Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Think I Missed Again*

Most of us have had the experience of reading a really poor novel that we’ve disliked intensely. It might be the author’s style, thin plots, weak characters or something else. Whatever it is, there’s just something about the book that makes it a bad experience for us. Yet, we finish the book and ask ourselves later why we bothered with it. One reason we go on with books that we dislike might be that we don’t recognise the signs that a book is just not worth the effort. Let’s face it; reading a terrible book is a difficult experience, and coping with it takes effort, so let’s take a look at some of the stages that most people pass through as they experience a bad book. These stages are taken from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking work on coping with grief, and have been shown to be very helpful in understanding how we face sorrow in our lives. Hopefully thinking about bad reading experiences in this way will help you the next time you face the difficult challenge of dealing with a book that utterly fails you.


At this stage, most people don’t want to believe that the book they depended on for entertainment, enlightenment, comfort or information can really be that bad. Typical reactions at this stage are, “Maybe it’s just the first chapter that’s a bit slow,” or “I’ll just put it aside for a day or two; guess I’m not in the mood.” Some people, in fact, remain in denial about a bad book and finish it entirely. This could very likely be the reason why so many poorly-written novels still sell as well as they do.

If you catch yourself in denial about a bad book experience you are having, it’s wise to pay attention to it. Denying your reaction doesn’t allow you to get through your real feelings about the novel and may lead you to remain in very unhealthy patterns. You might even buy the next book by that author without being aware of what you’ve done!


During this stage of the process, the reader becomes fully aware that she or he has been taken in by a terrible book. When you consider the cost of books these days, and the investment of time and energy that reading demands, it’s no wonder people get furious when a book turns out to be bad. It’s easy to take this kind of thing quite personally, and really, it isn’t fair that something one’s looked forward to turns out to be a waste. Typical reactions during this stage are, “I cannot believe I spent ___ on this piece of ____!” or “How can any publisher call this a novel?” or simply, “@#$%!”

If you find yourself angry about having read a bad book, understand that anger is a perfectly normal and healthy reaction to having spent your time on a book that wasn’t worth the effort. You’re best off finding a healthy outlet for that anger. Hurling the book against a wall is one option, if the wall is solid. However, hurled books can chip paint, tear plaster and otherwise cause damage. A very sturdy dumpster is a better idea.

You should also be aware that taking out your anger on the offending book could put you in an awkward position at the next stage (See below). So you may also wish to consider some other outlet for anger.


The next stage in coming to terms with a terrible reading experience is bargaining. During this stage, readers often try to lessen the effect of the bad book. For example, it can be extremely tempting to take the book back to the bookstore and ask, “Can I have a refund, please? This was a terrible book.” Or, the reader may be overwhelmingly tempted to contact whichever online bookseller sold the book and ask if the price of the book can be counted towards a book with an actual plot and realistic characters. Some readers may even contact the publisher and offer to promote the publisher’s other authors if the publisher publicly breaks off all contact with the author.

If you feel the urge to bargain with the author, the publisher or the bookseller, there’s nothing wrong or unusual in that. Do understand, though, that it’s not likely to be successful.


The fact is, booksellers, publishers and even authors tend to deny that a book they’ve written, produced or sold is bad. So they’re unlikely to refund one’s money. Even if they did, reading or listening to a book is still an investment of time. That time cannot be refunded. This stark reality often causes a great deal of depression.

On the negative side, depression can cause a number of unpleasant side effects. Depression over having read a bad book can, for instance, make readers swear off a genre, wonder in vain how they can ever look at a book the same way again, or worse, give up reading entirely, devoting themselves to mindless television. This is dangerous.

However, depression is a natural part of the process of dealing with having read a bad book. If this happens to you, understand your own need for extra-special kindness during this period. Chocolate helps. So does the awareness that this feeling will pass.


At some point, most readers come to a point where they are resigned to having had a terrible book experience. This can take quite a long time, depending upon how bad the book really was. Common reactions at this stage of coping are, “Well, at least it was only a library book,” or “Thank goodness it wasn’t a very long book,” or “At least I got it at half-price.” At this point, the reader is ready to accept that the book was terrible and move on.

Once the reader has truly accepted and internalized what happened, it’s good to know that solid reading health awaits. There are always other authors…

Hopefully an understanding of what really happens when people have a terrible reading experience will be helpful if you ever have this kind of experience. If you have, perhaps you’d like to share what you did to get through it?

