Monday, July 2, 2018

Five Reasons Why You're Reading Mediocre Books

One of the mains reasons I get on social media is to talk books with fellow book lovers. Sadly, I often encounter complaints. Thrillers that don't thriller. Horror novels that are more sad than scary. Clichés. Literary fiction that doesn't tell a story. Lack of editing. The list goes on and on. Yes, there are a lot of books being published, but that doesn't mean that there are a lot of great books out there. Here are five reasons why. If you keep them in mind, working around them will be easy, and finding superb fiction in your favorite genre will be a piece of cake.

1. The book business is...well, a business.

Here's an unsurprising fact: the obscenely large publishing companies that rule the market print books they think will sell, not awe-inspiring literary gems that will make you cooler and smarter just by reading them. Publishing is a money-driven machine that worries about profits, not great literature. Sure, the major publishing houses put out great books every year, but compared to the barrage of celebrity memoirs, big name rehashes, pedestrian thrillers/erotica/horror/etc., and simply unbelievably dull junk they put out there, the percentage is very small. The books that get backed with big money are those they expect to make money, and that equation often leads to best-sellers lists packed with formulaic garbage. This shouldn't be a surprise. If you rush out the door to buy the latest James Patterson and then get angry about how crappy it is, you're part of the problem. 

2. Self-publishing

If you want to start an argument that will end in bloodshed, mention self-publishing around writers. As a book reviewer, I try to read and review as many indie authors as possible. If you can get a book at the grocery store, that author doesn't need help spreading the word about his work, so I stay away from it in terms of a review. Sadly, trying to help out self-published authors means that reviewers often have to read unedited books. While there are outstanding self published novels out there that deserve best-sellers status, too many authors think their manuscript can skip the editing process. They're wrong. No one can skip the editing process. Did you read that? No one. Even the greatest editors need a good editor once in while. Editing is a tedious and painful process, but it's crucial for any manuscript. The authors throwing their work out there unedited are tarnishing self-publishing and flooding the market with appalling books that should've never been shared with anyone. This is why self publishing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a thing that allows new authors to get their books out into the world. On the other hand, it is a way for 20-year-olds to share their memoirs and for grandmothers to publish books about their love for their cats. Oh, and then there's the fact that too many self-published authors don't want to spend money on covers and layout, so you end up with an awful, unedited narrative wrapped in a horrendous cover. That's why some folks can't get people to read their work even if they give it away.

3. Agents

Believe it or not, literary agents are human. As such, they're full of that nasty thing called subjectivity. They choose to represent stories they like and work with authors they think will make them money (besides subjectivity, most humans also have bills to pay). Sadly, agents have the power to get the wrong manuscript in the right hands. The result is thousands of terrible books being published and promoted. I won't give you any titles here (that would only make the priggish, pitchfork-wielding readers run faster in my direction...just kidding, look at Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, Sean Penn's Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, or all those books by E.L. James), but there is a ton of garbage manuscripts that came to be only because an agent liked them. Conversely, some of the most astonishing tomes I've read in the past three or four years were repeatedly rejected by dozens of agents and eventually published by indie presses or came from authors smart enough to go to an indie press directly. This doesn't mean that agents should disappear, that they're solely to blame for the vast array of horrible literature occupying shelf space out there, or that authors shouldn't try to make a bundle with their work; it only means that agents play an important role in getting authors who can't write a decent paragraph to publish trilogies. Thankfully, I've seen, heard of, and met a lot of agents recently that are doing the exact opposite of this, and that gives me hope for the future.

4. Lack of focus

Many authors, old and new, have lost focus. John Skipp, best-selling author and editor extraordinaire, wrote in his blog a couple of years ago about the qualities of the fiction he likes to publish and wants to see more of: "exciting, provocative, tightly-focused, plot-driven, character-intensive, shockingly original cliché-hammering tales with ass-kicking endings that make people sit up and take notice." Unfortunately, stories like that are getting harder and harder to find. Authors (and here I'm delighted to say that I can exclude most of the authors I know) are favoring formulas over insightful writing and think publishers are looking for writers who fit whatever current mold is making money instead of idiosyncratic voices. This landscape leads to unfocused authors writing what they think will get their name on a cover instead of the stories they would really like to share with readers. I'm dirt poor, but I write what I want to write, and I think most writers should do the same.

5. Your own nauseating comfort

While all of the above are good reasons why your current read is probably dismal, this last one is the most important reason of all. You have the power to read outside the best-seller lists. You can look around and find a plethora of amazing indie presses that are putting out unique books by very talented writers. If not reading is a self-imposed neurodegenerative disease, then reading whatever rubbish is on sale at the pharmacy is a volitional cancer. The previous four reasons can be easily circumvented if you get rid of your fucking contentedness and step out of your comfort zone. If you spend more time thinking about what coffee to get than you do picking your next read, you're part of the problem and the only one to blame for the fact that you're reading garbage. Just because it's readily available doesn't mean it's the best thing around. You know, just like fast food joints. If you want to read great books, you have to go and get them. Now go read some awesome stuff.


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I always say if you're in a reading slump, jump outside your genre or audience. Read YA! There's some amazing and provocative work being published in YA.
I love this takeaway: "Just because it's readily available doesn't mean it's the best thing around."

Brenda St John Brown said...

*Clears throat to disagree*
I feel like you're playing on A LOT of outdated stereotypes here. Several of the self-published authors I know are killing it money-wise. Publishing houses give good advances for a select few and self-publishing is a way for that 20-year-old to make some money for him/herself. That's not a bad thing. Also, regardless of the literary merit of 50 Shades it, like Twilight, it got a whole lot of people reading again. That's not a bad thing either. As for formulaic writing, I think that can be an issue no matter whose work you read. One might argue that genre, itself, is formulaic - romance always has a HEA, thriller/mystery always has a whodunit. If you only read within one genre - and only from curated lists - the likelihood of finding the same story in different packaging is high. I agree that indie presses don't get enough love, but they're not the sole source of good books. Good books are all around us and, honestly, I'd rather see someone reading than glued to social media, even if they're reading a book I hated. Because at least it gives us something to talk about other than politics, climate change and cat videos. Not necessarily in that order.

Carrie Beckort said...

I agree with a lot of your comments, but I also agree with some of what Brenda said. Personally, I think it all about money. Most of the crap books I've read over the last couple years fell into two camps. The first was mainstream that tried to piggyback off the success of another book (for example, did you notice how many bestsellers last year had 'Girl' in the title?? And most of the covers looked like they used the same template.) It's the mentality that this one book sold great so let's clone it a 100 (slightly) different ways. The second is self-published books. It pains me to say that, but there are many who don't want to spend the money to edit, or on a professional cover. Or they know a particular formula works and they crank out a new 20k story a month, increase the font size/line spacing and call it a book. I'm self-published and I know there are a lot of great self-published books out there. But they are hard to find and you hit it on the head when you said people don't want to spend the time looking for them. They want someone else to tell them what's good, and then get turned off when it's not. Yet, a book I think is crap someone else I know will read it and love it. It's all very subjective.

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Interesting issues around publishing and what readers really want. I'll have to soak in this a while, I hadn't really thought about what's out there, why, and the forces shaping our literature. There is nothing better in life than a hot cup of coffee and a good book. I tend to favor non-fiction but love to lose myself in a good story with characters I can connect with, hope to be, emulate!

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