Wednesday 9 February 2011

Not read it? No opinion!

Okay, a discussion point for you, if you will.

After reading my post about military science fiction, someone asked why I hadn't included Heinlein.

Simple. I hadn't read the book.

As far as I'm concerned, if you haven't read the book you can't pass judgement.

This includes books like Twilight, as far as I'm concerned. If you've read it, sure, talk about the weak prose, the recycled ideas and the creepy relationship. If you haven't read it, you are basically talking out of your ass. How do you know that you'll concur with the opinion of others? It might become your favourite book ever.

If you haven't finished a book, you can't pass judgement either. You can talk up to the point you dropped it. I always finish a book - if I don't, then how will I know everything the author intended me to know? I might hate the whole book. But what if the latter third redeems everything that has gone before?

What d'you reckon?


  1. (Stands on chair, applauds)

    One of the things that continually irritates me is the tendency you find online in particular to pigpile on something, especially if you've not bothered reading it or watching it.
    Any opinion of a piece of popular culture is valid, provided you've actually experienced that piece of popular culture and aren't just going off what you heard. The whole point, with books especially, is to enter a dialogue with the text, to go back and forth with it and pull it apart in your mind as you read it and analyze what works and what doesn't. That's FUN, for me at least, and if you've not read the book you're slamming you are, as you say, talking out of your ass.

  2. Agree, but only to a point.
    - Not read it, not thought about reading it - no opinion. {Except - I do have the opinion that people shouldn't feel bad about not reading, or not enjoying (some) 'classics'.}

    - Read it up to a point, then stopped - I reckon that's grounds for opinion, because that in itself is telling. I almost never not finish a book, even if the rest becomes a skim read. I can pass a judgment - it would be along the lines of: 'I got as far as I could, but up to this point I found it X, Y and Z, which is why I decided not to waste any more time.' It doesn't matter what the author intends me to know - if they put me off reading, they've failed. However good the last bit - it's not a great book if I can't get to it. I don't believe something so bad I put it down can be 'redeemed'. It might 'get better' - but that's not good enough. There are plenty of fantastic authors who present difficult stories or ideas in accessible ways... a good last page, final chapter, last third - not good enough.

    babelfishwars (twitter)

  3. Oh, and on Alasdair -
    I differ on 'the whole point'.
    I don't (consciously) analyse, go back and forth, or pull stories apart as I read.
    If I find myself doing that, I generally conclude the book is poorly written. I prefer to be immersed in a book so that I forget I'm reading. Only with hindsight, when reviewing or recommending, do I consider the process of analysis.
    The whole point of a book (for me) is the story, the world, the tale.

    But agree on the 'talking out of your ass' bit. ;)

    babelfishwars (again)

  4. I think it's ok to have an opinion if you haven't finished a book but only the opinion that you didn't enjoy it enough to finish it. You can have reasons for that - I, for example, haven't finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell because I find the first half of it to be terribly slow and hard going and have put down at nearly the same place twice. That's an opinion, and i know that many people say it picks up massively toward the end but I personally can't dedicate myself to getting through it.

    Also have to disagree with Alisdair that the whole point with books is to pull them apart and analyse them. I tend to think if a book isn't drawing me into its story to the point where i'm not analysing it then it's not doing it right. However, books that i get drawn into and then at times when i am not reading them i am analysing them in my head - very good

    Opinion on books you have never read...NOT A CHANCE!

  5. 100% with you. I would expand this nugget of wisdom across all topics and areas of interest.

    If you don't have some sort of first hand experience you do not have an opinion.

    What you may have is the recycled opinion of others which is worse than nothing if you decide to share it.

    I suppose you can limit your lack of opinion with a disclaimer, but personally I think it's best to leave the things you know nothing of well alone.

  6. Agree with babelfishwars on this point:
    "Read it up to a point, then stopped - I reckon that's grounds for opinion, because that in itself is telling." But totally agree with Amanda about "if you haven't read the book [at all then] you can't pass judgement."

  7. This reminds me of Stewart Lee's legendary comment:

    "If you've only read one book in your life... I thoroughly recommend you keep your mouth shut."

  8. I once had a friend rant and rave about how awful all the Harry Potter books were (there were four at this point). I finally asked him why he kept reading the series if he hated the books so much. "I wouldn't READ those!" he exclaimed in disgust.

    Which promptly inspired me to pick them up and start reading them, just out of sheer annoyance for such an ignorant attitude. (Amusingly enough, he caved in and started reading them a few years later, and they became his favorite books ever.)

    I have plenty of opinions as to why I won't read the Twilight books. But since I *haven't* read them? Those opinions are my own, and only shared when people ask, and with the caveat that they are prejudiced and uninformed, and not to be taken as a guide for whether the person asking should or shouldn't read the books.

  9. Very true. I bitch about Twilight all the time, but I emphasise that I've only seen the film (which I watched purely to justify bitching about it, hehe), and that the idea itself is crappy. I don't think I'll ever be qualified to comment on the prose since I doubt I'll ever bring myself to read it. You're spot on though, even if I can't stand a book by damn I'll read it to the end before I comment on it.

