Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 16, 2014

The Abandoned Book, and other perils of book blogging

I recently had the disquieting experience of abandoning a book.  I always find this a horrid experience: some author has spent years of her life working on it, and a publisher has sent it to me expecting me to read and review it, and for one reason or another I just can’t bear to continue reading it.  Irrationally, I feel guilty about this.  In my head I know that that I ought not to feel any compulsion to read an unsolicited book that I really don’t like once I’ve given it 50 pages of my time, time which is very precious to me.   In my heart, I feel so sorry for the author that I cast about for a home for the book.  I leave it on my shelf in case I have a change of heart – where it reproaches me each time I set eyes on it.  Because I know how much debut authors need all the help they can get, and how some of them – in the absence of any attention from the mainstream print reviewers – hope for attention from book bloggers like me.

I read somewhere, I forget where, that we book bloggers are culturally subsidising the publishing industry.  We’re not paid for what we do, and are rarely acknowledged, so I suppose that’s true, though it seems an odd way to describe something so natural and enjoyable as chatting about books online.   I’ve had offers from publishers and publicists to place ads on this blog, which I’ve refused, because I want to keep my independence, but it’s an indication, I suppose, that my little blog has some impact on sales.  If that’s true, I’m pleased, because every sale encourages an author.

For debut authors, usually desperate to gain traction in the shifting sands of publicity, attention is what’s needed, and I was most forcefully reminded of this when I viewed Australian author Kristel Thornell delivering the Neilly Series lecture at the University of Rochester.  She was asked to talk about ‘Emerging’ – the process of becoming a writer, and she describes vividly how difficult it can be to make the transition from being an earnest, private, reticent young writer working alone, to being an author, expected to make publicity appearances in the glare of book launches.  She also talks about how hard it is to get anyone to take any notice of the precious new novel – a novel good enough to be published, and in her case good enough to nominated for the NSW Premier’s Award.   The poignancy of this painfully honest presentation made me very glad that I had not only reviewed Thornell’s novel Night Street but also posted a Sensational Snippet.  I’ve reviewed a lot of debut authors here, as you can see from the tag cloud…

But – back to the abandoned book – the sense of unease, of having left an unknown author floundering in a sea of indifference, makes me ponder, on and off, how to articulate why I didn’t want to finish reading it.  I don’t owe that to the author, but I do owe it to myself to be clear about my reasons.  I once had someone demand a longer explanation for a book I reviewed less than favourably, to which my response was, I’ve already spent quite enough time on this book and don’t intend to revisit it in order to write a comprehensive critique of it.  In that case I was very clear about why I disliked the book and had no problem consigning it to the OpShop.  But I had read that book in its entirety and felt confident that my opinions were justified.  That’s not how anyone can feel about an abandoned book, but the solution can’t be to read it …

So I was very pleased to come across Dorothy Johnston’s thoughts about books written in the present tense, because that was part of the problem. (My pet hate, the child narrator, was the other).  Dorothy is a significant author of eight novels and a judge of this year’s Barbara Jefferis award so her opinion is worth noting.  (See also her article about the fashion for using the present tense even when writing historical novels).

When I was younger I almost never abandoned a book, and even now I do it very rarely because with a lifetime’s experience at choosing books I’m pretty good at selecting ones that I like.  Maybe that’s why abandoning one torments me like this.  What do other readers and book bloggers think?   Do you feel a twinge of guilt about abandoning books?


Responses

  1. Brilliantly put. You’ve summed up how I feel many times. I have never had anyone demand a longer explanation though!

    I was just having a similar discussion about a much-hyped book that I abandoned part-way through. I couldn’t get into it and I tried several times. I gave it a Shout-Out on Write Note Reviews – it’s my way of giving a mention without going to the extent of a review.

    Like you, I review for no payment (apart from the books). I have a full bookshelf. I have four children at home and two jobs. I am learning not to feel guilty if I don’t like every book … how could I, anyway? If I read it through and decide to review, I will point out respectfully what I had issues with. If I don’t read it through, it simply wasn’t for me and I have the right to feel that way. After all, do the authors themselves like every book?

