Recent Reading: DNFs

I’m always interested in how people read, what works or doesn’t for them and why. Here are three books I recently failed to finish. None of them are bad books, they just didn’t draw me in.

Shelly Laurenston, The Mane Event

I had previously tried one of her G.A. Aiken dragon books, and given up in the middle, bored–it seemed like all sex and fighting and I didn’t find it funny. And paranormal romance is not really my thing. So my hopes for this weren’t high, but I picked it up after a discussion between Robin and Meoskop (which led to Meoskop’s own DNF). This turned out be be two novellas, which maybe wasn’t the best thing to try. I liked it a bit more than I expected, especially Dez, the tough cop heroine. But it came mighty close to fated mates, a trope I hate: Mace and Dez hadn’t seen each other for 20 years, since they were in their teens, yet he was determined to make her his, and in love and sniffing her neck the moment he saw her again. I just found it was too over the top, too exaggerated for me. And since it was a library book, I gave up without guilt. To be totally honest, I think my own classism is a factor in my response. Picture me making a prunes and prisms face and sniffing “It’s a bit vulgar, isn’t it?” I don’t mean the sex; I didn’t get that far. But the language/dialogue, the characters’ propensity for aggression (and yes, some are shifters, but does that have to mean finding bar fights fun?), that kind of thing. I’m not saying this is admirable in me, but it’s there, and it didn’t feel worth overcoming for these stories.

Fiona Lowe, Boomerang Bride

Sunita liked this contemporary romance set in small-town Wisconsin, and I found it in my library’s e-collection. The hero, who looks like a Viking, is coming resentfully home from the big city and finds a woman on Main Street dressed in a wedding dress and holding a cake. It quickly becomes apparent that the fiancé she’s come from Australia to meet (and to whom she’s given her savings) doesn’t exist. I read two chapters and thought “this woman is an idiot and this set-up is so artificial.” This response had a lot to do with my mood. Tons of romance novels begin with an artificial/implausible set-up, and usually I’ll go with it to get to the real emotion that it paves the way for. This time, I couldn’t push through until things got real, though I could see they would, in the interactions hero Marc has with his sister and nephew. After that experience, I eyed up some of the much-anticipated contemporary romances I had just added to my TBR and decided to wait until I was in the mood to give them a fair shot. (And I might well pick this one up again then, too).

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

I read about 80 pages of this one. It’s largely epistolary, which I love, and much lauded. I was really looking forward to it. So this was a big disappointment (and I was glad it, too, was a library book). I was fairly engaged while I was reading, but when I put it down, I had no desire to pick it up again. I thought the targets of its satire–the privileged, somewhat bohemian classes of Seattle–were too easy (um, possibly I saw some of myself in those targets, but I don’t think that’s what put me off). It was funny and clever, but in a way that felt shallow and brittle, with no underlying heart. Quite possibly there is going to be heart to the story eventually–it’s about a girl’s quest to understand her missing mother, after all. But I wasn’t feeling anything by p. 80, and I wasn’t willing to wait longer. Readers whose views I respect, and whose taste I often share, gave it 5 stars. But I think I’m with Rohan, who gave it 2.

If these DNF experiences have anything in common, it’s this: I will stick with a book that I find off-putting or difficult in some way if I think there’s going to be a payoff, whether emotional, intellectual, or both. Am I going to learn or feel something I value?

I’ve stuck with books I found a real slog to read, and where I didn’t really care about the characters, because I admired what the author was doing or was interested in the ideas or themes. A lot of books like that are literary fiction (Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers are some examples from this year). And maybe it shows some lingering genre prejudice that I’m much more likely to DNF a romance I’m not enjoying, to figure it’s not worth going on (though sometimes I do: Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, for instance). Even though I will bring a critical eye to romance, I think of it as my “fun” reading and am not that interested in stretching myself, in having the patience to see if there might be a payoff in a book that doesn’t immediately engage me–or to see what others find of interest in it, even though it’s not for me. I can’t treat all my reading like work, I guess, and so much of it is already.

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11 Responses to Recent Reading: DNFs

  1. Isobel Carr says:

    Learning to DNF is a skill. I used to finish everything I started. Hell, I read the whole Thomas Covenant series. Why? I hated him!!! But as I got older, I learned to accept that it’s OK to put a book aside and not go back to it. Part of it was reaching a point where I could move on without knowing the outcome of a storyline. Not always an easy thing. At this point, I’m a DNF machine. I download samples of anything not by an autobuy author and I don’t finish the vast majority of them. Having no money invested certainly makes it easier, too!

  2. Ros says:

    If I’m bored, I’ll stop. Often, like in your third example, I won’t even do this deliberately. I’ll just never get round to picking it back up again.

    If a book is making me angry, I will try to stop, though sometimes the rage takes over and makes me read all the way to the end. I prefer not to do this if possible, because again, this is supposed to be my fun reading.

    If I don’t like the voice, I’ll sometimes stop. This is most likely to be the case, for me, in 1st person narratives, but it does happen in 3rd, too.

    But I don’t often DNF. I still have something of the narrative addiction that I first picked up as a kid. Reading anything is always better than reading nothing. Although it’s not like I don’t have other stuff I could be reading.

