I'm definitely in the trough of my reading biorhythm (not to mention showing my age by using the word "biorhythm"). I think we all experience these ebbs and flows. For a while, we'll read one fantastic book after another, and every day is an adventure. Then, we hit a bad patch where we think (with respects to Peggy Lee), "Is that all there is?" And if the answer to that question is Yes, then we might as well start spending all of our time hyperlinking around on an iPad or watching a lot more TV.
Unfortunately, I'm in one of those down periods where most of the published work I've read in the past month or so has been ... well, to be frank about it (and why blog here at Mysterious Matters if I can't be frank?), pretty damn awful. Just about every book I'm alluding to here has been published within the last couple of years (I'm usually six months behind, at a minimum).
So I had to ask myself, "What is it, exactly, that makes these books so bad?" I think we in this industry have long been operating on hunches, as well as using past performance to predict future results. One of the benefits I'm getting out of this blog is the fact that it's making me try to quantify things a bit more exactly. Why, then, have the last 5 or 6 books I've read been so unsatisfying? Here goes:
1. They read as if they were written by committee. And there's a reason for that: They probably were. There have been huge changes in this business over the last thirty years, but what I've seen happening, especially in the last five or six years, is writers becoming much more savvy about playing the game in order to get published. Most writers know they have to please an agent first, and then an editor. So they look at what's selling and very carefully hedge their bets. For this reason, I'm seeing very little that's fresh, distinctive, or different. Of course, we smaller houses continue to publish on the cutting edge, but there's a reason writers come to us - They've been rejected too many times by agents and the big publishers. In every one of the books I'm writing about here, I saw zero sprezzatura in the writing. Everything seems calculated to get that contract and appeal to those Readers whose tastes we supposedly know and understand.
2. The characters are stripped of characteristics that make them human. Characters are supposed to be engaging, interesting, quirky, unpredictable, imperfect. Let's face it, we can encounter boring people every day of our lives - we want more colorful people in our fiction. But writers seem terrified of being politically incorrect or doing anything that would make readers say "Oh, I don't like this person." Now, there is a reason for that, which I blogged about a few weeks ago: Reviewers, and some of the most prolific of them, post angry reviews in which they equate not liking a character with a "bad book," and everyone is terrified of that - authors, publishers, publicists, everyone. As a result, we're seeing a great leveling in characters around a certain set of "acceptable," boring traits that we see again and again.
3. There is a distinct lack of artistic ambition. All of these books had nothing to say. Now, I realize I am walking a fine line here. I publish genre fiction, not literary fiction; and I understand that we are all working within the constraints of formula. These books set out to tell a story - usually, not a very good one - but I saw no ambition in the writing, no underlying themes, nothing to bring any resonance to the reading experience at all. I wonder how many writers are stripping their works of such leitmotifs as a bow to expedience, after being told "agents and publishers don't want that." The really crazy thing is that some of our most successful writers are successful precisely because they dig a little deeper. Laura Lippman, for example, often explores different sides of a controversy; there's more to a Laura Lippman novel than a simple unfolding of events. When I saw a recent review of a Lippman book putting it into the "chick-lit" category, I was as enraged as Laura Lippman herself (assuming she would have been enraged, which she had a right to be). Her books aren't candy, though they do read quickly, and I think many of her devoted readers know that they are often getting more than formula when they pick up her latest book.
4. These books are not well written. Some time ago, I did a post on what "well-written" means. I think the phrase is sort of like "pornography": We know well-written when we see it. I was amazed, and saddened, by just how flat the language was in these books - how clunky the sentences - how labored and sophomoric the execution. And to think these books had ostensibly been through a long and arduous vetting process! What must they have looked like in manuscript? What made an agent or a publisher think, "Oh yes, I must pay good money for this"? Granted, several of these awful books are series books, and as a society I think we have sent writers the signal that we will keep buying their books, no matter how bad they are, because we want to know what happens. Good for us publishers (and I am guilty of publishing books that I know will sell), bad for readers.
5. They exhibit poor editorial judgment. I try to read as a reader, not as an editor; but I don't always succeed. As I read these books, I kept thinking, "Why is this here? It's useless." "Oh not, not this AGAIN. How hackneyed." "Couldn't SOMEBODY have fixed this sentence?" "Please, you're not nearly as clever or witty as you think you are." I would have pulled the plug completely on two of these books, sending the author back to the drawing board. Interestingly, when I checked sales estimates on these books, I saw that none of them did that well, and one had quite a push from the publisher. Some of the books were by mid-list authors who are limping along, probably fulfilling the terms of a multi-book contract, back from the days when those were de rigeur. I know how embittered "dropped" authors can become, but there are alternatives these days. They've had their chance; now it's time to give somebody else a shot at the big time.
NOTE to writers: I am NOT suggesting that you up-end any advice you've been given from agents and writing groups; I'm also NOT suggesting that you explode the conventions of the genre and submit a brave piece of writing that only a few people will understand, and who will then tell you that "fiction has become very competitive these days, and editors just aren't taking chances." But I sure do wish I could climb out of this reading funk, and that's the type of book that's going to help me do that.