Another comment on “those popular crappy books”

TL; DR – shut up about bad books getting published.

With the release of Dan Brown’s new book, I expect to be getting more email from people complaining of HOW could he have gotten a book deal if he writes so poorly? How in the world did EL James make a shitton of money off of fanfic BDSM? Then undoubtedly they will point out why the books are so awful. Or mock them.

And I get it. I feel the jealousy, I get all Christmasy green and red with jealousy and rage. “So all I have to do is shit on a page and send it in and they will buy it? Is that it?” I say through a gin-soaked olive. (Then my editor calls me and tells me under no circumstances am I to send her feces.)

Tobias Buckell recently had an amazing blog post where he was talking mainly of book bloggers and pro reviewers, but it applied to authors as well.

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

This hit home so hard. I know the “rules” of storytelling, I can spot lazy sexist writing (Hello, Jim Butcher, hanging a lantern on Dresden’s lecherous eye doesn’t make it any better), the lack of a strong conflict, cardboard characters, weak motivation, and the classic “let’s save the big gun till the end instead of using it at the beginning and saving us all this trouble” (hello Iron Man 3, Babylon 5, and every episode of Power Rangers ever.) This distracts and annoys me. And I want to stand up and shout, “Does everyone else not SEE that Bella is suffering from emotional abuse? Why can’t you understand that Harry Potter telling us something “dully” in every goddamn chapter is weak writing?”

They won’t listen. My friends and colleagues will listen, toasting me with their drinks or their tubes of cookie dough or their drug of choice, and will sit and wonder why the “good” books go unnoticed. But the world at large? They won’t listen. Because they’re enjoying themselves.

And now we come up against the common battle between entertainment and art. But we have to admit that book selling is a business, and the publishers wish to make money. And, frankly, so do artists. Entertainment is what fits the majority of people. There will always be a place for the “important” literature, don’t get me wrong. But the entertaining stuff sells whether it sticks to the rules or not.

Because people want to be entertained. And the average person is not going to critique a book or a movie, they’re just going to watch, experience, and probably tell a friend if they loved it or hated it. If it didn’t move them at all, then you’ve got a problem. But Brown, James, Meyer, and whatever other author would sit accused in the court of your authorly opinion, only they’re busy counting their money so they didn’t answer their subpoena, they move people. And that makes people buy books.

So crap is getting published. Yeah. Happens all the time, and will continue to happen. What can you do about it?

  1. Shut up and write.
  2. Whine to people about how bad books get published. Which accomplishes both jack and shit.
  3. Get one of these “horrible” books from the library and find out just what it is that caused the books to sell in the first place. Brown spins a good, tense yarn with kick ass pacing, I understand. Stephanie Meyer learned how to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of being fifteen and in crazy love, and put it on the page. Rowling built Hogwarts and a ton of fun characters. They each hooked people and made them pay attention to their books, flawed or no.
  4. Did I mention shutting up and writing was an option?

Here’s the horrible secret: if your book follows every rule, gets rid of adverbs and passive voice, has grammatically perfect sentences and a solid three act arc, no one will care* if the book doesn’t grab them in some way.

John Scalzi said it better than I did. Also his new book is out and I highly recommend it.

* Your mom will. Also, your English teacher will be pleased you know how to use a semi-colon.

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2 Responses to Another comment on “those popular crappy books”

  1. Blue says:

    Quick query: are you saying that you consider Harry Potter a bad book or just using it as an example?

    • Mur Lafferty says:

      Nah, I love Harry Potter. But Rowling uses adverbs as if she thinks salting every bite is a good way to eat, and considering new writers are told to cut all adverbs, and she was a billionaire, that’s a mixed message of writerly advice vs reality.

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