Reviewing books you didn’t finish

The blogosphere seems to be pretty clearly divided on this issue, with 99.99% of people saying that it’s unreasonable to review a book that you didn’t finish.

And then there’s me, standing in a tiny little minority corner, asking, “Why?”

Now, when I say that, I’m not saying that everyone should go and post their opinions about books they’ve never even heard of before, or state that the story is awesome solely because they liked the cover art when they saw it in a bookstore. Or just posting rehashed opinions from other blogs so that you can say, vaguely, “Yeah, I agree.” I’m talking about the times where you pick up a book, struggle to read through it, and then put it down before you finish because for one reason or another, it just couldn’t hold your attention.

What is a review? Ultimately, it’s an opinion, right? It’s your personal opinion on what you read. Your opinion of, “Wow, this book is awesome,” is just as valid as the review by the person who dissects it line by line after obtaining a degree in literature, because a review is simply an opinion, and everyone’s entitled to those.

Thus, I figure that so long as the reviewer is honest and says something along the lines of, “I didn’t finish this book, but here’s my opinion on what I did read and my reasons for not finishing it,” then it’s all fine and good. Some people say this makes the reviewer dishonest. I say it makes them honest. They’re being upfront about their reasons and their actions. They’re not pretending they read the whole thing and faking stuff up.

At least, the ones who do it that way aren’t. I’m sure there are people out there who make up stuff just to churn out a review of drum up publicity. But I’m not talking about those people.

By my way of thinking, somebody not finishing a book is a telling thing. It makes me wonder why they didn’t. The plot was too dull, it didn’t make any sense, the formatting was terrible, the main character kept changing names for no discernible reason, the author is writing romance but has the literary style of an 8-year-old. These are good reasons to put a book down sometimes. And I can’t see any reason why somebody shouldn’t be allowed to talk about that, even rate the book on what they did read.

Most reviewers give books until the halfway point to improve, allowing for rough starts, time to get into the flow of things, stuff like that. And sure, it’s absolutely possible that a book can be boring as hell for the first half and absolutely phenomenal for the second half, and the reader will never know if they put it down. But from everything I’ve learned about writing, it shouldn’t take someone half a book to catch the reader’s interest. Most literary agents give you 3 pages to do that. Can’t grab them in 3 pages, then sorry, time to move on to the next submission. Allowing for half a book is pretty generous.

I’ll give you a personal example. I have not read all of Twilight. I tried. By halfway in, I was so bored at the slow-moving plot and lack of interest in the characters and the BS of, “Oh, I’m so plain and clumsy and unpopular but everybody seems to like me and I’ve got multiple guys trying to date me,” that I just gave in. I didn’t find it engaging, I didn’t find it interesting, and I couldn’t force myself to sit through the rest of it. Does that mean any opinion that I formed on it is somehow invalidated? If the answer to that is no, then why would I be a bad person for writing a review that says those things, if I also am up-front and say that I only read so far? Isn’t the review just supposed to be my opinion on the book?

I see some people say that it’s unfair to the author to review a book when you haven’t read it all. I won’t reiterate that a review is an opinion here, but instead I’ll point at the paragraph before the previous one. If the author can’t grab my attention in half a book, then how is stating that unfair to them? Isn’t it perhaps good commentary that their writing might need improving, that their plot may need work, or simply that the book was marketed to the wrong audience?

And before somebody jumps down my throat and says that I make the choice to read what I read and I shouldn’t blame marketing, I’d like to state that if a book is marketed to hard-core science fiction fans but actually turns out to be heavy romance and the only sci-fi element is a teleporter, then yeah, marketing is to blame. Reviewing books doesn’t just mean you’re reviewing only the writing style, or the plot, or the cover art. It means you’ve doing the whole package, and how it’s marketed is a part of that. A book can rise or fall depending on how it’s marketed. If I say that I couldn’t finish a book because it’s not actually sci-fi and I was expecting sci-fi and I only read sci-fi, then that’s a good opinion that sci-fi-living readers of my reviews might like to know.

I can definitely see where people come from when they say that reviews shouldn’t be given for half-read books, but only to the point where I agree when the review is written as though the whole thing was read, or is outright lying.

I have a book on my shelves that I have not finished and have not reviewed. It’s marketed as Christian fantasy. Stylistically, it isn’t bad. I actually think that it would be good for kids who want to read fantasy but whose parents only want them to read Christian-based material. Even if I someday finish it, I won’t be able to give it a good review. It’s heavy-handed in its messages and morals, and to be honest, I think it portrays God as kind of a jerk, since there’s actually a scene in there where a guy gets into ‘Heaven’ and ‘Jesus’ happens to not be around at the time, so ‘God’ just assumes the guy’s there without a proper invite and starts to cause him massive pain and torment. Ironic in a pro-Christian novel, but I can’t even like that scene for irony’s sake.

My point to mentioning that? Just because I haven’t reviewed it here or on any other site doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on it, and it doesn’t mean that I’m less entitled to my opinion than somebody who’s read that book cover to cover. All it means is that I didn’t write down a formal expression of that opinion and post it on my blog in the format I use for reviews. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Maybe it would be worth it to have a little blogosphere event at some point, talking about books you didn’t finish, and why. I know I’d be interested in seeing the reasons that others have for doing that. Also, a bit perversely, I’m interested in seeing just how many people will take me to task for talking about it.

3 comments on “Reviewing books you didn’t finish

  1. So, here's the thing: I completely agree with you.

    I rarely leave books incomplete (or… fully incomplete, that is, in which I concede defeat…) so this applies less for me, but if a book is so bad that I actually was unable to finish it, that's worth pointing out in a review. Many bloggers and reviewers may feel that this is unjust (because of that sliver of a chance that the book improves drastically by the end) but this often ties into reviewers' fear of the negative review. I'm a big supporter of the negative review and it's therefore hard for me to brush aside opinions just because they aren't particularly positive.

    Wonderful, thoughtful post.

  2. I actually agree with you. Though it depends on why I didn't finish a book. In my Goodreads at the moment I have four unfinished books. Three of those, I put aside because at the time I just couldn't get through them for some reason or another, unconnected to the book. For example, What's the What by Dave Eggers wasn't a bad read, but it was depressing and in that first hormaonal trimester of pregnancy, I just couldn't deal with that, so I set it aside. On the other hand, there's Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth, where I really just couldn't get into the story. I just didn't have a clue even after 96 pages. This was before I had a book blog, so I haven't reviewed it, but I would if I'd encountered it now.

    But I wouldn't call it a review, I'd just say DNF and then explain why I couldn't finish it. As long as you're honest in why you didn't finish what's wrong with that?

    There's only one reason not to do this; if you're a reader who ditches books every other book then no, I wouldn't review it, because then it says more about you as a reader than about the books in my opinion.

  3. I never even thought this would be an issue, until I posted a review of a book I didn't finish and attracted some ire. I did a Google search to see what other people thought and ended up here. Our opinions on this matter are pretty much identical. As long as the reviewer is upfront, what's the problem?

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