Now, please excuse me while I remove my tongue from my cheek ;-).

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ I Missed Again.


  1. Very droll, Margot!I always feel duty-bound to finish a book once I start it, but occasionally I just can't do it, even given your helpful step-guide above, I was just not going to finish a book I started fairly recently - the mixture of gruesome and predictable was just too awful to contemplate.
    But - now I have your helpful guidance I shall know what to do next time ;-)

  2. Oh, Margot! And I read all my way through this, wondering whether you could be serious! On the whole, I think I am good at spotting humour, but you have cheated me more than once. E.g. that time when your *dog* nearly convinced me Margot had no humour. LOL

    I am not very good at dropping a book midway, but I have become better at noticing the signs that should tell me this is not something for me. Well, at least a library book - but if I have paid for the thing, I am *very* reluctant to give it up.

  3. Maxine - Thank you :-) I know exactly what you mean about feeling obliged to complete a book once one's started it. I feel that way, too, especially if I've bought it myself or had it as a gift. Once in a while, though, I just can't force myself to do it. And the funny thing is, I, too, am most likely to stop reading if there is too much gratuitous gore or if I can just guess the whole story right away (yawn).

    Glad to know I've been helpful should that ever happen to you again ;-).

    Dorte - *Snicker* See what happens when you listen to a dog? ;-). Actually, Indy is quite wise, and very funny. She "fed" me this whole post ;-). I am the same way about library books versus books that I've bought. I'm much more likely to either stop reading a book, or not start it in the first place, no matter how it's been hyped, if it's a library book than I am if I have bought it. I guess the financial investment adds a certain motivation to read.

  4. Do you mind read Margot?
    I am finding the book I am reading at the moment Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End by Leif GW Persson [with fantastic back cover blurbs] very hard going. The author's sense of humour is so dark that I can't make up my mind whether I like it or not. "Sweden the most respected country in the world", not after reading this one. I agree with Dorte, having paid for a book I am very reluctant to give up. I will soldier on. ;o)

  5. Norman - LOL; no, I don't mind read. And I think Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is just as well pleased at that... ;-)

    I am sorry to hear you're not enjoying that Persson book. Admittedly I haven't heard much about it, but I was debating whether or not to explore it further. I give you credit for toughing it out, but don't put yourself through too much. Denial is not healthy ;-).

  6. I'm not sure what I'm enjoying more - the post or the comments.

    I wish there was a disclaimer on the books: Caution - the excitement and anticipation that you had for this book will be torn away but you will suffer through it for at least one hundred pages. Sorry you had to pay $15.99.


  7. Clarissa - LOL!! Oh, that is great!!! I love it! Wouldn't it be great if there were those kinds of disclaimers? I would love that! What a terrific cautionary label :-).

    And I'm thoroughly enjoying the comments, too - including yours.

  8. I'm not sure what drives me to finish a book once I start. There was one book I read that I caught myself wondering several times 'why am I still reading this' only to conclude I was now curious and had to know what happened at the end. I know I could have skipped to the end, but I've try not to ever do that. So I finished the book, it was okay but I was extremely disappointed at the way it ended.

    There is another book I have (this one is an audio) that I can't get past the first disc listening to. It's seems to be rambling. My friend has the same audio. She called to see what I thought of the book. I thought her I was amazed that she listened to all 12 discs as I couldn't finish one. She said she kept listening hoping it would all make sense at the end (apparently it didn't). LOL

    Enjoyed your post as always.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Mason - Thank you :-). I had to laugh at your comment about the audio book. Some books just do ramble on, whether we listen to them or we read them, and they never do make sense. I think that's the most disappointing feeling: when one's gotten all the way through a book, really hoping it would make some sense at the end, only to find that it doesn't. Then, not only does one have a bad book experience, but it took reading or listening to the whole book to figure out that it wasn't going to get any better.

    I've done the same thing you mentioned; I've started a book, not liked it, but kept reading for no apparent reason. I suppose it's our desire for completion...

  10. I haven't seen it lately but a couple of years ago one of the big chains bookstores here used to make a big deal of its "100% enjoyment guaranteed or your money back" and I now wonder if the reason I haven't seen that sticker is due to too many people following your bargaining step :)

    These days (I think it started when I hit 40 and realised the reading hours allotted to me are finite) I am perfectly willing to stop reading a book. If I think it's bad or just not my cup of tea I simply get rid of it, even if I've spent money on it. My time is valuable too after all. I recently was reading an ARC of a book that was so awful that I threw it away in the recycling bin rather than inflict it on the poor sods who rely on local charity shop for their reading material. I have only done that a few times in my life but really some stuff is just utter rubbish and the world is better off without it.

