15May The Case for Having a Did-Not-Finish Pile
Fiction is an indulgence. An entertainment. We read fiction, for fun. That's not to say we don't get anything out of it beyond cheap thrills, far from it. We get a better understanding of the human condition, culture, every aspect of the world. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that in reading science fiction we understand astrophysics, or in reading historical fiction we become historians. No, we read fiction primarily for entertainment. Fiction is not inferior to non-fiction though - I'd argue that story is the apogee of culture, an indulgent, decadent denouement to culture - rather we should accept that it is primarily for pleasure.
Putting that foundation in place allows us to do away with the guilt associated with consuming these entertainments. There are two aspects to this: the guilt at assigning a book to the did-not-finish pile and the guilt at having never read a particular book or author.
Accepting books as an entertainment allows the reader to assess a book's value on its ability to entertain. Contrast this with non-fiction where you learn as you go along and even if you put the book down near the end you've learnt a great deal. With fiction, if you've been entertained for the entire 500 pages of a book then that's excellent. If at page 450 you're finding it a drag and the entertainment factor has dropped to zero, well, put it down. If you've got to page 10 and the prose is grating on you, or the infodump is blowing your mind. Put it down. Am I arguing against tenacity? Against a challenge? No, not at all. Your own reading habits will guide that. All I'm saying is that if you do chose to dismiss a book to the DNF then don't worry about it. It's entertainment, treat it as such. As a slightly less cut-and-dry example I'll mention Little, Big by John Crowley. A superlative fiction, wonderful prose and unparalleled imagery. But, after 150 pages I put it down. I'd enjoyed those 150 pages, they were wonderful. I was enjoying the book still at page 150. My problem was that I wasn't drawn to the book and a couple of days after I started I found I was avoiding continuing. Perhaps I'll pick it up again one day and carry on (though given my propensity to forget every detail of plot I find this unlikely). I felt guilty at first, like I'd missed out on a vital part of culture. But, the reality is that I'd gotten something out of it and tried it against my particular tastes. I liked the sample, but didn't feel I needed more. I feel the same about Lovecraft and Smith. I've heard it said that you owe it to the author to finish their book, everything might be a jumble until a crucial paragraph at the end where everything fits together. Again, that's your choice. I wouldn't finish a film if I wasn't enjoying it however far through it I was. You don't owe the author, you don't need to put your faith in their ability to entertain you. That faith has to be earned.
The second aspect is dismissing authors entirely. I recently picked up a Charles Stross book and within ten minutes I was struggling. I found it entirely tiresome - it just wasn't for me. I picked up a second Stross book and whilst I found it a little more interesting it was just not really my cup of tea. Stross is now dismissed for me, at least for a good few years. I've deshelved all his books, not out of spite, just out of a need to clear stuff off the to-be-read pile. Which provides a segue into a motivation for this callousness: there are a shit ton of books out there. It was cathartic to dismiss Stross from my shelves. One less foot of paper to be read. A space on the shelves (quickly filled by books that had arrived and only made it to the floor). I did the same with Neal Stephenson. Neal Stephenson! Master of speculative fiction. I didn't finish Snow Crash, it felt dated and a bit of a mess. A good client of ours had suggested that the Baroque cycle was superlative. I got 100 pages through book one and realised that I needed more plot and character development. The same happened with Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition - I just wasn't into the weird little vignettes. I'm quite comfortable with what I need out of a story (pristine world-building, a likeable protagonist, at least a hint of the sublime and, crucially, believable character motivations). Moorcock's Firing the Cathedral was the same. However acclaimed or culturally significant a book is, I'm not going to slog through it just to pat myself on the back, and nod smugly when discussing how wonderful Ulysses is. The truth is, that if you as a reader dismiss pretension and a desire to be smart enough to understand or appreciate a particular book, then you will find that a good deal of 'harder' fiction isn't hard at all. You just need to go with and certain authors will stick. I love Dostoyevsky and Dickens, can't bear Faulkner or Fitzgerald.
There are plenty of books out there. I'll never get through all the ones I want. I can do two things though: pare the list down and focus on authors who rarely let me down*. I feel like, after many years, that I have a reliable idea of the type of story I like. I could just focus on them, but I'm distinctly aware of what I may be missing out on. So I need to split my time between experiments and reliability. Experiments fail, and my particular taste isn't broad enough to accept all fiction. Hence my tenet: books don't need to be finished.
Caveat: none of the above applies to the Malazan books - they must be finished. It's the law.
*If you want a list: Robin Hobb, Peter F. Hamilton, Steven Erikson, Italo Calvino, Margaret Atwood, Gene Wolfe, Iain M. Banks, John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Borges.