All Those Bad Books!
I’ve written before about how I get tired of writers complaining about all the “bad books” that get published. As a writer, it can be extremely frustrating to work your tail off, trying to master the craft, trying to “follow all the rules” of good writing… then open up any number of books and be able to point out how horrible they are. They don’t follow the rules. They’re not interesting. They feel like they’re written by formula. Etc.
I agree, there are plenty of published books that many of us would think are horrendous. (Of course, we wouldn’t all agree on which books are horrendous.)
Yet the reality is that once you’re a writer, that kind of complaining sounds like sour grapes. It may not be sour grapes. Maybe it’s not jealousy or resentment. Maybe it’s simply recognizing what you see as truth. But as a member of the writing community, complaining about “all the bad books out there” sounds arrogant as well as hypercritical and bitter.
If you’re just a reader, someone outside the community of people who produce books, you can complain and criticize all you want. But once you decide to join the club, I think it’s time to take the high road. I think the appropriate thing to do is to try our darnedest to lift other writers up, not put them down. I think it’s best to try and honor the process of other writers, even if we can’t admire their work. And we need to acknowledge that if a “bad book” is selling, there must be people who like it.
Because the truth is, when we put down other writers, it sounds like we’re saying “I can do better than this” and it’s unattractive, no matter how true. If you can do better, then do it. Sell it. Reap the rewards.
The classiest people are the ones who are at the height of success, yet when looking “down” on those less successful or even less talented, they always speak in ways that build others up rather than tear them down.
Now, I’m not talking about a situation in which you’re giving an actual review of a book, or you’ve been asked to give your opinion about someone’s writing. Honesty is called for, and I’m not asking you to lie simply to be positive.
But we are a community of professionals. We are artists. While there is certainly a place for legitimate opinions (“That book didn’t appeal to me, and here’s why” or “I don’t believe this book has reached the level of publishable quality yet”) I don’t think there’s a place for the sour grapes complaining. “How did that dreck get published? And if publishers will buy THAT, why won’t they buy MY book?”
So let’s be professionals. Let’s treat one another with respect, honoring our membership in this great community of book lovers. Let’s try to avoid complaining about the “bad books” and simply concentrate on reading and writing good ones.
© 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
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>I agree completely. I also think even if I dislike a book, but lots and lots of other people, there is still something to be learned from it.
>Awesome post. I couldn’t agree more. Lifting other people up always feels so much better than knocking them, doesn’t it? Everything is published for some reason, right?
>Rachelle,Your post makes me wonder, why are writer’s bothering to read bad books anyway? Personally, I only read bestselling authors: Gaiman, Koontz, Collins, Rowlings, Sachar…I read to learn the craft. I figure the best way to learn the craft is to read work from the best authors, the great authors. The bestselling stories.I don’t window shop books. I research them on Goodreads and Amazon, check the word count, check the genre, find out who the author is and what else they’ve done.What I write will reflect what I read. So I don’t bother with anything that’s not written by a bestselling author. That doesn’t mean I’ll be a bestselling writer, but it certainly must increase the odds (at least more so than someone who’s reading bad books).I agree, we shouldn’t complain about bad books. In fact, we shouldn’t even be reading them.
>It could be worse. It could be television.
Anyway, I see where you are coming from and I agree, if only in principle. That is the high road to which we should aspire.
Have I asked myself "How did this get published?" or "How did this sell so well?" Yes. Have I ever dropped what I was reading in disgust? Yes. Do I want to dwell on that? No. I have my own career to consider. I need to focus on that.
Nor do I want to alienate my own fans by constantly ripping on everything else they read. I hope I never develop that kind of ridiculous giant ego.
At the same time, I can't lie about what I don't like, even if it means constantly pleading the 5th. What do I do though, If I feel that something is not just of a poor quality, but is actually harmful to its readers or viewers?
>Great post, Rachelle. Before I started writing with commitment I might have tossed a book aside with: "Huh, anyone could write that." Now I know better and I admire anyone with the guts to finish a novel, let alone find a publisher. Good on them.
