discussion: Why I Don’t DNF

Today I thought I’d just write up some thoughts that have been on my mind recently, and explain why I tend to not DNF books, even if I’m not enjoying them.  Before I begin, I just want to say: if you DNF, I think that is great, and I’m not trying to convince you to change your ways, or that my approach is better.  Neither way is ‘better’.  But I do find that this is something I have to justify pretty frequently among fellow readers who like to point out that ‘life is too short to read books you don’t like,’ and believe me, I get it.  But maybe now you will get a better idea of where I’m coming from!

I find that there are 3 main reasons I don’t DNF.

1. Books get better.

Admittedly this is not the majority of cases, but the few times it is true, it makes it worth it.  I don’t click with all of my favorite books from the very first page.  Sometimes you need to invest in a book before there’s any kind of payoff.  For me, that’s what I sign up for when I read.  I don’t expect every book to grip me from page 1, because the nature of so much literary fiction as well as certain types of genre fiction is that it builds slowly.  A few examples of where this was true for me:

30688435Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: For the first third of this book, I can’t say I was getting much out of it.  I thought the writing was overly flowery, I thought the characters were hard to connect to, I thought the magical realism was jarring and heavy-handed.  If I were wont to do so, I would have given up on this book before the halfway point.  But I decided to stick with it, and I ended up adoring it.  The writing style eventually won me over, and I thought it was perfectly suited to the story.  The two main characters weren’t particularly noteworthy on their own, but the relationship between them was this novel’s main asset.  And the magical realism ended up being an allegorical choice that I really connected with.  This book is stunning, but it takes some time to get used to.

23437156Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: Everyone recommended this to me, including my friends who know that I don’t enjoy YA fantasy, so I finally decided to give it a shot.  And for the first 20%, I did not like a single thing about it.  There were too many characters, too many made up vocabulary words I was supposed to care about memorizing, and too little plot.  But then I settled into it and ended up loving it – it’s fun, engaging, and the characters are some of the best developed I’ve ever ever read.  There’s just a bit of perfunctory world building that needs to be taken care of before we can get to the good stuff.

19161852The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I read this one for a book club, and, like Six of Crows, it was off to a rocky start.  I was overwhelmed, to say the least, by the amount of times I needed to flip to the glossary at the back of the book to make sense of anything.  It also begins with a chapter written in second-person, which isn’t my favorite stylistic choice, to say the least.  But it all begins to make sense – even the second-person POV – and I was so glad I didn’t give up on this book at the first sign of difficulty, as Jemisin is an incredibly skilled writer and her world building is beautiful and completely worth your time and investment.

2. I rarely regret having read a book.

I mean a number of things by this, so here are just a couple of examples:

3774496War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: There was hardly anything I enjoyed about this book, but I read it months ago and have since moved on with my life, and now, how cool is it that I’m able to say I’ve read War and Peace?!  I think it was 100% worth it.

 

23513349milk and honey by Rupi Kaur: I knew from the very first page that this poetry collection wasn’t going to be for me.  But it only took about half an hour of my life to read, and since this is a book that everyone’s read and everyone has an opinion on, I like to be able to join in that conversation.  I think it’s valid to read some books purely out of that sense of FOMO.  On occasion.

 

30212107Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: I think when we’re reading for fun, we have a tendency to reject books that require a lot of effort on our parts.  And I totally get that – especially if you’re still in school or raising a family, who wants to read a book that turns their brain to sludge in their free time?  But for me, I’m not still in school and I’m not raising a family.  I have free time, and I don’t have a lot of intellectual stimulation in my life since I graduated a few years ago.  Days Without End challenged me, and I ultimately was not rewarded for the energy I put into reading this book since I didn’t particularly like it at all, but it was an intellectually rigorous book and I did learn a lot from it.  I also felt like I was able to fully articulate my problems with it in my review, and with each review I write I’m striving to improve.  Any book that helps me become a better reviewer, in however small of a way, is definitely worth my investment.