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    • Hi Monique, thanks:)
      Much-hyped books are hard to deal with, especially when someone whose opinion I admire has recommended one. There’s one going around at the moment, that *everyone* has read, and they all think it’s wonderful, and I cannot get over my instinct that I would hate it. I even borrowed an audio book of it because some books work as a story for me when I listen to them in the car, but it only took two tracks for me to know that it’s going back to the library unread. But I don’t feel guilty about them because after all, if they’re much-hyped, the author doesn’t need any more publicity from me and couldn’t care less whether I read it or not.

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  2. I feel guilty when I abandon a book too, and I only rarely do so. I don’t tend to blog about them, especially if it is an emerging writer- I feel less constrained with an established, much-hyped author. I don’t have any illusions that my comments would influence sales, but I just don’t feel right in attacking a new author. Criticizing a work takes more effort than praising it, and I often don’t want to devote the time to it, especially as I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. I have only ever accepted one review copy, and I felt a bit compromised when it arrived as such a lushly produced book.
    I have avoided reading books by writers that I know personally if they write in genres that I don’t like and wouldn’t otherwise read. I feel bad about that too. I’d like to support them, but I want to keep faith with myself as well.

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    • Hi Janine, you’ve raised another tricky area as well. I had this experience just yesterday with a very, very dear friend who writes in a form that I don’t enjoy. Although she understands that none of us can be all things to all people, it was very hard to say no, because yes, of course, we want to support our friends.
      But *smile* you’re wrong about your own influence: I’ve bought books you’ve reviewed, or I’ve borrowed them from the library (which means the author will receive an ELR payment).

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  3. I used to have this dogged determination to finish every book I picked up, but I no longer feel that way. But when I put a book aside, it’s usually when I’ve pushed on quite far into the book–there are exceptions to that. Some books are just not a good fit–and that’s a quibble I have with the way some books are pitched. Pitching a book incorrectly does the author no favours.

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    • You are very right about the pitching – sometimes the cover and the blurb seem to bear no resemblance to what’s inside and where’s the sense in that? It might get a reader to pick it up – but they’ll only end up putting it down feeling disgruntled and that benefits no-one.

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  4. I try very hard not to start books I don’t think I’ll like … And I rarely read unsolicited books unless with time it becomes apparent that it’s up my alley. I feel no guilt about that. I try to avoid receiving unsolicited books and so far have been, hmmm, 80% or so successful! That said, I am prepared to not finish a book that doesn’t engage me. It’s rare, but I’ve done it!

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    • I also tend not to review unsolicited books. I choose the ones I want to read and in most cases, I’m happy with the choice.

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      • It’s the best way I think writenote, particularly if you don’t manage to read a lot of books in a month. I can’t afford to read books I’m not likely to be interested in or like. I know everyone feels like that for for some of us it’s more critical.

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  5. When I quit smoking a few years ago the one piece of advice that was actually helpful to me was not to think about what I was giving up but rather to think in terms of what I was gaining – extra cash in my pocket, not smelling like an ashtray…whatever worked for me. I’ve applied this kind of switcharoo to other areas of life…including reading and blogging about reading. So…rather than focus on the fact I have left some poor book forever unfinished and/or some poor author forever unacknowledged I have freed up time to devote to a different book that I do like and can review, discuss and promote with enthusiasm.

    I don’t leave many books unfinished (because I have gotten good at knowing what I like and whose recommendations to trust) but I really don’t feel guilty about the few that languish – even if they have been supplied as an ARC. And if I do find myself starting to feel pangs I remember that regardless of how many books I finish I’ll only ever read a fraction of the books that are published…and I can’t feel guilty about all the books I’ve never even started :)

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    • Good point, Bernadette, that’s a helpful way to look at it:)

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  6. I agree, Guy, pitching a book incorrectly doesn’t do a book any favours, and Sue, I’m starting to detect a pattern with the unsolicited books. They rarely come from small indie publishers who know what I like: it’s the larger ones, especially the ones who have a turnover of publicity interns.

