Readers Do Not Owe Writers Anything

I witness interactions on social media every once in a while that go a little like this:

Person A: “This book was so bad, I couldn’t even finish it. I gave up. It was just terrible.”

Person B: “Oh, so you haven’t read it all? Then your criticism is worthless. Go die in a ditch, scum.”

Sometimes Person A takes Person B’s advice and they actually go die in a ditch. That’s rare, though. More commonly, the argument will continue for hours, for days, until a celebrity says something offensive and the world becomes distracted by the controversy.

Many people claim that a reviewer cannot possibly review a book without reading the entire thing. Reviewers have no right to criticize something that occurs early in a story without first finishing the book, because what if the end wraps everything together? What if later scenes make up for an unfortunate beginning?

If a book cannot motivate a reader toward the end, then the author has failed...Nobody is obligated to stick with a bad book.

Hogwash.

If a book cannot motivate a reader toward the end, then the author has failed. The reader is giving the book enough of a chance just by picking it up and opening to the front page. This is 2015. There are millions and millions of books available at just a click of the mouse. Nobody is obligated to stick with a bad book.

A reviewer’s job is to examine books as a reader might approach them. If a reviewer cannot finish a book, then they have every right to write about it. Readers come to reviewers for suggestions on what to read next. If they hear about a certain novel, then Google it, and find out a number of reviewers couldn’t even finish the book, then the reader knows he or she has lucked out, time to move on to the next thing in line.

It is certainly fair to review a book that you have not finished. I think when this topic is brought up, certain false ideas are construed. Maybe it’s believed that the reviewers are criticizing the sections they haven’t read. But this is untrue. Any decent reviewer tackling a DNF (Did Not Finished) will pick apart the sections they did read, and analyze why it made them throw in the towel. The beginning of a book is just as important as the middle, just as important as the end.

I do not need to watch a Tyler Perry movie in its entirety to know it is awful. I get the picture from the first scene alone. I do not need to finish a meal to decide if my taste buds approve. Food critics do not lick their plates clean of the poison in front of them before writing their reviews.

I work in the hotel industry. If a guest checks in to his or her reservation, walks up to the room and discovers a bunch of hair on the bed, I can’t say, “Yeah, I know we screwed up here, but just wait until morning when you try our continental breakfast.” It doesn’t work that way. I’ve already lost that guest’s trust. And that guest? You can bet your ass they’ll file a negative review on TripAdvisor in the next week or so, bitching about that hair. Forget about our awesome breakfast or our clean lobby. Forget about the complimentary newspaper. None of it matters, because we already screwed up in the beginning.

Everything is presentation. With books, before we even decide to read something, we have to first be wooed by cover design, by the market copy pitching us the premise. Every new book is a first date trying to convince the reader to take it home and get naked.

I do not need to watch a Tyler Perry movie in its entirety to know it is awful. I get the picture from the first scene alone.

In addition to working in the hotel industry, I also run a small press. During the few months we’re open for submissions, we receive hundreds of manuscripts from authors. I’ve edited five anthologies, which all received their share of stories. After so long, you realize you can tell if a book’s going to be bad by the first couple pages. Hell, sometimes even the first sentence. You have to learn to read this way in the publishing industry. There is simply no time to read every manuscript to completion. You’d go insane. So you read the first sentence, and if it’s good, if it gives you a reason to continue, you read the second sentence. And you keep going until the book either loses you or you reach the end. If you can reach the end, then you might have something worth publishing.

Of course, you may ask who am I to say what’s good and what’s bad. And the answer is: I’m nobody. I’m just a dick with a column. But that’s the point. Whether it’s me or some other reviewer, it doesn’t change the fact that it is only an opinion. If you can’t understand that, then I can’t help you. This is why readers should check out more than one review source when deciding what to read next, assuming they use reviews to decide in the first place. Readers know what they want to read. If they notice a criticism in a DNF review that strikes home with something they also dislike, then bam, that’s a good review, despite the fact that the reviewer didn’t even finish the book.

Readers do not owe writers anything. Once they purchase a book, they are under no obligation to finish it. If they feel cheated by the quality in the book, they have every right to voice their concerns.

Daniel Pennac once wrote up his own “Reader’s Bill of Rights”, and I encourage both readers and writers to take his words to heart:

Reader's Bill of Rights

  1. The right to not read
  2. The right to skip pages
  3. The right to not finish
  4. The right to reread
  5. The right to read anything
  6. The right to escapism
  7. The right to read anywhere
  8. The right to browse
  9. The right to read out loud
  10. The right to not defend your tastes

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago January 8, 2015 - 8:18am

Great column! I believe a reviewer should try to finish a book in order to give it a fair treatment. However, if the book stinks from the get-go there's no point in continuing. We've all plodded through books hoping for a payoff that never comes only to feel the sting of wasted time. If there is one right a reader (and writer) has it is the right not to waste time.

Thanks for sharing your insights!

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books January 8, 2015 - 8:48am

Yes, thank you! I actually wish that the reviewers who slog through an entire book they hate would put the book down and just say they couldn't finish/why. I sure as hell don't read books I don't like, I don't expect anyone else to, either.

Seb's picture
Seb from Thanet, Kent, UK January 8, 2015 - 9:29am

I'm slightly disappointed there isn't a link to buy a Tyler Perry film from Amazon at the bottom of this article.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 8, 2015 - 10:36am

No doubt that readers do not "owe" the writer anything. This does not mean you can't be an oblivious imbecile or irresponsible jerk when evaluating a book you've read.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman January 8, 2015 - 1:28pm

Nicely said. I like it. I 100% agree that the reader buys the book, and at that point the author/reader obligation is met and the reader has the right to decide how they feel about it.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault January 9, 2015 - 10:11am

True stuff. The work should be able to stand up for itself. The second it can't, the argument is over and the illusion is shattered.

Harper's picture
Harper from Johannesburg, South Africa is reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie January 10, 2015 - 9:33am

Cannot agree with you more. The hotel analogy nails it. I think you train your taste after many thousands of hours of reading good and bad fiction--you don't need to read through an entire poorly written story to know it's bad.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami January 10, 2015 - 10:33am

Yea I can take that seriously, when this website has commenters asking if I even read the thing. I've learned to be more discerning.

With that said, the only thing I owe readers is writing a good story. I don't personally even see the value of goodreads.

Syaihan 'Shandye' Syafiq's picture
Syaihan 'Shandy... from Malaysia is reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw January 11, 2015 - 12:39pm

I totally agree with Tom1960 on this. The very least a reader can do is to at least try to finish the book before saying that the book is bad or criticisizing it. The writer has put in extreneous effort in writing a pile of papers bound by thread (and/or glue), the least that us as the reader can do is to finish it as a sign of appriciation. 

Steve Davidson's picture
Steve Davidson January 13, 2015 - 2:36am

I was unable to finish your essay. 

Your comparison of a book to a hotel room is what kicked me out of the piece.  Books are art, not mere commodities. 

I was also troubled by your statement about seeing multiple reviews stating the reviewer couldn't finish the book, since in these days it's a good bet that the 'reviews' were anything but.  I also suspect the fact that I have the flu while reading this may have influenced my reaction. 

In all seriousness, readers do owe themselves an honest attempt at reading and finishing what they paid for (otherwise, why bother to buy in the first place) and reviewers owe themselves, the author and other readers the honesty of not reviewing a work they could not finish.  DNF is all we should see in those cases (and, preferably, not even that).