Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Circles of Literary Hell

"But, you don't actually think that's good, do you?"

It was usually Harry Potter they were asking about. It's the kind of question you get asked when you're a writer, and the kind of question you get asked even more when you're a literature professor.

I always watched to see if they were surprised or disappointed when I said yes, not only did I like the Harry Potter books (and I do - I usually reread the series once a year), but that I also thought they were good. I've taught the books at two different universities. 

(We all understand that there is a difference between liking a book and thinking it is good, right? And that we can acknowledge a book is good without liking it, and that just because we don't like it doesn't mean it's not good? We get all that, right? Excellent.)

Though now that I'm not teaching, the question takes on an expectation of professional jealousy. Like, what do I think about E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, and doesn't it bother me that they sell all those copies when "good" writers don't?

I use the scare quotes for a reason.

You may have noticed that Dan Brown has a new book out, and so the literati are yet again having convulsions over the fact that he is going to sell eleventy million copies, and make approximately a bazillion dollars, and that this is clearly horrid, because he can't actually write, and really, wouldn't it be better if someone actually good made those sales and that money.

Look, Dan Brown is not my kind of writer. I don't like his prose on the sentence-level (and sentence-level prose is something that matters to me as a reader) and if you ever want to see me go into a wild-eyed and snarly-haired rant, do ask me about the portrayal of medieval history and theology in The DaVinci Code. But the fact that he (or James, or Meyer, or fill in the name of whatever writer we're collectively grumpy about this week) is going to sell all those copies doesn't bother me in the least. In fact, as a writer, I find it very interesting, because clearly he is doing something in his writing that a lot of people respond to. 

When we read, we read for any number of reasons. Maybe we read for beautiful prose, or for hot sex, or to watch clever people solve mysteries, or to educate ourselves, or to scare ourselves silly, or because of great characters, or a fast-moving plot. Maybe we look for a combination of those things. And writers tend to have different things that they are interested in doing in their writing, sometimes even from book to book. There isn't a magic formula for success - either critical or financial. If there were, we'd get the checklist with our editorial notes.

And I have a real problem with this idea that only what is "good" deserves financial success, or that something is off when what is "not good" sells eleventy billion copies.  Because I think there is a judgment implied there that carries over to the reader - like, we can dismiss the thoughts of Twilight fans, because we've already decided we can dismiss Twilight.

One of the best undergraduate papers I ever received was a comparison of lycanthropy in Twilight and in the lais of Marie de France. It is - and I know this is going to shock some of you - possible to like to read a wide variety of books from a wide variety of writers. People read for all sorts of reasons.

I'm not saying that I think writers and books should be immune to criticism, that we cannot rigorously discuss the flaws in a work. I absolutely think we should have those discussions. But I think they should be discussions based on the actual works, not our perceptions of what they will be, or must be. And that we should be very careful in our evaluation of a book (or of anything else), not to imply that there is a right way to respond to it, that there is something lacking in a reader who actually thinks it's good.

28 comments:

  1. My problem is not with the writers, but with the publishers who choose to promote their books. Why not market something well-written? Or, why not edit these things so they have some sort of literary merit? How about some pride in the words they "push" rather than only considering the dollar signs? Ugh.

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    1. and why force the consumer to only be able to purchase what you personally consider good?

      I understand people who are upset about the quality of books people read commonly as much as I would understand someone getting pissed that Danielle Steel sells books.

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    2. It is frustrating, but without those dollar signs, they lose the ability to publish anything by going out of business.

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    3. You've already failed the original premise of this discussion by assuming that the books the publishers choose to push aren't well-written. How did you arrive at this conclusion? If the answer isn't "I read and analyzed these works personally" then you're part of the problem here, not the solution.

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    4. "Why not market something well-written?"

      I think this statement is an example of exactly the point Kat is making actually. Because "you" as a reader or an individual at the "publisher" deem something "well-written" or not is ephemeral, and utterly subjective.

      A literature scholar's "well-written" is going to differ from the average 1-book-a-year reader's "well-written"...so throwing the statement you did above out there sort of exemplifies the issue Kat is getting to the heart of, which Scalzi also recently opined on himself, in that it hurts no one for those books you don't care for (or find poorly written in your opinion) to be published, promoted, and sold...you can still find your own notion of "well-written" out there in the wild, and enjoy it. They can exist simultaneously, and the one does not hurt the other.

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    5. The thing is, publishing is a business. The bottom line is, publishers need to make money, or they go out of business. And if something does sell a lot of copies, why edit it to make it something different than what it is - a book a lot of people are going to buy?

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    6. I have to disagree with Scott somewhat - "well-written" is not entirely subjective. Correct grammar, sentence structure that doesn't make your head spin, word usage vs. overusage (there's a popular critic site that actually tracks how many times the words "whisper" and "murmur" appear per chapter in the 50 Shades books) - all those are factors in whether or not a story is well-written. And that's just at the sentence level; you can also look for plot holes and consistent characterization, flow, tension, pacing... the list goes on.

