Why I Read Bad Books

I pick up books that others have trashed, or that smell mighty shitty, and I do so intentionally. Why? You probably think I’m going to say that I read suckish books because they can teach me how to write, or to help me improve my writing in some way. That’s sort of true. I read poorly written books to determine whether or not I can pick out what’s wrong with them. It’s one thing to read a book, hate it, but not know why beyond “it just didn’t appeal to me”. There are a ton of books out there that don’t “appeal” to me, but that aren’t poorly written. Can I see the difference? Yes. I can. And all writers should be able to do the same.
But that isn’t the primary reason I spend money on books that I suspect of suckishness.  To be honest, I’m always hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Let me give you an example. Recently I bought Tempest, by Julie Cross. I’ve published my review at OnFictionWriting.com so I won’t go into detail here about what I thought. The thing is, I really hoped to find an amazing new author in Julie Cross, but I knew the odds were against her being any better than the countless others before her. Bestseller means nothing in terms of writing quality. It only means that the marketing is exceptional and the author has something I don’t. Is Julie Cross a good writer? In a word, no. She is not a good writer. But she’s done something right. I’m not sure what it is, but I have much to learn from her. So do you.
You see, marketing can propel a book to bestseller status, even if the writing hasn’t earned that spot, but marketing alone can’t keep a book at the top of the Bestseller list. We’ll have to see what happens with Tempest, but I suspect Cross shares Stephenie Meyer’s talent for something that can’t be learned easily. She knows her audience and gave them what they wanted. I’m not sure what that is, but I read this book trying to figure it out. I attempted to read Twilight for the same reason. I continue to read the Sookie Stackhouse novels in spite of my growing disgust at the diminished writing quality as well. But I think I get it now.
Kate Quinn gave me the answer. She wrote an article for OFW recently (to be published February 11 – do go and read it when it’s published) that shed some light on what it is I’m looking for and it made total sense. Talent is not black and white. It’s not about show or tell, plotting or any other single technique that has or hasn’t been honed to perfection. Talent is a mixture of many things, different for each writer. These ladies have it. Each shares a talent for knowing what the reader wants and playing to it. They aren’t stellar writers. They shouldn’t be bestsellers based on writing ability, but perhaps they have earned that place for other reasons.
Is it fair? Of course not. But it’s reality. If I could have nailed my audience and given the publisher what they wanted the first go round, would I have worked so hard to perfect other areas of the craft? I’d like to think I would, but that’s not how things worked out, so I can’t say definitively that I would have done that. I might have said fuck it and kept doing what I was doing, never moving forward, never improving.
So I’m glad I didn’t get a contract right away and I didn’t become the “stay-at-home” mom who is plucked from obscurity. Sure, lots of us say that. But I truly mean it. I wouldn’t have turned it down, and I’m frustrated at the slow and tedious process I’ve waded through, but I think my path is the right one.
Sometimes the hard way is the best way to reach the top, because you learn the skills necessary to stay there.

8 thoughts on “Why I Read Bad Books

  1. Being a good storyteller doesn't have as much in common with being a crafty writer as one might believe. Knowing how to tell a story in an engaging way has a lot more to do with understanding the audience. A good writer, beside honing his craft, must also know when to stop striving for literary recognition to become compelling to the masses (ugh, I hate this word). I think it's a question of what you truly want — to be widely read, or highly esteemed. These two didn't use to be mutually exclusive in times when the only people who read books were also intellectuals; but the present looks different. And I honestly don't think it's a development for the worse, quite the opposite. There must be a compromise, one can't realistically hope for the masses to be highly intellectual as a whole; culture must take a step toward them too. I believe a "skilled" writer in present times knows how to take that step without forfeiting quality, instead of "skilled" meaning technically accurate and extraordinary.Dang, I sure talk much when I'm beat. 😛

  2. Many, many years ago, when I was a struggling young artist, I blithely turned my nose at the popular commercial art of the day, cartoony, brown-eyed kids that were all the rage.That wasn't real art, I'd argue. But hubby's advice was to swallow my big-headed ideas and paint the brown-eyed kids that everyone wanted in their living rooms.He was right. I was wrong. But I just couldn't paint that sort of saccharine imagery with a clear conscience. Newbies are too intellectual for their own good–and I was the worst. If I had painted those stupid kids like he said, I could've paid off my house.If you want to be successful, you have to give people what they want. If you want to be REALLY successful, you have to give them what they didn't know they wanted until you showed up.

  3. Big *LIKE* to Maria's comment!I absolutely agree — as youngsters, we've all been (or still are) overly intellectualized and pretentious. We've had this attitude hammered into our heads by snotty teachers and dinosaurs who, unable to adapt to the changing times and afraid of devaluation, tried to carve their own definitions of quality into stone.

  4. I'll add my Amen to Maria's comment, and you, too, Renee are spot on. Case in point. Peter Cheyney – the hottest thing since sliced bread between 1940 and 1951. He's seen as the forerunner of the James Bond phenomena. He wrote two books a year. What was his secret? His top books were written during the darkest days of the war followed by post war austerity. What did he give his audience? Wish fulfillment on how tough our secret agents were; how stupid or villainous their nazi equivalents were; prodigious ammounts of whisky and/or bacardi drinking during a time when in real life alcohol was damn hard to get, and women who he describes in minute detail a) for women to fantasise over costumes unavailable in rationed Britain, b)for sex starved soldiers to fantasise over when they weren't killing Germans. The writing is crap. But he hit the spot, the verbal erogenous zone

  5. It is so very true that what is popular doesn't necessarily mean high quality. Just as high quality doesn't always make something popular. There are many books and authors considered classics that I just don't enjoy. It isn't bad writing or even a bad story, just not something that appeals to me.I think the trick for each writer is to try and tell the best story in their voice and find the audience that will appreciate it. Easier said than done I am sure, but I think that is what we need to keep in mind.

  6. Authors have to choose to be commercial or artistic. You can't exactly choose to be both. Of course it's possible in the same way that it's possible to write a book like Harry Potter that crosses from Middle Grade, to YA, to adult. You can hope that a book might cross-over, but as an author you can't pitch it to an agent or editor as a "cross-over novel" that's for the readers to decide. The percentage of agents and editors looking for something high concept and commercial is MUCH higher than the percentage of publishers seeking high-quality literary fiction. The goal of the publisher is and always will be to sell books. Hopefully, the big sellers will keep the market up and allow publishers to put out of few great literary gems each year…even if they only carry a small audience.**just a small side note–though Twilight is a bestseller over and over again, I don't believe Tempest has reached that status. I might be wrong?

  7. @DanceDad: You're right, Tempest is nowhere near Twilight status, but according to "reports" it is climbing fast. I did say we'd have to wait and see, but I should have made that more clear. And you make a good point: Artistic and commercial are a difficult combination to achieve. However, I do think it's possible. Rare, but possible. Can I do it? Not yet. I've had to choose for now.@Bridget: This "I think the trick for each writer is to try and tell the best story in their voice and find the audience that will appreciate it." is excellent advice. @Mike: Is the verbal erogenous zone as hard to find as others? Will I need a map?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s