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  7. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, I can’t abandon a book. Once I start, I finish, even if I find it almost impossible to endure. Being careful of what I start helps somewhat, but not all the time.

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    • LOL It’s a curse, isn’t it? Mind you, plodding on with some books that I’ve *had to* read (e.g. for university) has sometimes worked out well which is why I always give it at least 50 pages.

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  8. Beautiful post, Lisa! I think this is one of my favourite posts of yours :) Sorry to know that you had to abandon this book. I rarely abandon books, and if I do, it is mostly nonfiction, when I find that the writer is too frivolous and casual or too biased when addressing a serious topic. But sometimes I get distracted and leave a book half-read hoping that I will come back to it later. Sometimes I come back later, and sometimes I don’t. I normally handpick the books I want to read and I have avoided ARCs till now (one of my friends who is a budding novelist is very upset with me right now because I haven’t read and reviewed his book yet) and so that has probably contributed to my not abandoning many books till now. But I agree with what you said – it does make our heart ache when we have to abandon a book which a writer has spent many years writing. But on the other hand, life is too short to try to finish books that we know we won’t like. Thanks for this wonderful post :)

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    • Oh dear, Vishy, that is hard with the friend who’s a budding novelist. I learned long ago never to do business with friends: if you’re doing it for them you have to spend twice as long and do twice as good a job in case of trouble, and if they’re doing it for you, you can’t complain if they’ve done a terrible job. I think that reviewing a friend’s book would be the same: you’d be risking the friendship if you were critical, and you’d be risking your integrity if you didn’t.

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      • I loved what you said, Lisa, especially the last sentence – “you’d be risking the friendship if you were critical, and you’d be risking your integrity if you didn’t”. That is very true. I will take inspiration from you and not do business with friends :) Sometimes I see friends reviewing another friend’s novel on goodreads and they typically give 4 or 5 stars to the new novel, but I remember interesting previous conversations I have had with them when we hotly debated the merits of a Hermann Hesse or a Thomas Mann or a James Joyce or a Virginia Woolf book and sometimes my friends had issues with Hesse or Mann or Joyce or Woolf and didn’t give those books good ratings and then they give 5 stars to a new book which clearly can’t be compare with Hesse or Mann or Joyce or Woolf – well, it is better not to do business with friends ;)

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        • Absolutely. Friendship is for fun and love and laughter, for a shoulder to cry on or to get wise advice. True friends are so rare and precious, it is not worth risking them for anything.

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  9. Thank you, Lisa. What you say is helpful. For years I finished every book I started, no matter how I disliked it. It is only in recent years that I can stop after a certain number of pages (like you, about 50) and declare that I won’t go on it with. This is progress! Like one of your commenters I reward myself with the thought that I can now use my reading time for a better choice.

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    • I wonder if that willingness to stop reading comes with reading experience? I think when I was younger, I was more likely to think that someone else knew better than I did about books and so I should keep reading it, whereas now I am more likely to recognise that it’s not usually that it’s a ‘bad’ book, it’s just that it’s not to my taste, or it’s not the right book for me at this time.

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  10. I, too, loathe giving up on books, as I know how hard it is to write them. Usually I persist for as long as I can as sometimes I might get something else out of them. Thanks too for the link to Kristel Thornell’s talk – I loved it, just as I loved Night Street, which was a beautiful and quietly luscious work.

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    • Hello Jessica, thanks for joining the conversation:) That talk is excellent, and by a most curious coincidence, I thought of Clarice Beckett just this week when I was at the Kingston Arts Centre viewing the Granary Lane Exhibition. One of the artists, also working in the same suburban area, had four works on display that were eerily like Beckett’s – but I would never have recognised that if I hadn’t read Thornell’s book. It’s strange how reading fiction enriches one’s life in unexpected ways, eh?