>I respect any writer who's managed to get themselves published. And more often than not, whether a book is good or bad is less about ability than about the personal tastes of the person making the assessment. I've read–or should I say started–countless books I didn't like, yet I wouldn't say the author couldn't write.
>I find the opposite has become true for me – I'm much more open to reading what I may have considered a "poorly written," or "bad," book than I was before my books were published. Because I know writing the book is hard work, yes, but all the 'stuff' that comes after it is difficult and stressful.
My hat's off to those who put their heads down, write their books, and then are slung out into the world with their face bared to whatever will come.
>Amen, it does come across as petty, and that's never good.
Besides, we should all remember all those psychological studies that show that whenever you talk about someone else, the listener unconsciously attributes whatever characteristics you describe to you. So, if you talk about liars, they think–often subconsciously–that you're a liar. If you say someone is intelligent, they'll ascribe that intelligence to you. So, if a writer talks about bad writers…
>Yes, most definitely! We should all be striving to do our best as well as encouraging each other. We're all at diff points of our writing journey, and some of the "liking" is pretty subjective anyway, or whether something is "well written."
>An excellent post and I totally agree. I am amazed at the petty grumbling of writers about, for eg, Stephanie Meyers books. Lets give credit where credit's due. All authors work hard and should be respected for that.
I rejoice for those who are published and if they sell lots of books I rejoice more. Where I read a book that I consider poor, I am honest in a review but not annoyed that it was published. It gives me hope that if someone will publish that, then there's hope for me too.
I also make sure that I read books as a reader, not as a writer. I think that stops us picking on petty things.
I like to support other authors by giving M-Awards for Speculative Fiction to those who ( regardless of whether or not they break the writing 'rules') write memorable books with a bit of meaning beyond just a nice story.
>So true. the unfortunate thing about becoming a writer, is that you suddenly think you know what you're talking about. (or at least you tell yourself that)
I find it really hard to read other peoples work now, because I'm learning about all the mistakes I'm making, and I see it in their work–then I cringe.
But, it boils down to cold, hard, green-eyed jealousy. I want to be published too!!! However, I only criticise in my head, and with a slight roll of the eye. When I give a review, it is constructive, informative and light-hearted. I always point out what I like. I hope others do the same.
>We all want respect in what we do. Why is it so hard to give it? It takes hard work to complete a book – that is something to be commended in itself. I think we can dwell too much on the "bad books" and miss seeing the forest for the trees. I know that for me it's just jealousy that makes me think that way – until I snap out of it. I have better things to do with my time than count up what is good and what is bad. Im only responsible for myself.
Happy Holidays Rachelle!
>Absolutely agree, Rachelle. One reason my blog only reviews books I recommend is that I find positive reviews much more rewarding to write and more useful than negative ones. There are plenty of books I don't want to read, but I love it when someone I respect tells me why I SHOULD read one – I'm likely to buy it the same day. In addition, only reviewing the "good ones" keeps me positive and sends a great message to the writers whose books I do recommend (and thre are a lot of them!)
>"I think the appropriate thing to do is to try our darnedest to lift other writers up, not put them down."
Bravo! Great post, Rachel.
>I think it's a case of everything in it's proper place, plus an understanding of the subjectivity of people in general. For example, if I'm writing reviews on my Examiner.com page, I could be negative, but I tend to pick books I like for review. There are so many good ones that this takes all my time. If I really don't like a book, I simply don't review it. I recognize the fact that there are probably a lot of people, plus the editor and publishing house, who did like the book, because not everyone likes the same stuff.
In my writing critique group, we're open, but not malicious, about what we do or do not like about other books. We feel this helps us grow as writers. This is done in a small group, however, and our opinions stay there (except the ones I share with my spouse).
In my reading group, I can let my hair down a little. I don't come to the group as a writer, but entirely as a reader, since the books are adult books, and I write for children. Generally, the group members find aspects they both like and dislike about every book. An example of this would be one book that I felt was the best written book I'd read in awhile. In spite of this, I disliked the story because it was very dark, and not up my alley. The author had great skill. I just didn't care for her application of it. That's why publishers publish different books. We all have different tastes.
