Thursday, May 19, 2011

The DNF Review

By Ceilidh

Things have been particularly interesting for us book bloggers over the past few months, especially those of us reviewing in the YA category. It seems that everyone has weighed in on the topic of what, why and how to review a book, be it negatively or otherwise. However, the topic of the DNF (Did not finish) review has been an especially
hot button one.

A few weeks ago, author Mayandree Michel blogged about the line between book reviews and book bashing, a topic my fellow torch bearer Vinaya has already discussed at length far better than I could, and while I had a number of issues with some of the things Michel said, including frequent use of the term ‘hater’ to describe critical reviews, her paragraph on DNFs seemed especially interesting to me:

“But why review a book you haven't finished? Most read because they enjoy it. If you find that you are reading a book that you are not enjoying then just put it down. And just because you find that you don't like a book, doesn't mean that the book sucks. It just means that it's not the right book for you.”

Personally, I don’t think this is a fair assumption to make. As a dedicated reader and reviewer, I want to give every book a fair chance, even if it’s something that’s not particularly suited to my tastes, and I seldom don’t finish a novel, but I have no problem with writing a piece on why I didn’t finish a book. This is mainly because it takes a lot for me to put down a book and not return to it, so if a book is so bad or so problematic that I can’t even finish it, I want to say exactly why this was the case for me. Of course not all books are for everyone, but it’s not fair and rather suspect to label everyone that doesn’t like a book as it just not being to their tastes, or giving them the dreaded moniker of ‘hater.’

There are several reasons I may not finish a book. It could be bad writing, uninspiring world-building, lack of originality, etc. The last DNF review I posted (which I didn’t give a star rating to – I think to do so is subjective to the reviewer and their own judgement call) was The Lipstick Laws by Amy Holder. The book was so uninspiring, so derivative of every high school set book or movie I’d ever seen, so devoid of wit and nuance that I just couldn’t force myself to care about it. I’ve also heard the argument that you can’t critique a book without reading it all, but honestly, if you have to read a 300+ page book and it only starts to get interesting in the final few pages, that’s not worth my time. You don’t leave all your good writing for the climax. I do think if one is reviewing a sequel that they should read the rest of the series first, unless it’s been explicitly stated that one doesn’t have to read the rest of the series in order to appreciate the other books (e.g. Discworld novels.)

I have often forced myself to finish a book I know is awful and won’t get better. If a book disgusts me and is so jam packed with disturbing messages and archaic attitudes towards women, sex and relationships that I can’t not speak out against it, then you damn well know I want as much ammunition against that book as possible! This isn’t being a hater, however you want to spin it, it’s about wanting to be informed. However, if you have such passionate reaction to a book that you have to put it down without finishing it, I still think you have the right to review it. Reviews are by consumers, for consumers. I completely understand why people don’t read or write DNF reviews, but if they want to seek the opinion of a reviewer they trust then that shouldn’t be dismissed. It doesn’t make them a hater, it makes them a reader.


  1.  I remember when we were having this discussion on Goodreads a while ago, most people seemed to think it was okay to review a book you hadn't finished, if you had read at least a reasonable number of pages. Like,if you'd finished only ten pages and put the book away, it wasn't okay to try to review it, but if you'd read, say a hundred pages, then it was okay to review it. It kind of makes sense, not in quantifiable number of pages, of course, but if you've given up on the book a few pages in, it doesn't seem fair to review it, simply because I doubt one has given the story a fair chance to make a  better impression. A DNF review, in my opinion, is ten times more negative than a one-star review. You're basically saying, 'This book was so bad/ugly/boring that I couldn't bring myself to even finish it', so if you're going to tell people it's that awful, you really need to read more than the first chapter or so, so that you can reasonably say No, it wasn't worth it, don't bother!

  2. I think DNF reviews make perfect sense.  After all, isn't that what agents do when they only read the first chapter and reject the whole thing?  Everyone accepts that as standard practice.  Courting a reader is like courting an agent.  The reader just happens to have the "full" available right there, but it's perfectly acceptable to reject it on the merits of the "partial."  I think it's ironic that there are reams of blog posts devoted to figuring out why agents stop reading, but when it comes to the actual readers, the point of the whole endeavor, it's a crime for them to say why they put it down.

  3. I have so many DNF books. I typically rate them 1 star.  I only rate it if I've gotten farther than fifty pages. Like with Hush, Hush. If a book is that bad in the beginning, why am I going to force myself to finish? And why am I going to be soft and say that it wasn't for me? That's the lamest excuse ever. I don't hate romance. I hate bad romances, but if you write a good romance, I will like it. Plenty of people hate dragons, vampires, zombies, but that's because they were introduced to them in the wrong way. You can make a person like anything if it's good. Now good is subjective in most cases.