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  11. I feel a ton of guilt abandoning books and I rarely do, especially if it is a new author. For established (or dead) authors I can do it easily. For instance, since I began blogging I have only abandoned two books – one Jane Austen novel (after I have read more than half) and one Sebastian Faulk (writing as Ian Fleming for a James Bond novel). However, there are several books I did not like but would read to the end and tell people why I did not like it. In that way, I feel I have been fair to the authors. Abandoning a book and telling others you did not like it seem inconsistent. At least give the author a hearing (my own rule). Not all novels can spark in the first few 50 pages. Some do and drop, what then.

    So I understand you completely. With regards to books written in the present tense, I used not to like them though I read them. The last book – The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – was written in the present tense and was quite interesting.

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    • Ah yes, there are always books that defy ‘the rules’ – as Dorothy Johnston readily concedes, the skill seems to be in knowing when and how to break them.
      I have to admit to being very curious about the Austen you abandoned! The only Austen I wasn’t keen on was Sanditon, that’s the one that was left unfinished and unrevised at her death

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  12. I’ve always felt bad about abandoning books, not only because I feel like I’m cheating the author/publisher, but because I wonder if I’m cheating myself a little bit. I used to just power through books, even if I hated them, but now, every once in a while, I will drop a book if it’s moving too slowly and I just can’t get into it. Sometimes I set it aside and pick it back up a few weeks or months later if I think the timing is just wrong.

    But there’s a flip side to this… I don’t abandon books often, but ‘m also not willing to take as many reading risks because of this. I rarely read debut authors until they’ve published more than one book, and often stick to the classics, which are “safe bets.” So I think there has to be a balance.

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    • Hmm, that ‘flip side’ is interesting, Katie. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself because I do take that risk with debut authors, as often as I can.
      You’re right about timing, for sure. Sometimes, it’s just not the right book at the time, and I try not to forget that.

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  13. I don’t feel guilty about abandoning books, but then I could probably count on one hand how many I’ve given up on in the past 10 years. I’m usually quite good at knowing what I like, so don’t usually have this problem. On the odd occasion when I haven’t liked a book (there’s one I read earlier in the year that I’m specifically thinking of), I keep ploughing on in the (mistaken) belief that it might get better! Plus, I think it’s good to have a mix of good and bad reviews on the blog.

    That said, I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on something you are not enjoying. Most bloggers read and review books for love, not money, so why spoil your hobby by reading something you don’t like? If it doesn’t cut the grade either put it aside to read when you might be feeling more inclined towards it, or pass it on to someone else who may like it.

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    • Good point, Kim, I agree about having a mix of reviews. I think our readers trust us more if every now and again we don’t like a book and say so.
      And yes, my blog is a labour of love, a product of my love of reading. There’s not enough time to read all the gorgeous books that I have waiting for me on my shelves, and it’s not fair to those authors if I waste my time reading something that’s just not the right book for me.

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  14. I admire your restraint in not mentioning the title or author of your abandoned book.

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    • The downside of that is that there may be some hapless author out there wondering if I mean his or hers…
      LOL I used to have a principal who would have little rants at our staff meetings about some infraction of his rules: over-using the photocopier, leaving a door unclosed, sending stuff to the office with forms not filled in properly etc. He would never take the ‘culprit’ aside and ask that these misdemeanours not be repeated, so we never knew who had annoyed him. We, all of us, 25+ people, would sit there wracking our brains trying to remember if we had ever done whatever it was, all of us suffering collective guilt for an anonymous crime.

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  15. Great post! I do abandon books now and then, and I do feel a twinge of guilt sometimes. But then there are other times when I’ve read a book from beginning to end and then felt quite a bit of regret for spending all that time on a blah read when I could have read other, better, books during that precious time. I know people give books the 50-page rule but I do think that sometimes 50 pages might not be enough. It could be the book, it could be that moment in time – I’m reading the book but my mind is partly on something else and I don’t truly appreciate the book. I suppose that’s why sometimes I read to the end, in the hope that it will get better!