But I do agree that it sounds bad when a writer grumbles about the bad books. It's not unlike someone grumbling about bad mechanics, bad lawyers, bad teachers, etc. When it comes right down to it, it doesn't do any good, and it just highlights the negative. Life is so short and there are so many great books out there. Let's look for the good and put the spotlight there!
>Cheers and hooray for class!
Hello from Florida.
>This is wonderful and I totally agree. I've always loved books and loved writing, and even if I didn't like a book I still knew that someone out there must like it. This business is so subjective, so we can't really say what makes a book good or bad- we all have our own opinions. Once I started blogging I realized how tight this community is. I would never think of bashing someone's writing or book. We all are struggling to make the best book out there, and we're all in the same boat. Respect is key in this business.
>I think your point is well taken. I write both fiction and non-fiction, and obviously I want to know if someone finds an error in the latter. I may or may not be the foremost authority on the subject and if someone knows something I missed I want to hear about it. In terms of fiction, though, everyone has different ideas about what makes a good novel. I like mine, I probably like yours . . . but if I don't I won't broadcast the fact. Anything published took a great deal of work and probably made the author proud.
>I agree that these types of complaints sound like jealousy. It's more productive to analyze what made a book popular — what resonated with readers. It's foolish to think that an extremely popular book is dreck when so many people have enjoyed it. I'm not saying to emulate the formula — but to be cognizant that the writer got something right.
>Another thing to remember is by criticizing other books like this, you're inviting even more scrutiny of your own work. After all, if you have room to criticize, your books better be perfect, or at least really really good with not even a hint of the same flaws, right?
>Good advice Rachelle.
Also I want to thank you for taking the time to go through some of these oldie but goodie posts and recycling them.
>Every writer can always do better – and worse – on every book, even if they didn't author it originally, lol.
Being positive and encouraging while maintaining honesty is the most professional way to behave and can only help ourselves in the long run.
>I'm with you on this one. My critique of fellow writers has softened considerably over the years, especially now that I see how much work is poured into a novel. In fact I've posted about this before. And yeah, life's too short not to read good books. I'm not afraid to put a book down if I'm not feeling it. There are too many good ones out there that require my attention.
>I wonder why we think it's necessary to express our opinion at all.
We may not always realize the effect of making negative comments but most of us can remember being the recipient of unintentionally hurtful words. I like Thumper's mother's reminder: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all."
Have a blessed and joy-filled Christmas, Rachelle.
>The comments that are hard for me to respond to are the ones about the state of children's literature. When people discover I'm a children's author, I sometimes get comments like, "It's about time something good is published for kids. There's lots of junk out there."
It's frustrating because I support my fellow authors, feel there is amazing work out there, and also suspect those commenting aren't very well read in kidlit.
>Very well said, Ms. Gardner. I recently chastised myself for doing this very thing and resolved to be more respectful of the work that writers go through. But I think the distinction you make between an honest review/critique and just complaining is a good one. It's absolutely acceptable to give a respectful review or critique, even if it's a bit subjective, as long as "respectful" is the operative word.
>Mediocrity tends to be praised in all the arts. It's a little sad, but it doesn't make me feel bitter for a couple of reasons–1) I realize I haven't yet risen above that level myself and 2) I can always find books that do rise above that level. I like to browse new book tables and racks to discover new authors. Sometimes I'm excited by what I find, other times disappointed. But I can always find something. It seems strange that other readers can't find any books to read. What genre or type of book is missing? I'd be interested to know this. I realize the Christian section at B&N is saturated with bonnet books (at least the one nearest me is). That's too bad, I think. But the CBA isn't–I just picked up a Tosca Lee book, for example. It's fantastic!
>Okay, I admit — in the past, I've been one of those whiny complainers. I recall more than one occasion in which I finished a book, put it down, and exclaimed haughtily to my husband, "Seriously? How did that book get published? No fair!"
But here is the key line that is making me change my tune:
"And we need to acknowledge that if a "bad book" is selling, there must be people who like it."
