Must You Finish a Book to Have an Opinion on it?

The excellent Mysterious Matters blog this week talks about the 50/100 page rule. That’s the number of pages that a reader will read, waiting for a book to “grab” them. Of course, some throw the book down on page ten, and others must finish it, either because “hope springs eternal,” as Agatho at MM says, or because of a neurosis. I used to compulsively finish the book. I remember the first one I quit that I actively disliked, a bio of Houdini that concentrated on his Oedipal complex rather than his act, and seemed indignant that escape artists hide keys and use trickery instead of superhuman powers. I loathed that book. But I gave it well over 100 pages, and I damn sure wrote an Amazon review excoriating it.

If that were my book and the reviewer slammed it, I’ll be honest, it would annoy me. I wouldn’t go on a tantrum and rend my garments and call attention to it, but I would likely be upset about it.

And I would be wrong.

You see, the reader owes me nothing. They have bought my book, and I am thankful. They do not owe me a review, good or bad. They do not owe me a ‘like’ or a retweet, or word of mouth. Of course, if they like the book, I would be exponentially appreciative if they told their friends about it, or reviewed it. But they don’t owe it. They don’t owe me anything.

I owe them.

You earn the reader with every line. Now, some readers skim; I try to write like Elmore Leonard said, and skip what most readers skim. (I stand corrected- Harry Crews said this, and Mr. Leonard repeated it. –ed.) We can justify it all we like, when we lose a reader. They had hemorrhoids, they have bad taste, they were tweeting and not paying attention. But in the end, we can’t really blame them. We have to do our best to write the best book we can, and if a reader doesn’t like it, they have the right to say so. Their “didn’t finish it, it was boring, it sucked” is just as valid as the equally vague “OMG I loved this book, I finished it in one sitting.” It doesn’t say why the book’s so great. We don’t even know if they paid much attention. But we don’t complain about these reviews, even if finishing the book in one sitting is unlikely because of the length.

We don’t like those “didn’t finish” reviews, but they’re the equivalent of walking out of the theater. They didn’t like the movie. They paid for their ticket and decided the next hour or two of their lives were better spent elsewhere. The same with a book. They walked out. Their review may not hold the same weight as Pauline Kael’s, but it’s as honest as any. Move on, and let it go.

But to quote the Dude, that’s just like my opinion, man. And the bad review is theirs.

What’s yours? Do you think it is okay to review a book you couldn’t bear to finish? Would you say page 50 or 100 was enough? Ten pages? One?

13 thoughts on “Must You Finish a Book to Have an Opinion on it?

  1. One. I used to finish every book I started, but life’s too short. If I can put a book down I will. Of course the challenge now in the sea of books is to get anyone to pick up your book in the first place…

    • I’m with you- I give a book one page before I decide to buy it. Short stories get a few lines. Writers need to grip you, either with a poignant phrase, an interesting character. Something. I get indignant when someone starts off boring. Like who the hell are you, you expect me to read this because you didn’t want to polish the opening line?

  2. And the question is quickly becoming irrelevant w/Kindle “read a sample” and so on. I’ve not bought dozens of books in the last year after reading the first few pages (i.e. the first “2%” in Kindleland…)

    • Yes, thank goodness for the sample. I don’t review a book if I only read the sample, but if it flops after 50 pages or so, maybe 100, I will say so. I recently finished a terribly written book to give it every chance I could, and I’ll be damned if I do that again. I have finished middling books by authors whose voice I enjoy. That’s a 3 star, to me. It kept me to the end, it can’t be that bad. Pity there’s no 2.5 star rating.

  3. To answer the question: No. Only because I invest time and energy in writing reviews, and I don’t have time and energy to review every book I read, so I reserve it for only those books I want to shove into my friends’ hands and say, “You have got to read this!”

    You bring up a bigger point, Tom. Reading fiction is an emotional experience. Those emotions can include disappointment, irritation, anger and even rage. Haven’t you ever felt personally affronted by a piece of fiction? I have. (there are friends of mine who urge me to read books they KNOW will set me off on rants–this amuses them) Triggering negative emotions is a risk every writer takes. Reader reviews are not book critiques, they aren’t for educational purposes, and most aren’t actually about the book at all. They are expressions of the readers’ emotional state and view of the world. Sometimes that’s stupid and unfair and beside the point. Sometimes the reviewer is just showing off in an attempt to gain attention. So be it. They have a right to express themselves. The writer can console him or herself that at least their book triggered SOME emotion. In this business, negative reviews aren’t the killer, apathy is.

  4. I totally agree with Jaye. A good book should never appeal to everyone. In the preface to the infamous Story of O, Jean Paulhan wrote, “Dangerous books are those that restore us to our natural state of danger.” I equate the use of the word “dangerous” to “good.” The current climate of being politically correct is leading to some of the least dangerous and most insipid works of literature ever published, alas. When one fears offending others he or she has surrendered their art to a kind of American Idol audience…

  5. Don’t know why that came up under “Anonymous” but it was moi, Tom. And the best definition of “Politically Correct” I’ve heard is this: Political Correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end.

    Just sayin’…

  6. I only finish about 1/4 of the books I start, but I would never review a book I didn’t finish–no matter how bad it was. Nor a movie for that matter. There is always the chance, and a good one, that the fault was mine not the author’s. I have a friend who never sees a movie or reads a novel but has lots of opinions based on reviews. Never could do that.

    • It’s true, but I think not finishing a book is its own review, like Steve said. I think we as writers tend to be more sympathetic and don’t want to hurt someone’s chances of finding new readers, but I don’t hold it against a reader who can’t finish a book. Having an opinion of one you never tried to read is just obnoxious.

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