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    • Hello Sharlene:) You explained exactly where the guilt comes from. What if this turns into a great book from page 51 onwards?! What if it’s just me feeling liverish at this moment in time? What if this book gets nominated for the most prestigious prize there is? Aaaaaagh!

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  16. I am in the process of abandoning a book I received for review as well. Because I accepted it for review even after 75 pages of not clicking with it I feel like I ought to keep reading in spite of not liking it. The book is by an established and fairly well respected author too that I have not read before so I am extra disappointed. Usually if I am reading a book I decide not to finish I don’t feel guilty about it but this time I do because it is a review copy. I’ll get over it eventually but I am glad it doesn’t happen very often! All that to say I can relate to your post :)

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  17. […] Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has a great post on The Abandoned Book […]

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  18. Like others I would never abandon a book, but as the years go by I am getting to have essatience.Sometimes I will read 100 pages before I discard it.A week or so ago I gave up a novel,there was something just too trite. Then I found myself on a slow train and this book in my bag, I was taking it back to the libray. I decided to read on, and it did sort itself out, to be quite a nice novel.I am still thinking about the characters.
    I find I will always keep reading my favorite authors or certain topics, it is when I am outside my reading habits that I do get tempted to cast a book aside.These days I will abandon books that are so clever, that I just can’t connect to the story, I read for enjoyment not for punishment.

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    • Hello Fiona, welcome:)
      There’s been a couple of times when an author I’ve really liked has written a book that hasn’t worked for me, most recently Barbara Kingsolver with The Lacuna. I tried three times to read it, and then I realised I was just wasting my time.
      I’ve still got it though. Maybe it’s going to be what Jonathan calls an ‘interrupted’ book.

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  19. This is a very interesting Blog (& comments). I don’t feel guilty about abandoning a book but I’m always a bit wary about giving up too easily. Sometimes though, one gets to the point where it’s just not worth carrying on.

    My most recent abandoned book is Goethe’s ‘Faust’. When I realise that I’m basically just scanning the pages with my eyes and not really reading it I first try to ‘knuckle down’ and concentrate but if it’s really not working then I abandon it. I sometimes tell myself that I’ll come back to it; I sometimes mean it as well.

    The thing with the recent Faust read was that I remembered reading it years ago and I remembered that I didn’t really take any of it in – I was doing the reading/scanning thing. I tried reading it again and again but on each attempt I hit the brick wall, so I abandoned it!

    On the other hand I do have a few books that I consider to be favourites of mine that I haven’t actually finished; I think of those as ‘interrupted’ rather than abandoned.

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    • Ah yes, the ‘interrupted’ book! War and Peace was an interrupted book of mine for 20 years or so, and then along came the buzz about the new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, and lo! I read it straight through and loved it. Dante’s Inferno is my interrupted book of the moment, I know I will sit down and read it properly one day.
      But Jonathan, you describe the process of abandonment perfectly. The scanning, the failure to absorb anything, the eyes not engaging with the brain. Sometimes I see readers at GoodReads say that they don’t like a book because they haven’t engaged with the characters – that’s a different thing, I think, and often it appears that these readers expect to like one or more of the characters in order to enjoy a book. (Whereas some of my favourite books have been about quite creepy people e.g. Elias Canetti’s mad booklover in Auto-da-fe). Not connecting with the text is a different matter altogether. It is the crucial element in reading, surely, but I think it is different for every person which is why litblogs have blossomed: it’s not so much what or how we write, it’s that our readers recognise a similar taste in books to their own.

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  20. Wonderful post, Lisa, and a very popular one too, judging by the comments. That article of mine about the present tense was written out of a sense of unease that grew gradually over a long period of time. I still believe that a lot of authors do themselves a disservice by following a fashion that seems to me unnecessarily restrictive. However I’d like to mention my two big exceptions – ‘Elsewhere in Success’ by the West Australian Iris Lavell, and ‘A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride, both original and daring novels in my view, especially the latter. I’d be really interested if you’d care to explain what it was that put you off about the present tense this time. I understand it wasn’t the only reason you abandoned the book. And harking back to our conversation on the Awesome Indies site, conscientious book reviewers like yourself should never feel guilty for guarding your precious reading time.