Who am I to judge what's "good" and what's not? There are a lot of readers out there…all with different tastes.
I'm stepping down from my self-righteous high horse! Thanks for telling it like it is, Rachelle.
>Like some of the other commentors, I would like the opoportunity to have my published "bad book" criticized by the public.
However, as an aspiring author, rather that being frustrated by opening "bad books" that don't "follow the rules," I'm frustrated by following all the rules for queries and getting rejection letters from interns.
Or being ignored completely.
In any case, it has been my experience that the general sense of professionalism that you mention in your post, has not been generally extended to me.
Perhaps, it is just a sense of disappointment that exaggerates my sensitivity to rejection.
Perhaps, it is just a false sense of superiority and power that agents enjoy exercising.
Perhaps, it is all just a dream. Or a nightmare.
>I've stopped complaining about all the bad books. My learning curve has been somewhat slow, but I've finally realized how arrogant that is. Besides, what's bad to me might be awesome to someone else.
>When I review for the Portal, I try to do book reviews the same way I adjudicate singers. Pulling a Simon Cowell on folks is not only cruel, but a waste of time if the advice is meant to help the writer/singer improve. I try to give very specific praise and criticism, and point out the good in addition to the bad.
I know I was one of the guilty sour grape people when I first got started. Then I realized that though my idea was very good, my execution of it on paper would have looked better in crayon. I think we all have a blind spot when we compare our visualized idea to what we've actually written.
>Mike, you make an interesting point, but I think it's important to distinguish between two types of "rules." Prose style rules are a crucial way for most of us to learn to write stronger, more interesting prose. Hey, it's not just writing groups who think so. Look at Strunk and White. The rules of good style have been around for a long time. Those rules eliminate wordiness and encourage variety in our lexicons. Of course, they can be taken too far. Sometimes when we're writing in close third, our characters are going to think in ways that do not reflect perfect style. But I have benefitted from the rules of good prose style, and so have most writers I know. Those who follow style rules tend to produce better writing, not worse.
The question of formulaic plots and characters is different. But we have to be fair to other writers and understand a couple of things. First, it's not always the writer's choice to write to a formula. Sometimes, a publishing house contracts a novel and then afterwards asks the writer to push her story towards formula in order to appeal to a certain audience. The writer has the option to either do it or walk away from the contract. We should not disrespect writers who work hard, even if a certain writer's material differs from our individual taste. Instead, we should support them even more, knowing that it can be hard and frustrating to be asked to write to formula. In addition, the idea of "formula" is relative. Literary fiction writers think all genre fiction is formulaic. American literary realists got into trouble in the late nineteeth century for not wrapping up their plots in neat little packages at the end. Most screenplays are written to a page-numbered formula so strict that novelists cringe when we hear about it. So yes, formula exists, but everyone has a different level of tolerance for how much of it we enjoy. So we need to remember that as writers, we're all working with a unique set of reader tastes, goals, and requirements from our publishers, and show some compassion for all situations. If we don't, Providence may decide to serve us up some humble pie one day, in the form of a particularly difficult project. 😉
>Malin, I'm not chastising anyone for having an opinion or giving a book an honest review. I'm reacting to the writers who comment on agent blogs with a spirit of bitterness. I've seen it on my blog and others for years. "The publishing industry sucks, they don't publish anything good, I can't find one book in the whole entire bookstore good enough for me, why does all this junk get published, why won't anyone notice MY book, etc etc."
>I definitely agree that being overly negative can reflect badly on wannabe writers (like me!) regardless of intent. It's not that you have to claim to love everything you read, but being more specific can help. Instead is saying "It's dreck and I hated it" you can say "It moved too slowly and the characters didn't hold my Interest." It's so easy to think you could do better, but when you write and rewrite your own novel you see how hard it really is.
>It's all relative. Everyone will be entertained differently. I believe reading everything, even the books outside my comfort or entertainment zones helps me in my own writing.
>Here here Rachelle,
While competition is an imperative part of progression….our competition should always be ourselves. We are on our own road of progress and should always strive to make this book better than the last…this blog better than the first. As I keep this in mind it helps to regulate that prideful banter that sometimes enters my thoughts.