    And like Vinaya said, DNF is worse than a one star, as it should be.

  4. I agree - there is nothing wrong with reviewing a DNF book with a caveat. If the reason for the DNF status is because there are problems with the book (two-dimensional characters, slow pacing, too derivative, cliched, faulty or inconsistent world-building, poor copy editing, corny dialogue, TSTL behaviour, etc.) then it certainly deserves to be called on these faults. It's like taking a bite of something in a restaurant and knowing that it tastes funny - bad or spoiled - just not right. You wouldn't finish the dish and would probably bring it up to the waiter. There is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    However, I have a stack of DNFs that are DNFs because they simply didn't catch my interest enough to keep me turning pages. It wasn't anything particular that I had a problem with, more that the book just turned out to be not my cup of tea. Perhaps I was too bored with it to bother finishing it or it contained tropes that I don't prefer (secret babies or zombies or zombie secret babies). And perhaps another person would enjoy those tropes. I wouldn't bother reviewing such a book beyond "it wasn't for me". To follow my food analogy, it's like ordering a desert that sounds good in the menu description and then getting it only to find out it isn't as good as you were hoping and that you actually prefer the chocolate lava cake and just don't want to waste the calories. :)

  5. True, so true. After all, there's no such thing as 'no opinion' - there's a reason why you put that book down, so why should you not share this reason with the people you know and who might care for your opinion?

  6. What a great topic!  As a blog reader I really enjoy reading DNF "reviews".  When a blogger is unable to finish a book, I'm so curious to hear what he/she had problems with.  I learn a lot about the bloggers tastes and I find out if the book is worth reading for me from DNF "reviews".  Sometimes the reasons he/she may give for DNFing the book may be something I totally wouldn't be bothered by, so I still will give the book a chance.  

  7. I have mixed thoughts about DNF reviews - on one hand I think that it is perfectly good and natural for people to express their opinions on things, and Goodreads in particular is a site that people personalize for themselves by reviewing, shelving etc.  However, I don't find most DNF reviews to be very helpful.  If someone gives a detailed, thoughtful explanation of why they could not bring themselves to finish a book, that's fine.  I have tried to read books before that I just could not get through, so I can understand that.  But I have seen DNF reviews that give a book only one star because of trivial biases, like "I didn't feel like reading this style," "There isn't enough romance and/or sex," "It isn't realistic because there isn't enough cursing," or "It just didn't interest me."  Just because a book bores someone or isn't their usual or ideal style doesn't mean it is absolutely horrible, as a one star would warrant.
    DNF reviews that rate a book very badly without giving concrete reasons beyond personal whims are of little to no use to other readers, or writers wishing to improve themselves.  They can also give books unfair ratings.  I think people should express themselves, but I don't understand why someone would give a bad grade to a book they did not care about enough to finish, and give vague reasons for it - on Goodreads, you can always review/comment on a book without rating it.  I have had professors who judged and graded papers by only reading the first paragraph; is that fair?  I've read books before that I thought I wouldn't like by the beginning, but ended up liking in the end. 
    To sum it up, if you're going to do a DNF review and rate the book, at least give logical reasons as to why you think it's so bad.

  8.  I don't usually stop reading books either. If I do, it's usually because I've found something more interesting to read and plan to revisit the book when there is a lull in my reading schedule.  There was one book in recent history that I couldn't finish and reviewing just seemed to be a waste of energy for me. I had to sum up the energy to read half way through, I couldn't muster up the energy to put any more effort into drumming up a review. Of course I could say "This book is so boring, never read it." but my opinion is subjective. I often find myself hating books that other people find fantastic, so for me, to post a DNF review is just too time consuming. I don't have the time to waste reading a book I dislike nor do I have the time to review it. Most of the time I can finish books that I dislike or ended up skimming through just to see if it gets better. 

  9. Books you can't finish reading seem to teach us important things as writers, too.  They're a handy signpost on the writing road, pointing out the places you don't want to visit, due to their uninteresting surrounds and lack of good accommodation (or something).  Whenver I find myself unable to finish a book, I always end up asking myself why, which inevitably leads to working out how it could be made better.

    That's not to say that the books I don't like are bad books or that they're written by bad writers - they're just not the books I like and those authors aren't the sort of writer I want to be.

    A "DNF" review can be a good thing for a writer, though - just the same as any negative review. If no-one tells you what you're doing wrong, you can't fix it.