But I HAVE to Finish It: Cleaning One’s Literary Plate

My book club met last night and one member was debating whether or not to complete a Pulitzer Prize winning modern classic that was last month’s selection. A good book, but it didn’t engage her. We all admitted to our discomfort about not finishing a book. I’m the only one in the club who writes reviews, so the other members’ reluctance has nothing to do with that. It’s the relationship with the book. We respect them, and feel guilty about giving up on them.

 This came up on the same day I posted what I think may be my last two star review. I don’t regret reading the other books I rated that low because they had strengths that made me care, and made me want to critique them like a beta reader. This last one exhausted me. I never should have made myself finish reading it, and reviewing took hours of self-torment about how to say what I thought without being cruel or snarky. The only thing that kept me going was that I had agreed to review it. Even though the group I was reviewing for says it’s okay to stop reading, no questions asked, I felt obligated due to a shortage of reviewers.

Other people have liked this book. I didn’t. How important is that, compared to the stress of reading it and the greater stress of reviewing it? I think there are some people who take pleasure in writing bad reviews, but I’m not one of them.  If I’d cut loose and verbally torn the book up, that would have been easy but self-indulgent, and no use to readers in deciding if they might like the book or not. I revise reviews obsessively for days, especially the bad ones. I enjoy polishing the good ones and the in-between ones, but the bad ones are torment, out of proportion to their importance. My opinion is not that valuable, and I’m not being paid. Reviews are useful, but I can stop reading and write “did not finish and be done with it. If everyone did that, though, no one would ever get a bad review, just a “did not finish”, which is uninformative to prospective readers. Some get distrustful when an author has only good reviews. They think that the writer must have bought them, or had friends and family write them, even if the good reviews are genuine.  Also, I’ve read many posts on Goodreads in which people say that the things a reviewer disliked in a critical review made them want to read a book. The mean, vitriolic reviews get disregarded. The thoughtful bad reviews don’t.

Still, I hate writing them. It’s much worse than getting them. I can read a critical reaction to my own work and be done with it. I decide if I see a valid problem pointed out that can make me a better writer in future books, a perception so at odds with most reviews that it’s not important, or simply an expression of taste for a different kind of book. It takes a minute. But when I’m reviewing I don’t think of it as something the author or potential reader will move through that way. Maybe I take it too seriously. For now, I’ll review what I finish, and I’ll only finish what I find valuable to read, whether it’s for pleasure and entertainment or for making me think and learn, deepening my perspective. If I don’t like a book, I’m letting it go. I need to spend my time writing, and reading other books.

How do you feel about not finishing a book?

 

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2 thoughts on “But I HAVE to Finish It: Cleaning One’s Literary Plate

  1. I used to feel that I HAD to finish a book, too, but after I forced myself through Moby Dick several years ago decided never again. I know it’s a classic, but it just felt like a slog to me.

    I also have trouble writing book reviews, which is why I write very few of them, whether it’s for Amazon, Goodreads, or my blog. Recently I’ve decided if I don’t finish a book, I’ll just delete it from my Goodreads list. I empathize with your desire to give the bad review its due (why I never write bad reviews), but of course if it’s a situation where you have promised to give a review that makes it even more difficult. Sounds like you’ve made a wise decision: there is only so much time and we have to figure out how to spend that wisely.

    Like

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