I know, it sounds dirty. But DNF stands for ‘Did Not Finish’ and I don’t do it often. In fact, I didn’t even do it while I was reading this most recent book, by a famous, renowned romance novelist, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, but whose latest release is, in my opinion largely problematic.
Part of the reason I read books all the way through is because I have a really big Goodreads goal for the year and I don’t want to put down books I’ve already started. (I’m not embarrassed to admit that.) I also will finish problematic or frustrating reads because it teaches me how to avoid making the same mistakes. As an author, I think it’s important to read books that aren’t perfect so we can perform more effectively in our own stories.
That said, there are a few things that will make me put a book down.
This is so hard to truly pinpoint, but I put down a book that everyone loved because the heroine was a millennial and the writer very clearly wasn’t. Her heroine was bland and stupid and it was clear that the author thought she was doing a good job of capturing how young women in the twenties think. There was an excessive amount of ‘trying to be down with the cool kids’ in the way she and the hero text-messaged and it was all cringe-worthy. If I’m being fair to the author, there were significant other reasons I put this book down and never looked back, but an unlikable heroine that insulted me as a person was definitely one of them.
We need look no further than 50 Shades of Grey for stories like these. The romance industry is behemoth and there’s a vast expanse of the kind of stories you’ll come across. That said, I’ve read erotic BDSM menage romances with absolute trust, communication and respect between the characters, where even when one of the characters is tied up by the wrists and ankles and gagged and blindfolded, I still always believe they are safe and have agency. There is no excuse for toxic relationships between the hero and the heroine in romance (or hero and hero, heroine and heroine, onward, upward and forward.)
Let’s be honest, there was 1) enough shitty men in the world already and 2) enough shitty men in fiction, that I don’t need to read about it in my books. Okay, if the story arc is some redemptive he learned to embrace his insecurities to find love, I might be convinced. But I’ve put down books where there are chapters of first-person hero rambling about how many women he’s slept with and who he’s bullying the hospital cafeteria and how he can’t wait to get laid and tap that. These kinds of bad behaviors are hard to come back from and really unenjoyable to read.
When I say stereotypical women, what I mean is that the author has bought into the idea that women can only play a few roles in life: the virgin, the whore, the bitch, la di da di da. These stories usually involve some sort of caricature of women cat-fighting, almost always over a man, and try to embrace the ‘universal truths of womanhood’ by getting as far as feeling guilty about eating an extra slice of pizza. We deserve more than two-dimensional characters.
Books With Fewer Than Two Women
Seriously? Like, this should be a non-issue. Women make up more than 50% of the population. There were more women on the field in most major wars than there were men–even though they weren’t allowed to fight.
Women have been around since the beginning of time and erasing our existence in media is something I refuse to support in the books I read. Hard stop. Even in my queer romances, I still write more than one woman in the book, because, oh hey, I have more than one woman in my life and I’m pretty sure most other people–including my queer friends–do too.
Non-Existent, Stereotypical or Sexy Lamp Characters of Color
The Sexy-Lamp test usually refers to women, but the idea remains the same. If your character of color or female character could be replaced by a piece of decorative furniture, they are not a real character. Oh, but it’s not historically accurate…I’m sorry, I didn’t realize people of color were invented in the 1990s. As with women, people of color are part of history, society, culture and the modern day (crazy, I know) and we write better, richer, fuller stories when we represent the world around us.
There are other, sillier reasons I tend to put books down and I’m sure more important ones that will come to me later down the line, but there are the reasons that really hit me hard. In the book I Didn’t Put Down But Should Have™ the hero comments on something the heroine ate, (it’s not a magic trick if she’s over a size four!) and the heroine has a cat-fighting arch-enemy that routinely acts like being mean, cruel and rude is part of her sassy personality. These are problematic behaviors and writings that I now know to avoid in my work because I don’t like the way it makes me feel as a reader.
We read for many, many reasons. As authors, we read for enjoyment, inspiration, and education. And we can learn just as much from the books that we don’t like as we can from the books that we do. Sometimes more.