Monday, June 3, 2019

Five Reasons Why Some of What You're Reading Probably Sucks

That book you're reading right now? It probably sucks. I see folks on social media every week complaining that they can't find a book that holds their interest. On the other hand, at least half my friends are excited about what they're reading as I man. I sat down and studied the differences between these two groups (something I had already done once in 2013 for an article I wrote for the now defunct ManArchy Magazine). Anyway, maybe you belong to the lucky group and your current read is amazing. That's great. However, if it sucks and you belong to the large group of readers in this country that are unhappy with what they read, this is for you. If your current read is mediocre, I bet it's also an overpriced and awfully-written formulaic mess full of clichés. Before you start screaming in defense of your book or decide to come looking for me with pitchforks and offended scowls because you love all you read, remember what I said: maybe what you're reading is awesome. We cool? Then here are five reasons a bunch of books out there suck. 

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. Every Big Five publishers puts out a few gems every year. They publish stuff that changes the literary landscape and make readers everywhere happy. Sadly, those tomes are not the majority of what they do. Publishing is a money-driven machine that worries about profits, not great literature. Sure, the major publishing houses, as I mentioned above, put out great books every year, but compared to the barrage of celebrity memoirs, big name rehashes, pedestrian thrillers/erotica/horror/etc., and the simply unbelievably dull junk they put out there, the percentage is very small. Think of it in gastronomic terms: the largest chains sell the most burgers, but they don'r make the best burgers, do they?  

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 or COSTCO, that author doesn't need help spreading the word about his work. Sadly, trying to help out self-published authors means reviewers often have to read unedited books. While there are superb self published novels out there that deserve best-sellers status (and some actually get there with re-releases), 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. I say this online once in a while and a hundred angry authors tell me they do it all the time and they're great writers and editors and I'm wrong and blah blah blah. You can pay attention to them. The best writers I know? Well, they thank their editors at the end of the book. No money to hire one? Get a friend to do it. No friends? Ask your significant other for a pair of fresh eyes. Got $20? There are editors like me who charge a pay-what-you-can amount because we know how poor most of us are. 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.

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 whom 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 upon 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), but most awful wastes of paper out there came to be thanks to an agent. Conversely, some of the most astonishing, award-winning books I've read in the past decade were repeatedly rejected by dozens of agents and eventually published by indie presses or found an agent that believed in them wit all their heart and soul and made the book happen. This doesn't mean agents are the only ones to blame blame for the vast array of horrible literature occupying shelf space out there; it only means that agents play an important role in getting authors who can't write a decent paragraph to publish trilogies. Likewise, they get people like Paul Tremblay and Josh Malerman into the mainstream, and for that we love them. Most of my favorite writers have agents, and that speaks for itself. 

4. Lack of focus

Many authors, old and new, have lost focus. John Skipp, best-selling author and editor extraordinaire, talked in his blog 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. Many authors know what is selling and thus favor formulas over insightful writing and think agents 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.

5. Your own nauseating complacency

While all of the above are good reasons why your current read could be 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. Don't blame agents or publishers or writers: what you crave is out there if you look hard enough. 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.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, professor, book reviewer, and journalist living in Austin, TX. He is the author of ZERO SAINTS and COYOTE SONGS. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.  

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