      Putting effort into those areas constitutes the CRAFT behind storytelling. A story IDEA can be compelling, creative, engaging to audiences - and still be poorly CRAFTED. That was the opening premise of the article - that there is a difference between a story we like, and a good story, and ideally those two categories overlap, but the fact of the matter is that they often don't.

      In my opinion, this still doesn't explain 50 Shades, which is neither compelling nor well-crafted; the only explanation I have for that is that there is a terrible shortage of good erotica and so people are willing to make do with whatever they can find, even if it sucks.

      Regardless, "why not market something well-written" is not only a good question, it's entirely feasible. Publishers have editors on staff for a reason (again, no explanation for 50 Shades since it apparently never even walked past an editor's desk, much less sat on it for any length of time).

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  2. I direct you to the eternal wisdom of a cranky old man:

    "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."

    -- Kurt Vonnegut

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  3. Well written. It always makes me uncomfortable when people make sweeping generalizations about groups of people. Historically, this attitude has not played out well. Saying "everyone who likes ______ is ______" is bad news bears. Thanks for the post.

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  4. Great post! I admit I've been guilty of snarking on what I think is bad writing making piles of money, but... It IS "what I think". Obviously other readers disagree with me, and that's good. Diversity is always a positive thing, and as long as people want to read books, I can't really complain.

    Besides, I have some definite "guilty pleasures" in books, films, TV, etc. -- and I would defend my love for them too. No matter how "bad" other people tell me they are.

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  5. Once I read, somewhere (sorry I don't remember where), that the major fault in Mayer's books wasn't Mayers herself but her editor and the lack of control/supervision over such an unexperienced writer.

    *excuse me if there's any error, english isn't my mother tongue.
    Alejandro

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  6. Kurt Vonnegut once complained how often he- and contemporaries- were expected to slate Stephen King during promotional interviews, stating that he had no problem with King making money as the common denominator is what all SF writers secretly strive for.

    Like King, Brown Meyer Pattison et al have got the knack of getting a story across with the minimum of fuss. Stephen King admits he dropped the literary flourishes as they put the casual reader off of the story- claiming he himself struggled to read early drafts of the Gunslinger. Likewise Brown fails to work at a sentence level but as a whole the story is a good adventure (if massively inaccurate).

    Large groups of youngsters discovering a book and discussing it must never be discouraged.

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  7. Excellent post! I like reading a wide variety of books, sometimes I want something deep and thought-provoking, other days I prefer something that may not resonate as deeply and is just a lighthearted read. Just as sometimes I fancy a roast and other times a tube of Pringles hits the spot.

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  8. These so-called 'bad' books do give a lot of people a tremendous amount of pleasure (Insert your own '50 Shades of Grey' joke here) and essentially isn't that what books are about? It's much easier to give 10 reasons to champion something you loved than 10 reasons belittling something you hated. I think it really just boils down to the old idea that 'if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all'.

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  9. I don't have a problem with non-literary books doing well. I consider it in a similar vein as reality television; it's not my jam, but it has it's place. "Blockbuster" books keep publishers in business allowing for all kinds of other books to be published alongside them.

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  10. I had a wonderful literature professor who taught not only the classics in his classes, but also books that were popular in whatever time period or genre we were studying. His reasoning was that popular books often give more insight into a time period or group of people than a classic would, and I've found this to be very true. Look at the NYT Best Seller list, or better yet, the Amazon Kindle Best Sellers (what we read when no one is looking). Not exactly high-brow literature here.

    I think popular books and classy lit both have a place in the world, and in our libraries and Kindles :)

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  11. I'm a great advocate for "bad" books. I read more trashy fanfiction than I care to admit too. I have no issue with books I consider "bad" being popular, but books that promote dangerous relationships, I definitely have a problem with. There's a few examples in the Twilight series that really put my hackles up, but the one that got me was the woman who had heavy scarring on her face from where the brother of a man she was dating had attacked her after she'd refused to date him. She'd married the brother instead because it was an imprint that had "made" him act that way and the imprint indicated they were soulmates. I was so freaked out that in a book that was all about teenage romance, there was this hidden implication that a person would have no choice but to stay if a violent partner had said they were meant to be together. It was a really shocking thing to read, let alone realise that some of the people I knew who had read it couldn't see the problem with it.

    (And don't even get me started on Edward. There's some great posts out there exploring domestic abuse in relationships and his relationship with Bella.)

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    1. Oh, so do I! I love my "bubblegum" same as I love some movies that have no real value beyond "that was fun!" - but when it comes to reading, if you market it to me and tell me it's bubblegum, I at least won't be angry. Whereas if you take bubblegum and try to package and market it as "groundbreaking work", I'll get cranky.