    There are other books that I know probably aren't bad but I just can't get into them or I feel it's not the right time for me to be reading them - these I usually throw back into the TBR pile and give them another go at some stage. Sometimes, as recently happened with Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast, this works out very well for me.

  11. Ha! Love it, Margot...and it's so true. What's bad for me sometimes is when I've REALLY been looking forward to an author's next book. It comes out and I *hear* the bad reviews, but I'm convinced the reviewers just don't "get" my author...and then I read the book and it's disappointing!

  12. Bernadette - LOL! It's too bad the bookstores don't take books back when are simply terrible books. I'd love to be able to do that. But the booksellers here, to my knowledge, have never offered that. For them, it's a case of caveat emptor.

    I agree with you, too; life is too short to spend it reading a bad book. As you say, the reader's time is valuable. I don't blame you one bit for being perfectly happy to stop reading something if it's terrible. Maybe that feeling of freedom to do that comes as we get older; I hadn't thought about that but it makes sense. We do tend to have more self-knowledge and self-confidence as we get older. And yes, there are some books (I've read my share, too) that one wouldn't even donate to a charity shop or library. Sad to say, because I'm a bibliophile, but still...

    And then, on the bright side, there are books that we stop now and try again later (I'm still really glad you picked up The Redbreast again :-) ). When that happens to me, I'm always glad that I did give the book another go. Unless it's a library book, I tend not to get rid books for while, just for that reason.

    Elizabeth - Thank you :-). I've done exactly the same thing! I read the reviews, even from sources I trust, but I go ahead and get the book anyway. Talk about your denial!! Funny how when we really like an author, we just don't want to believe s/he could write a poor book...

  13. Very interesting Margot! I recently finished a completely horrid book, but I must say I learned a TON from it. At least I know what NOT to do!

  14. Alexandra - Thank you :-). And you've put your finger on one important advantage of reading a terrible book if one's an author: it's an object lesson in what to avoid when writing!

  15. So true! Great post and comments. Sometimes I think it's me that's at fault for not liking a book! And there have been books I've gone back to and found that they're not so bad after all. But mostly it's not me - it's the books that are terrible. I only feel bad about giving up on a book if it's a review book, which now makes me very wary about accepting them. I can't think of any other reason for reading something I don't like.

    No book has ever been so bad that's put me off reading - there are always more and better books to get stuck into.

  16. Margaret - Thank you :-). I'm truly enjoying everyone's comments, too. And I know exactly what you mean about feeling that it might be you that's at fault. The fact is, though, that some books are just not good books. They are badly written or have some other fatal flaw.

    I hadn't thought about the conundrum with review books, because really, I don't do book reviews. But I can see how that might make one very cautious about accepting them. How does one write a scathing review of an ARC? I wouldn't want to be in that situation.

    And I agree completely: there are so many fine authors and books that I can't imagine ever being put off reading :-).

  17. I wonder if Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has applied her stages of grief to books she reads! Love it.

    Now-a-days I've decided life is too short to carry on with a book that just sucks. But, oh, I do get angry that someone actually published the *%##!

  18. Vanda - Thanks :-) And I wonder that, too... And I agree completely about getting angry that a bad book got published. As hard as writers work to create good stuff that's well-written and people enjoy, it's maddening when a piece of - er - tripe gets published. And even more so when you realise you've bought the thing...

  19. So true, Margot, even if you were tongue in cheek while writing it.
    I invariably go through the first couple of stages, but now I have trained myself to realise that my time and sanity is more important than anything else, so when I find soemthing particularly bad, I write off the book and put it down to experience.

    The worst is when you are almsot sure a book is nto going to be good, but convince yourself to give the author one more try, and the book turns out to be worse than what you expected.

  20. Rayna - Oh, you are so right about that sense of disappointment when a book one was really counting on turns out to be bad, even after you've decided to give the author one more chance. It's an added let-down, because of the extra effort in trying more than once to enjoy a book.

    And I agree completely: life is too short (and as for me, I'm getting to old) to waste time with a book that isn't enjoyable. I usually give a book a good go, but when it doesn't turn out to be enjoyable, I'll stop, especially if it's a library book.