So what was it you didn’t like?


Over the years, I’ve discovered that I get very critical of anything I read. When I don’t like a book, I can’t just say, “Eh, that wasn’t great. Time to read something else.” No. I have to sit with the book and analyze what the heck about the book is bugging me….

So, just curious:

a) Do you do this?

b) If so, are you able to figure out what it is that you didn’t like?

Me, I’m willing to spend, I don’t know, up to five or six minutes thinking about why a particular book isn’t working for me. At least three or four minutes. Okay, definitely at least one minute. Honestly, if it’s not pretty clear to me up front, I am generally okay with just saying, “Not working for me” and stopping with that.

Sometimes it is clear. For example, if the author used the word “parameter” when she meant perimeter” on the first page, and also nothing about the first page is especially grabbing my attention. (This is an actual example.) I don’t feel inclined to trust a writer who uses a blatantly wrong word, but I’d be more forgiving if the story seized my attention right up front.

Sometimes I just don’t like the protagonist, most often because she seems overly ineffectual or stupid or impulsive or emotional, or some combination of those traits. That takes longer to realize, so I would probably be stopping after several chapters, not merely several pages. I am aware that the protagonist may improve. These characteristics are so unappealing that I’m generally not willing to wait for that to happen.

Occasionally some plot element seems so unbelievable or so repulsive that even though everything else about the book is working for me, I quit. I’ll give an example for that one: NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, where the protagonist kills a man who is trying to help her plus everyone else in the village because she is upset. I grant that she has reason to be upset, but I don’t care. This element repelled me so strongly that I stopped immediately, even though the writing was thoroughly compelling.

But sometimes I just don’t know why a particular book isn’t really working for me. Everything about it seems fine, but somehow I just don’t care about the characters / don’t care about what might happen next / find myself just not inclined to pick the book up. This is not a feature of quality as such. Sometimes I find books that aren’t that well written to be quite compelling reads, whereas I simply loose interest in a beautiful literary fantasy that everyone else just loves.

In those cases, I do think (briefly) about why the book isn’t working for me. But if I can’t figure that out in a few minutes, I quit worrying about it and just go on to a different book. How about you? Do you feel compelled to analyze every book you dislike, or are you willing to let your reaction remain a mystery?

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11 thoughts on “So what was it you didn’t like?”

  1. I have been writing reviews of everything I read long enough that I usually do try to figure out WHY I dislike a book, if only so I can explain to myself. Poor writing is usually only a reason in conjunction with other reasons, like a main character who drives me bananas. In one of the most recent “finished it but HATED it” it was the worldbuilding that I found thoroughly unrealistic (because people being killed by dragons are SO going to wait for LICENSED PROFESSIONALS instead of picking up arms themselves). Bad endings. Grimdark/nihilistic depression-fests (although I actually really like darker stories as long as they’re tempered with a ton of humor, like McKinley’s Sunshine or Ari Marmell’s Thief series. And technically both of those have uplifting endings).

    If a book has a character or two I really like, and a plot that’s engaging, I will note areas I disliked but the book may still be a favorite. As a writer, though, I like to try to spot what doesn’t work. It was eye-opening to read someone else’s book that had a particular twist that I was intending to use in my own story to find that as a reader, it was really annoying. Maybe it would be possible to do well, but it was good to see that it can land really badly.

  2. The ones I analyze the most are the ones where everyone else loved it but I didn’t, or where the thing that bugged me didn’t seem to bug anyone else. (Like the weird cultural appropriation/erasure element baked into the world building for The Paper Magician.)

    I actually did make it through that first Fifth Season trilogy book, but didn’t get very far into the second. There just wasn’t anything to be hoping for or looking forward to, no rooting interest to latch on to. I probably should have quit sooner, but I was so curious what the fuss was all about.

  3. I don’t analyze constantly, but if everyone else loves the book and I don’t, then I try to figure out what didn’t work for me. If it’s from someone whose work I normally like I try to figure out what’s gone wrong and is it my reaction, basic to the story, or what … One writer I’ve read everything by for (checks first pub date) going on 30 years, has been exasperating me lately and I finally put my finger on the cause: incompetent main character who really shouldn’t be such a fumblewit by this point.

    Or if something keeps niggling at me while I read I try to figure out what.

  4. I usually don’t take time to analyze why I don’t like a book, since it’s pretty clear. For example, I recently didn’t finish Too Like the Lightning when I finally realized almost every main character was a psychopath. And that was a shame as the story had some interesting philosophical digressions.

  5. This is one of the unpleasant sides of being a writer. Read your own work with a critical eye too often, and it will change how you read everything, forever.

  6. So totally agree on N K Jemisin – I got through the first book but the second was DNF and did not even bother to look at the third. Will probably not read another book by her again. I usually get turned off a book if the protagonists are really stupid or horrible people without any redeeming humour or “soft” side. I remember another DNF where the author just squeezed every last bit of emotional drama from every dialogue (agonised looks and trembly lips aplenty) that I went “for Ghod’s sake!” and tossed the book away.

  7. Very interesting responses from you all. Kootch, did you try The Killing Moon / The Shadowed Sun? That duology worked well for me and is definitely my favorite of Jemisin’s books (that I’ve read). Plenty of characters to root for as well as against in that one, plus decent outcomes as the admittedly pretty horrible situations got resolved.

    Mary, I am lucky in that I can be judgmental of bad writing or stylistic choices I don’t agree with, but still enjoy a book. I’m grateful for that, believe me, because I’ve heard more than one writer say how limited her own reading has become as a result of this phenomenon.

    Robert, hmmm. I hadn’t heard that precise comment about Too Like the Lightning, but the reviews I read did not really make me want to read it. Your comment reinforces that reluctance. Maybe I’ll try it sometime, but … maybe not.

    Elaine T, as you know, I am right with you on the incompetent main character. Ugh.

    For me, a claustrophobic setting can push me away from a work by an autobuy author. I mean the kind of setting where most people are trapped in an oppressive city or other setting and have no means to leave. Even if the protagonists are not trapped, I have trouble with that kind of setting.

    Megan, yes, I think that kind of reluctance to help yourself would definitely push my hate-ineffectual-protagonists button.

  8. Yes I did read Jemisin’s Killing Moon/Shadowed Sun and liked the second one better because of the dynamic between the protagonists. I had read the three books before that (the thing with the gods) and they were ok. That’s why I read the first book of The Fifth Season to the end even if I disliked the characters.

  9. These days, if I really dislike a book, I usually don’t bother to finish it and don’t give it much further thought.

    But otherwise, it’s my habit to analyse what I liked and what I didn’t like. Analysing what I disliked about a story helps me decide if I should read more books in the series, or by this author, or which also do X. It frustrates me when I can’t identify exactly why I haven’t liked something (or why I haven’t liked it more)!

  10. There are books I really want to like but can’t, and often I can’t lay my finger on exactly why. The Traitor Baru Cormorant for instance. Those are the books I keep trying to finish (but often can’t manage) and feel bad about not finishing. After all, lots of people who I either know I share other tastes with, or whose judgment I trust implicitly, are ecstatic about it! (The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is another of those, and I thought it was an indication of racism I didn’t know I suffered from that I couldn’t finish it, but it seems to be something else: see my blog post with an embedded Twitter conversation)

  11. Irina, I felt the same way about The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and was surprised because Martha Wells, among others, recommended it so highly. I didn’t read enough of it to peg it as grimdark, but I read enough of it to peg it as too gritty for me. Emphasize unpleasant physical details and go light on beauty and charm and I just get grossed out and stop. Also, I also could not get interested in the protagonist.

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