quits a book in midstream. He's read mny things that I would find mind-numbing, many of which he claims to have enjoyed. He's a fast reader, though, and travels a lot so it's not a huge investment or opportunity cost if he doesn't like a book. I, on the other hand, am a painfully slow reader. Many years ago I arbitrarily decide that if I wasn't intrigued by a book by page 50, it had to be set aside. When time and enthusiasm are short, though, this results in my setting aside a good many books, which could be a net loss. There are downsides to both approaches and probably there's a happy medium in there somewhere that I have yet to find.

  5. I wonder if that "finish your dinner" mentality, drilled into most of us by our parents, bleeds over into reading. It makes sense — as eating can be both pleasure and nourishment, reading can be both pleasure and mental nourishment. It's when the pleasure is not there, is when we have the problem.

    I never thought about the idea that a publisher or agent could make life difficult over a negative review. Having said that, I will stand by my one-star review of The Road. When books with little (or no) plot and character development get not only published but hyped, that hurts everyone far more than an egalitarian publishing platform. The writers of "dross" can point to such work as evidence that attention to craft is unnecessary.

    So what works have earned a big "DNF" this year?

  6. I try hard to finish books and, like you, will give them second and third chances. These days I am getting better at simply giving up. There are many, many books I enjoy or learn from or both. If a book cannot manage either I recycle it. Someone else may benefit and it clears space in my overloaded shelves.

  7. I will put a book down if I don't like it to start with and come back later, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. If it doesn't I give the book a wave good bye. There is no point reading something that is not an enjoyable experience, when this happens I pass the book on.


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