      50 Shades started out as Twilight fanfic and can supposedly still be found online under its original title.

      Twilight started as Buffy fanfic: the author started with Buffy as her template, then removed everything that made her recognizable as Buffy, turning her into a passive, clumsy introvert as opposed to a sassy, athletic extrovert; then applied her adolescent outlook on love and adolescent insecurity to a vampire that is basically an Angel caricature.

      50 Shades took that same story, removed the supernatural, played up the possessive stalker tendencies in the male lead even more, played up the vapid stupidity in the female lead even more - and then made them adults instead of adolescents, and added lots and lots of (badly written and researched) sex.

      It's bubblegum, except it doesn't even have the virtue of being put together well, and it was marketed as something special instead of something that might be fun to chew on, taste good, and have no nutritional value to it.

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  12. I'm so happy that someone who's involved in the business (more so than just being a reader) is saying this.
    Personally I believe that there's a certain part of hell/heaven/whatever afterlife you believe in, reserved for book snobs. You know, the kind of people who think that anything that isn't Jane Austen isn't well-written enough to deserve money/attention/love.

    I don't understand what makes anyone inclined or justified to say "no, this is bad literature and it doesn't deserve to be bought by anyone" about literature that isn't their style. I dislike a lot of classics because they're not my kind of reading, that doesn't make me question the taste of those loving the books (usually, almost everyone) or consider them to be less reliable sources of praise.

    To me, the love of books is what I assume the love of music is for others; an individual question of personal taste.

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  13. We're talking about judging readers based on the books they like, but to what extent is it also the other way around--are books judged by the (assumed) target audience? Because that's what seems to happen in the women's fiction vs. Jonathan Franzen debacle and with critical prejudice against speculative fiction as a whole.

    When a book is *supposedly* intended for women or for people who play with 20-sided dice, I think it's already seen as suspect by many.

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    1. Or, to use a different medium, if a cartoon aimed at 9 year old girls is popular with 20-30something men...

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    2. your comment seems to be about something entirely different than the point Slow Hand was making

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  14. I believe this is also related to the perception of literature as a higher art form than cinema, TV, or (pop) music. It doesn't shock so much that a Transformers movie will sell millions of tickets, while only few cinephiles will watch that really nice indie doc. Or that American Idol is a hit, but nobody saw that interesting debate on PBS - it's just TV, what would you expect?

    But books! Wait, books are sacred! Books are what make us, the readers, better than those illiterate phillistines. A book is supposed to be highbrow, difficult. If it's not, then it's not a *real* book.

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  15. I work at my town's public library, and frequently listen to parents who are grousing about their kids wanting to read Star Wars, or comic books, or "vampire stuff", and I smile and say "at least they're reading!" Books are different worlds. We're "stuck" on this one as it is, why be "stuck" in just the one imaginary one as well? Sometimes the people who complain go outside their comfort zones to something genre (gasp!) or a graphic novel (!) and are surprised and pleased at their enjoyment.

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  16. Totally agree! It is so easy to dismiss stories because of subject matter or because it's just not our personal taste. But these stories mean something to people and we shouldn't dismiss that. Also, sometimes people have to start somewhere and that opens them up to new authors and stories that they might never have tried.

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  17. I think we can say "x book is a bad book" the same way we accept "x movie is a bad movie". What I really dislike is the notion of "Well if you like a bad x, then clearly you have something wrong with you." I don't think we should criticize people for their entertainment tastes. Nor hold ill will towards their creators. I think Uwe Boll's movies are bad, and Michael Bay's movies are bad, but I don't hold animosity towards Bay for selling lots of tickets.

    What I find displeasing about "when bad books become popular" is the cultural saturation. I personally have not read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies because when they became popular, no one would stop talking about them. The sheer enthusiasm for the product by everyone spoiled any desire for me to see it. Now if I consider the book bad and this same cultural saturation occurs, I'm going to be very disgruntled. I recently had my mother tell me that 50 Shades of Grey was "so good"; that was a very uncomfortable conversation.

    (I will say however that I DO think if a book displays let's say, a Very Unhealthy Relationship and that book becomes Popular and the relationship in it glorified, that Unhealthy Relationship is then held up as an example of a good relationship, and that IS not good. But that is a separate point from this.)

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  18. Well I have a problem with anyone over 16 that would read a Harry Potter book more than twice. I just read two to compare them to the movies. I think the movies are good interpretations and are tolerably entertaining. I might have really liked them when I 10 years old. It is funny how she uses the word "wand" at an increasing rate faster than the length of the books increases. I wrote a computer program to count words.

    Frankenstein (1818) has a higher science word density than any of the Harry Potter books. Yeah, I know they are fantasy. But consider how many science words have entered the English language since 1818.

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