  10. Twilight makes me laugh. I picked up the first one, zoomed through it... WHAT IS THIS DRIVEL? I COULD DO BETTER! GIVE ME MOAR! So then read the rest, equally fast 'MORE OF THE SAME? IT DOES NOT IMPROOOVE?!', enjoying my ranting. Think I got the last one as soon as it was published. I NEVER do that.

    So... ... I read them. I think I intensely disliked them. I may also have enjoyed them a lot. :-S


  11. I agree entirely. Although you can form an opinion that you won't like a book by the experiences of likeminded individuals and reviewers, it's not then valid to pass these experiences off as your own unless you have finished the book.

  12. I agree. It's pretty hard to not form an opinion, or perhaps I should say preconcepion, on books that receive the level of attentions Twilight or The Da Vinci Code enjoy though.

  13. I agree that you can't really have an opinion on books you haven't read. But with Twilight, I've heard so much about it, that it sometimes feels as if I've read the books. I actually sort of want to read the first book just to see how close it is to all I've heard about it.

    As to whether you can have an opinion on a book you haven't finished, I'm in two minds about that.

    I needed two tries on both the first Shannara book and the first Thomas Covenant book. (With Covenant, I stopped THERE, when I was 15.) And I really liked the first Shannara trilogy later, but still not the first book. And I love the first two Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and have re-read them several times.

    There's only one other book I've stopped reading, and that is Kafka's The Trial. I've tried three times, and have gotten a third through at most. Have plans to try one last time. But for now I feel that is the most over-hyped book in history, and feel I have a right to say it is crap.

    I'm also one of the few people I know who finished the whole of the Sword of Truth series and hated it. There I can say with authority that you don't get any payback for sticking with it...It just gets worse. -But there I thought the first three books were OK.

  14. I admire you for always finishing, I certainly don't, though that doesn't mean that I won't go back and try again later. If it's a review copy and I feel obliged to comment on it, then I'll say I didn't finish it, and why; if not, then mostly I won't say anything at all. If I'm going to slate a book then I'd feel obliged to have finished it. If I haven't read it at all, then all I can say is why it doesn't appeal...

  15. Judgement can always be passed - you might just not be able to carry water however, if you've let the pail behind on your way to the dunking stool...

    Ah, let me start over: certainly it says something, several somethings in fact, if you fail to finish a book. Something about you, something about the book.

    Case in point: I've a whole lot of books I'm reading, how many I've lost count. Could be a dozen or more, I'm unsure really. Some are fiction, some not, but there are at least two which I've stumbled over trying to finish in the past month.

    One - because it is a book which for me takes a lot concentration, work, and I have to be in exactly the right mood for it: "Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials" by Reza Negarestani. The jury is still out on this, I think it's a good book but I'm not sure I like it.

    The other one is "Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder. I don't think it's a good book, and I definitely don't like it. I might actually never go back to it and find out for sure, because I find the writing so problematic that it is far more pain than pleasure for me to make any forward progress. I pick it up sometimes when I want to go to sleep - but it just makes me toss it back down after a sentence or three. Now some folks seem to like it, so perhaps it's just me but I find the prose of the sort that causes fits in this reader at least, so I can't say a damn thing about the story so far because I'm sure I'll never get to it in its fulness. But I can say something about the experience so far, as I just did.

    So what's my point? That you can learn a lot about a book - or an author - even if you don't finish it. Just like any journey you can at the very least say what you think about the portion you've undertaken so far, even if you never follow that exact road to its terminus.


  16. While I agree to some extent that if you haven't at least tried the thing you're badmouthing, then you don't have much to say that isn't just stuff other people have said. I disagree, though, that I can't or shouldn't have an opinion if I didn't finish the book. After all, there may be a pretty good reason I haven't finished the book.

    Using Twilight as an example, I tried to read it. I even, in spite of the opposition, tried to like it, telling myself that I've got a soft spot for vampires and that I really should try to be fair. And I got about halfway through before realizing that the plot really wasn't going anywhere fast, that Bella was the kind of character who bugged the hell out of me, and that the whole thing felt as flat and dull and grey as the overdone description of the setting. I just couldn't stay interested, and had to put the book down when it was becoming a chore to read.

    I figure I'm entitled to my opinion on that, since not finishing the book is related to my dislike of it.

    If the last half of the book completely redeems it, then fine, I'm missing out, but I think it still stands as valid that if they author didn't do much in the first half the keep me interested enough to go on to the second, then I can't be entirely blamed for missing out. They say the trick to making agents and publishers look at your book is to hook them by page 3. I don't necessarily agree with that short a chance, but halfway through the book? Yeah, if it wasn't done by then, then too bad. I think I've got a good leg to stand on when I say a book was so dull that I could only get through half of it, and I think that I have as much right to voice that opinion as anyone who made it through the whole thing.

  17. Spot on, never "judge a book by its cover". As far as Twilight and other very-famous-so-they-can't-be-good things: I think there is something like envy for their success underlying these opinions. The fact that someone would go see a movie so that (s)he can deride it all the better is quite self-explanatory. To me it says: "I despise the target audience/perceived audience, would never be caught in any way agreeing with them. But I only wish I had hit that jackpot!" I read Twilight a couple of years ago, and found it very well written, if slow and uneventful. Paranormal Romance is being made fun of and I have no doubt there must be a lot of rubbish out there, if only because a hundred thousand similar books can't possibly be all good. But the fact remains: I read the books, NOT the labels.