Monday, December 28, 2020

The shifting goalposts of disappointment

Longtime readers of this blog will know that disappointment is not a rare feeling around these parts. I am frequently disappointed by popular books, am disappointed by certain publishers who fail to live up to their own hype, am disappointed by awards and narratives and stories about stories... and yet when I found myself contemplating my recent reads, I realized that disappointment meant something different for me this past year. Ultimately, almost all of the "disappointing" books I read weren't even all that bad. The goalposts had shifted.

As a child, the concept of DNFing ("Did Not Finish") a book seemed unthinkable. And maybe at the time it really was, because books were that much shorter and that much easier to finish off even if I didn't particularly like them. I read a lot of books that I managed to thoroughly loathe up through my teenage years, and I do mean loathe. Books that I really, really could not stand. For years, I was certain that I couldn't just set aside a book that I didn't like. For a long time, I didn't; I kept the books hanging around for years and years, certain that eventually I would return to read them. Sometimes I did. Increasingly, I don't.

My reading has changed drastically over the past decade. To begin with, my life is now a lot busier than it ever was; this is the decade in which I became an independent adult, studying and working and managing my own life. It's much harder to find time to read through dull books when there's so much less time for reading, especially when reading is something that I wholly do for fun. As I've mentioned many times in the past, I don't like my reading to feel like an obligation. This has, thankfully, gradually extended to include my actual reading choices and behavior. I am now perfectly happy to give up reading books that bore or anger me. 

But... interestingly enough, this practically didn't happen this year.

It's not that there weren't books that I started and then set aside, there were. I started C├ęsar Aira's The Hare a few months back and just haven't managed to sink my teeth in it, but I don't feel like I'm really ready to abandon it wholly. There have been a few others along those lines. There have also been books that I realized I didn't want to read anymore. That's all fine. But I haven't had those sorts of books that truly feel like torture or anger me in their disappointment. Last year, I had one major DNF - Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a book that I just could not enjoy no matter whatever else I thought about its technical prowess. (To be clear: I don't think it's actually very good on a technical level, I think it's written in a style that is meant to be difficult and those are very different things and I will maybe elaborate on this more in a separate post someday.) I also had a few thoroughly disappointing titles, like The Belly of Paris which was easily my least favorite Zola so far (bah!) or the whitewashed Last Train to Istanbul or the cringe-ness of The Nakano Thrift Shop (yeah, I said it!). There were similar patterns in years past.

Not so this year. This year, my most disappointing titles were books that were... fine. Not bad or terrible or even painfully boring, just... mediocre. And in some cases, good!-just-not-great-or-amazing. The Eighth Life ended up being one of the most "disappointing" titles I read this past year not because it's a bad book (it is not!), but because I expected to TOTALLY LOVE IT and instead just thought it was good. So too did N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became end up "disappointing" me by virtue of not quite being what I wanted/needed, nor being as stupendously mind-blowingly good as The Broken Earth trilogy. Or maybe a book really wasn't amazing, but it was fine - some good parts, some bad parts - like Inger Christensen's The Condition of Secrecy, which like It before it, I probably would have loved had I not completely shaped my view of Christensen's writing based on the astonishing alphabet.

Which leads me to wonder: Does disappointment inherently follow hype? Almost all of the books that disappointed me this year are those that came with the highest expectations and hype or followed previously beloved books by the same author: The Eighth Life, The City We Became, Beyond Babylon, Accommodations, The Condition of Secrecy... None of these are bad books by any stretch of the imagination, some of them are even good books, and all of them come with pretty significant merits on which I could easily recommend them to many readers, yet they managed to specifically evade something I wanted from them. Were those expectations unfair? Am I moving the goalposts too far?

I'm not sure I'll ever find an answer for this. I think there's something to be said for my goalposts changing once I'm filtering out a lot more books that I just don't like; I'm wasting a lot less time on authors or books that I don't expect will do it for me. Those books, inevitably, can't disappoint me. That leaves a lot more room to be disappointed by books that I still manage to like, possibly with greater space to also explore what disappointed me and why. That's a situation I can happily live with. 


  1. I've had similar experiences. I think once you have a better sense of what you do and don't lie after years of reading, it's then easier to pick books that you're going to lie. I also really liked The City We Became, but it just wasn't as good as the Broken Earth trilogy (which omg so fair bc it's hard to top!).

  2. I agree with you so much - I get disappointed by books that I expect to enjoy and that end up being mainly... OK, but not truly memorable. When I went back to see which titles to include on my best of the year lists, I realised that there were quite a few that I enjoyed well enough at the time, but that didn't really stick with me. For instance, one of my favourite authors is Sarah Moss - and I liked her latest book, Summerwater, but it's not my favourite book of hers and it didn't make my best of list. It was the kind of book that started off well and then ended up disappointing me.


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