31624992Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen: Listen, I’m not going to pretend to be a totally altruistic person who’s willing to let any book prove its worth to me.  I hate-read this book, occasionally reading passages out loud to my mom and my friend that I found particularly hilarious, and it was fun.  This book was pretty awful in a ‘how did this get published’ kind of way, and ended up going on my worst books of 2017 list, but anything that can make me laugh, however unintentionally, isn’t a total waste of my time.

3. It’s a personal project.

Contrary to everything you’ve just read in this post, I must admit something about myself: I’m a quitter.  If I’m not perfect at something right away, I’ll give up on it before I give it a proper chance.  I get lazy.  I get bored.  A very abridged list of things I have abandoned, or have convinced myself that one day I will un-abandon: learning the piano, learning the guitar, horseback riding, teaching myself German.

This is not something I have ever liked about myself, and I want to get better.  For me, finishing books is a small but significant way for me to fight the overwhelming part of myself that says ‘why bother, who cares, what’s the point.’  Finishing a book you hate may seem daunting, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a book.  It’s just a few hours of your life.  It’s a hurdle I’ve proven I’m able to jump over, time and again.  And I like that feeling.  I like pushing myself through something that’s challenging and saying ‘see, I’m capable of finishing something.’  So maybe it seems like reading bad books is a waste of my time, but I actually think it’s a good mental health exercise for me, which is why I’m going to keep it up.

So, what do you guys think?  Do you DNF?  Why or why not?  I’d love to hear everyone else’s opinions about this, particularly your reasons!

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discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

This post is inspired by a brief series of tweets that I wrote earlier, followed by an interesting conversation with a friend that got me thinking about this even more critically… I’ll start with my tweets, which are as follows:

I get unreasonably annoyed when people refer to mythological retellings as fanfiction. There is no hard and fast canon for mythology – that’s the point. Even Sophocles and Euripides told the same stories in different ways.

Mythology belongs to everyone. We have fragments of stories and glimpses of these characters from 3000 years ago and we all draw different conclusions. That’s the magic of it. Every interpretation is valid.

Side note – I am not bashing fanfiction! I love fanfiction. But in reviews of contemporary mythological stories, it’s used as a pejorative to try to undermine legitimacy. What exactly makes something a valid contribution to a canon which isn’t fixed to begin with?

I also think there’s probably something gendered in this….. you see the fanfiction criticism leveled against Christa Wolf and Madeline Miller much more often than Robert Graves or Colm Toibin.

Anyway, as I said, I then got talking to a friend who admitted that she’s referred to things like Paradise Lost as fanfiction, not to discredit the legitimacy of Paradise Lost, but to uplift fanfiction, which we both agree is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. We realized we were coming at the exact same conclusion from two different vantage points – I was saying ‘none of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid’ and she was saying ‘all of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid.’

Where do you guys fall on that? In general do you think published retellings should be considered fanfiction?

Anyway, what adds a level of complication to this when you’re talking about mythology is that mythological canon itself can be so hard to pin down. What do we consider ‘canon’ in Greek mythology? The Iliad, certainly, even if that story was around before Homer. What about the Aeneid? Even though it was written 900 years after the Iliad and uses many of its same characters? What about Dante’s Divina Commedia – do we accept that Odysseus/Ulysses burning in hell for his trickery is the definitive conclusion of this character’s narrative?

Fast forward several thousand years – let’s look at something like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Medea by Christa Wolf, or Bright Air Black by David Vann. None of these novels are ‘retellings’ in the sense that they, for example, take the story of Achilles and set it on the moon.  They’re all set in the same time period as the original stories, and they attempt to expand on the characterizations that we’re familiar with.  Do we classify any/all of their interpretations as fanfiction? Or do we embrace them all into an ever-expanding concept of mythological canon, even if Medea and Bright Air Black contain contradictory interpretations of Medea’s character?

And finally, what do you think of the gender argument – do you think the fanfiction criticism is more often leveled against female writers (whether consciously or not) in an effort to undermine their credibility?

Sorry, I know I’ve asked a lot of disjointed questions here… I just thought this was some pretty interesting food for thought. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Let’s discuss!