  3. Las says:

    Funny, the vulgarity is partly what I like about the few Laurenston books I’ve read. Some of it is over-the-top wish-fulfillment, like when one hyperbolically states they want to punch someone in the face. In Laurenston’s world, they DO punch people in the face when the urge strikes. It is a bit much, and I could never glom her books for that reason, but I get a kick out of them when I do read. (The Mane Event didn’t work for me either. I liked the Magnus Pack series much better.)

    I’ve DNF’d almost every book I’ve picked up in the past few months and have been unimpressed with the few I managed to finish. With that kind of streak I figure most of them are about me, not the books. A lot of it is just being bored with certain tropes and themes and character type that I’ve read too many times too count. No amount of beautiful prose can save them. This recent period aside, the characters are what will make me consistently DNF a book. I have a high tolerance for all sorts of plot shenanigans, but character actions and reactions have to make sense based on what I know about them.

  4. Expecting a pay-off is key for me too, though I still mostly try to assume I should keep going rather than assume there isn’t going to be a pay-off. Maybe it’s my Victorian earnestness that makes me feel I’m supposed to persist to the end! And I have sometimes been won over by a book that just didn’t seem to be going well (I’m thinking, say, of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart). The accidental DNF that you describe (just not picking it up again) is my most common one, when it happens – only a couple times that I can remember have I really deliberately said “nope, no more” (here, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children comes to mind!).

  5. sonomalass says:

    Learning to DNF is ongoing for me. I’m getting better at it. I’m trying to get better at sampling books, as part of that. Samples only make me feel that I’m committed to reading that portion; buying the book would be a separate commitment decision, one I won’t make if the sample doesn’t grab me and make me want MORE, NOW.

    I enjoyed Boomerang Bride. The set-up was so over the top that I just went with it, like I would a screwball romantic comedy, and I wasn’t sorry. But I was in the right frame of mind for it, or I can easily see myself reacting as you did.

    Thanks for writing this. I probably should think more about why I don’t finish books.

  6. Sunita says:

    I think SonomaLass pegged Boomerang Bride just right; it is definitely a screwball comedy setup, and if I hadn’t been reviewing it (and been pretty sure Lowe would introduce other stuff soon) I’m not sure I would have kept going in that early part. But you’re right about the family relationships, so if you ever do go back to it, I think you’ll enjoy those.

    I’m DNFing books right and left these days. I don’t think it’s genre prejudice so much as feeling that the book is unlikely to surprise or even just satisfy me. I force myself to keep going when I’m pretty sure it’s me not the book, but I find my tolerance is low for books whose arc I think I can predict and that are stylistically and technically not very good.

    Also, non-white people and cultures used as voiceless background or plot points have become extremely annoying to me, even when the book is a historical. I used to have a much higher tolerance, but in 2013 I’m not interested in reading about faceless, voiceless “natives” unless the author is self-conscious about what she’s doing with the setup.

  7. Isobel Carr says:

    The Kindle and samples have REALLY changed how I read. My phone is full of samples. If I get to the end of one, I’ll likely click and buy the book and send it to my Kindle. If it doesn’t grab me, I’ll delete and move on to the next one. I guess it’s like a virtual bookstore, I just never spent tons of time reading first chapters in physical bookstores. I was more likely to just buy based on cover, author, and blub and then read the whole thing even when I didn’t really enjoy it.

  8. Barb in Maryland says:

    As a retiree on a limited budget, I make really good use of the three county public libraries that I have access to. The review sounds good? put it on hold at the library! If it doesn’t work? no money lost. And ‘doesn’t work’ covers soooo much territory. Sometimes I go back to re-try a book I had previously given up on. And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
    I have long ago mastered the DNF. That is, the guilt free DNF. The older I get (I qualify for Medicare now!), the easier it is to DNF a book–too many books, too little time! And I would much rather re-read an all-time favorite than slog through a book I don’t enjoy.
    That said– I do still have to fight the lure of the book (usually non-fiction) that I feel I really “should”!! read. History, biography, cartography, cosmology, and so on…I have painfully learned to limit my buying in those categories, but I still have books on my shelves for which I haven’t read more than the first chapter. Sigh………

  9. willaful says:

    I use an “X” column on calibre for DNFs, which gives a very good visual for them, and I’ve noticed that they tend to come in clusters. I’ll go a long stretch without any, then suddenly five or six. Interestingly, I also use a visual for rereads, which are much rare, but they tend to congregate with the DNFs. Going for something I know will work, I guess.

  10. Liz Mc2 says:

    I am really enjoying all your comments! For years I would just drift away from a book, telling myself I’d get back to it soon. I’ve had books sit untouched on my nightstand for a year while I pretended I was still reading them (I haven’t quit this A. S. Byatt, have I?). I’m learning to be better about just saying “I quit. This is not for me.” There is all kinds of academic and other guilt involved here–and like Isabel, I can find it hard not to see how a story ends (that’s what peeking is for, though).

    I need to be better about using samples. I have devices that make it easy to download them, but somehow sampling seems like work to me, which is silly. I often treat library books essentially as samples, though. Bring them home, try a little, decide “not now” or “not at all.”

    What I do have is a bunch of DNS books in my digital collection–mostly free/super cheap, I hope. Books I Did Not Start when I bought them, and probably never will. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than a DNF. They might not be mistakes, but I’ll never know!

    • Barb in Maryland says:

      I, too, have any number of books on my Nook that I didn’t start when I first bought them. Some have been sitting there for months, if not years! I really should get them off my device so they no longer taunt me…..

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