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    • Hello Dorothy, lovely to hear from you and thank you for your generous comments.
      It’s hard to articulate exactly what put me off without making it obvious which book it was, which I’d rather not do. So I’ll just say that in general, the voice grated, and yes, it’s also restrictive, particularly if it’s a child narrator.
      I plan to chase up that novel by Iris Lavell!

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  21. This is a great post Lisa and insightful comments from your readers. What a contrast to comments on newspaper websites!

    Like others who have commented above, I’ve got better at picking books to read. The first couple of chapters of one I’m currently reading are very poorly written, but I ploughed on and found the writing has improved markedly and I’m now enjoying it. The worry in abandoning a book is the thought that it might get better and I’m being unfair abandoning it.

    I have a policy of not reviewing books I think are a waste of time, wrong or worse. Why give them more oxygen? However, if a book is in my area of expertise, prominent and potentially misleading I will write a negative review. However, those reviews take ages as I am at pains to be fair. I hate the practice of some reviewers who view denigrating an author as a form of entertainment.

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    • Yes, I particularly dislike those ’10 worst novels’, ’10 books I wish I’d never read’ sort of lists. It’s just unkind negativity, for no purpose except to be spiteful. Sure, I’ll say so loud and clear if I read a book that I really don’t like (and sometimes I feel I ‘have to’ go on reading it e.g. because it’s nominated for a prize I follow). But I give my reasons, and I find other more positive reviewers if I can. The one exception to this is when I’ve been persuaded to review a novel because the author has pretended that it’s not self-published. I don’t feel under any obligation to be fair if that happens!

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  22. […] present tense is perhaps more problematic.  In her ANZLitLovers blog Lisa Hill recently referenced some observations by the writer Dorothy Johnston about the ubiquitous use of present tense in […]

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  23. I abandon with abandon – as you’ll know if you read my Monthly Round-Ups. Usually I don’t feel bad about it – I sometimes feel like it is the author/editor who has let me down rather than the other way round. With debut authors or books from people I know (even if only through the online world) I do feel bad. But with much-hyped books, no bad feelings. I’m quite sure Richard Flanagan isn’t losing any sleep about how much I disliked The Narrow Road to the Deep North!

    I often grab books from the library on a whim, or try things that are getting a lot of attention, just to see what the fuss is about – so I often come across books that are not necessarily bad, just not for me, and I don’t feel bad about that either – as a writer I know my books aren’t for everyone.

    But ultimately I feel life is short and my to-read list is long so I’m not going to waste time on something that doesn’t engage me, whatever the reasons.

    Great post – I enjoyed all the comments too.

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    • Oh no! Tell me it’s not true – you didn’t like The Narrow Road? I still get all emotional when I think about that book….
      But even though I can’t agree about that book, I know exactly what you mean, I don’t think Tim Winton loses any sleep over my lack of enthusiasm for his writing.
      No, it’s the debut authors who trouble me, because they don’t have an Australia-wide fan club and a posse of print reviewers who love everything they write, I go out of my way to give debut authors a go (see my latest at http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2014/05/12-debut-australian-and-new-zealander-authors-with-a-promising-future-a-guest-post-by-lisa-hill.html) so it does bother me when I just can’t like the book enough to continue with it.

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      • It IS true. I liked it at first, then I became bored and by the end I loathed it. If I hadn’t been reading it for book club I never would have finished. For me, the part where you saw things from the point of view of the Korean and Japanese camp commandants was fascinating and the book really came alive. Beyond that, I felt it didn’t really know what it was trying to say. And the bush fire scene? please!

        On a different, and more positive note, I think it’s wonderful how you support debut authors. Lots of books on your post for Reading Matters I haven’t read (or even heard of) so I’ll look more closely at some of those.

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