>I'm a reader as well as a writer, and as a writer I recognise the strife in all other writers and admire them for it.
As a reader, I want my books to knock me off my feet and into a happy daze. And there are not many books that does that. In fact, I trash (i.e. give to charity) more books than I read to the end.
I'm professional enough to separate my role as a reader and that as a writer. Is that something for which to be chastised?
>One of the reasons I love being published by Ellora's Cave is the absolute professionalism of everyone who writes for the company.
Professionalism is essential, I think. I review, as well as write, but I'm always careful to review that book, not the author, and if I don't like it, I state the specific reasons, because someone else may well love it for the same reasons.
>With every paragraph I complete, my respect for ANY author who has completed a novel increases. In fact, those so-called bad novels give me hope, because if they can be published, then even my first attempt stands a chance!
>Even if a book doesn't appeal to me I do try and find something positive within the pages, because there invariably is something there. Just because I'm not engaged with a story (for whatever reason), doesn't mean I can't learn something from it.
Also, having written a novel, I do appreciate the hard work that goes into creating a story from start to finish and would be reluctant to dismiss another's efforts.
>As a reader and aspiring author, I think it's like musical taste or choosing a name for your baby from the top ten popular list. People want to read what they relate to and what touches them. If they know an autistic person, they will read every book published. If structure or style is not exactly up to par, maybe it's not important. We are all competing for one another's time and energy. As with anything, what comes out of my mouth needs to be edifying, and that's all. Susan Anderson
>Amen. I take great pleasure in saying I enjoyed The DaVinci Code (which I did) when I'm in a room full of artistes. 🙂 What's "worthy" is purely subjective. Also, when you down a writer because of the (so-called) dreck he or she produces, you're also downing all the readers who enjoy reading that person. I really believe there's enough room for all of us. And playing nice in the sandbox is good for everyone.
>Rachelle, this is important advice. It is so easy to get a chip on our shoulder and, in the process, lose sight of our own goal, which is writing a better book.
I wonder that part of the problem here is the reinforcement of rules by writing groups — passives, POV, adverbs, etc. Many critique groups tend to overemphasize (probably unintentionally) a formulaic approach to story. So when we see that "formula" bypassed or those "rules" broken, we rail against the offender. Much of the complaints about "bad books" can be traced back to writers who are beholden to rules. Just a thought. Have a great holiday, Rachelle!
>The only "bad book" is mine that's not published. I only wish I had one out there so people could criticize it.
>I've felt that published books have been terrible since long before I ever joined the writing community. My sentiments have simply not changed. If so many people keep saying this, then what does that say about the industry? Maybe there is a problem.
I'm not one to say anything negative publicly about any author's books, but I don't think I need to pretend to like the books, either. If something's not working, then it needs to be changed.
Though I'll admit it took me a while to learn this one 🙂
>Bravo! I used to review books for a major city newspaper and tried to be kind even if the novel wasn't my cup of tea–after all, it was for a general readership.
Now that I've tried to write and rewrite my own novel, I applaud those authors who got published. Getting reviewed in a major newspaper is a big deal, so I tried my best to be objective and kind.
I've learned that writing a novel isn't as easy as it seems, and publishing one is even harder. The least we can do is show some respect for those who traveled that road before us.
>I don't say there are a lot of bad books out there, but I do believe publishers are catering mainly to certain groups and all but ignoring some of us. I only started writing because I could rarely find the kinds of books that I wish to read.
>It's not so much as that there are "bad" books out there, it's just that there's a market for certain types of books aimed at readers with a proven taste. For instance, I may think that writer XYZ is bad because she does stuff I'd strongly advise my authors not to (and here I'm speaking as an editor) but her books sell because she's captured a market.
I may not agree, hey, and no one's holding a gun to my head to force me to read her books. I am, however, allowed my opinion, which I'll put out if and when I review an author's books for a publication (which I do as part of my day-job) but then I word my opinion in such a way that I would be more than happy to say it to her face, or intend it as constructive criticism if author would see it as such.