An interesting discussion erupted over on Twitter the other day, occasioned by this tweet:
'It's an insult to authors not to finish every book you start' – strong stuff from my excellent colleague @ruhawksley (I took 'A Suitable Boy' away on holiday ONLY so I had no choice but to read all 1,349 pages – I loved it). What do you think, lit twitter?https://t.co/3ByCLBAMO9
— Victoria Richards (@nakedvix) October 14, 2021
Almost exclusively the discussion hewed to one side of this argument: that it is, in fact, deeply silly to suggest that a reader is insulting an author by leaving a book unfinished, for whatever reason. One writer and book commenter and critic and reader after another came forth to insist that no, as a reader, you absolutely should stop reading books that for whatever reason aren’t clicking for you. You owe the author nothing, and there is utterly no insult to an author simply because one reader didn’t connect with a book.
In short, everyone piled on the writer of this tweet, and given the formulation of the position stated therein, that’s probably correct. I myself do not hesitate to leave books unfinished if I am not enjoying them.
(There’s always a “however”, isn’t there?)
In this case, the writer behind the tweet above, Victoria Richards, is merely paraphrasing the headline above in the article she links in her tweet. Reading that piece, I found myself agreeing–at least a bit. The actual point the article’s author, Rupert Hawksley (a writer with whom I am unfamiliar), is a bit more nuanced.
Yes, the headline reads “It’s an insult to authors to not finish each and every book you start,” but when we dig in we find something else:
Earlier this week, the novelist Mark Billingham caused a minor stir when he suggested that readers should throw a book “across the room angrily” if it hasn’t gripped them in the first 20 pages. Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Billingham said that he gives up on about half of the books he starts because “life’s too short … There are so many great books out there.”
Plenty of others agree with him. Hilary Rose, writing in The Times, explained that she “bitterly regret[s] not heeding Billingham’s life lesson sooner”. Crime writer Linwood Barclay added: “Think of it this way. If the first three bites of your meal taste terrible, you don’t need to keep on eating, expecting it will get better.” Well, no, though I’d point out that if the starter was disappointing, you might still stick around for the main. Plenty of iffy prawn cocktails have been followed by an excellent steak.
Reading is, for the most part, a private pursuit; it’s unlikely many of us would seriously change our habits based on the advice of others. Whatever works for you, I suppose. Still, I have found the discussion this week dispiriting and, dare I say it, a bit childish. The idea that we read simply to be entertained – as an easy form of escapism – seems to underpin all the arguments for giving up on a book: “I couldn’t get into it”, “it didn’t grip me”, “too slow”. But entertainment, surely, isn’t the only reason why people read – or indeed why authors write.
Reading should challenge and confound us; it should take us into the minds and lives of those we don’t like or find hard to understand. This may not always be gripping but it is often rewarding. We owe it to writers to give them a full hearing before passing judgement – and finishing a book is the only way to do this. To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting.
That last bit is key: We owe it to writers to give them a full hearing before passing judgement–and finishing a book is the only way to do this. To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting.
Also of note is the way Hawksley starts: he is responding to someone who has said that a reader should fling a book angrily aside if they’re not enjoying it just twenty pages in. Now, there’s no link there to substantiate the quote, so it seems to me that Hawksley is framing a stronger-than-necessary response to an argument that is, the way he depicts it, also a bit strange.
All I can do here is offer my testimony as a reader myself. I stop reading books (what the kids today call “DNFing”, with DNF standing for “Did Not Finish”) probably around a quarter of the time. That is to say, I suspect that I DNF around a quarter of the books that I start. Why? Well, there are many reasons! There’s the “It didn’t grab me” thing, which is a thing, I have to admit. There might be other factors involved: I’ve had to DNF books that came due at the library before I could get all the way through. (This may, in fact, be the main reason I DNF stuff. Sometimes I’ll make a note that I was liking the book and check it out again; other times I won’t bother.) And sometimes there are other reasons for DNFing a book. I’ve had a few instances of starting a book just in time for the author to, well, show their ass on the Internet by saying something awful. I don’t like to do that, but I can’t really enjoy a book knowing that the author has just exposed themselves as a big jerk.
Here’s what I don’t do, though: I never pass judgment on a book that I did not finish. A cursory glance at my Goodreads account makes it look like I like all the books I read, but that’s not quite it: I won’t review a book I didn’t finish (I have a DNF shelf on Goodreads for my own record-keeping, and it has only seven titles on it), and I don’t finish what I’m not enjoying. This seems fair to me.
I also very rarely conclude that a book isn’t good. When I DNF a book for a reason involving the book itself, it’s because of that dreaded “it didn’t grab me”…but even so, I don’t read too much into that at all. I’m more likely to say “This wasn’t doing it for me right now, but maybe it will some other time.” And that is always possible. Many of my favorite books of all time are books that I couldn’t finish the first time I tried reading them. I see a DNF for this reason as not being a statement of any kind about the book, or me, or me and the book. It’s just “Meh, this isn’t what I feel like reading right now.”
That original author’s statement about flinging the book aside angrily if you’re not grabbed in 20 pages? Isn’t that a little weird? How can 20 pages possibly be enough to know if a book has “grabbed” you? And why be angry at a book that simply hasn’t engaged your emotions on this particular day? In fact, the books that make me angry might be the ones I’m more inclined to finish, for whatever bizarre reason. It doesn’t happen often, but I will note that I wish, from the vantage point of experience and time, that I had chucked The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged against the nearest wall. But even in those cases, I doubt I’d have done so a mere twenty pages in.
Ultimately I think readers and authors put way too much stock in a book’s need to “grab your attention”. The advice is constant: “You have to grab your reader! You have to command their attention from the first line! If they have the slightest reason to put your book aside, you’re done!” Sometimes you hear this stuff from editors and agents, but those are special cases: their jobs involve reading more stories or novels than any human can reasonably process in a week, so of course they’re going to reject books within a few pages, if that. But what of that? What does that mean? Again: merely that the book didn’t click with that person at that time.
So, in the end, I think the only real insult to an author comes when you judge a book harshly without having finished it. You should come to a book with the most open mind possible, but it is simply unreasonable to expect that in every single case a reader will be prepared to go where the author wants to take them. You never know until you try, I guess…but don’t worry about insulting the author. Especially if you bought their book, because then, well, they’ve already got your money.