Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The good stuff and the crap

I have had the good fortune to read, and even come to know, many good writers since I have been blogging. Some are very good indeed. I say "good fortune" because I like to write too, and I have learned a lot from some of these people.

One of the things one sometimes hears as he visits the blogs of writers is the lament that, too often, "good writing" doesn't get published, but a lot of "bad writing" does get published. Often, this lament is frequently followed by a rather bitter assertion that this situation just isn't "fair."

The fact is, publishers are in business to make money. The way they make money is when books sell. They are not in business to publish "good" writing or "bad" writing; only writing which sells.

Let me tell you what kinds of books I buy: I buy books that I find interesting. Others also buy on this basis, as well as buying whatever is on the best-seller list, regardless of whether they like it or not. I'm not sure of the psychology of the latter, but it is true.

I don't really buy books based on whether or not they are "well-written" when compared to the standards or the Classics, or the talents of past "great" writers. Nor do I NOT buy books because everyone says they are garbage and shallow, poorly written and mistaken in their theses. I simply buy books which look like they would be interesting and/or are on a subject I want to know more about.

If you were a publisher, would you put up the money to publish and publicize a book because it was written well? Because it was authoritative? Or because your experience told you it was salable? Which would be your primary criterion?

And so, a lot of books that are disdained by literary professors as simply poof and puff get published and make millions.

Is this "fair"? If not, why not?

This doesn't apply only to books and publishing. There is a huge amount of crap being sold today. It's plastic. It's made in China. It isn't hand crafted and polished "good stuff."

None of us demand the "good stuff" when we select our politicians. You don't believe me? Look around you.

Shall we talk about "good" movies? Some people love the Sense and Sensibility genre, but more go to see Harry Potter and Avatar. And, collectively, even more still will go to see blood and guts and things being blown up. True or false?

Who gets to tell us what we should read, what we should go see, what we should eat? Who among you are the quality police? McDonald's is crap, according to the nutrition police. Why do they sell so much of it? Because lots of people like me like it a lot, that's why. Cheap, too.

I think the answer, in all cases, and in all of these examples, is simple: PEOPLE WANT IT.

All markets, food, cinema, toys, BOOK SALES, are driven by what people - buyers - want to buy. Give people what they need and you will do well. Give them what they WANT and you will make a killing.

True, sometimes something sells because of its packaging or because it is well hyped. A lot of people take things at face value and buy simply because it glitters, or because everybody else is buying the thing. Later, after you have made your purchase, you find the thing is not as advertised, or that it is found wanting in substance or performance. Barack Obama comes to mind. So does George Bush and most of congress. But it is up to you to investigate before you buy.

Is this "fair?" Damn right it is. If you want to write to please yourself, fine. If you want to make money writing, then write what people want to read. I wish I could.


  1. I have to wonder if you were aiming this at me, given your recent comment, but it happens I agree with you.

    (You should probably sit down. You going to be OK? Still dizzy?)

    I could explain why and what I mean by that, but it would take a wee bit longer than a comment should be.

  2. Edgar Allen Poe spent his latter years writing reviews of all the sub par writers of his time-when the world have been so much better off with more of his own works.

    Mark Twain made The Last of The Mohicans a classic by complaining about how awful it was.

    The Bridges of Madison County is a textbook example of a bad book-and I really wish I had written it.

    As writers we like to see bad books succeed, because we can then say, well-if they published that crap they will surely publish my work of art!

    By the same token reading something like Angela's Ashes or Moby Dick makes us think-who am I kidding? I'm not even in the same solar system as these guys.

    There is also this danger of falling into the English Teacher Trap-where we want to be E.B. White and William Safire and tell the world-WRONGO! Don't Do That! Do This! We're writers, we know better.

    No one cares though-except maybe an English teacher. Grammatical minutia belongs in the classroom, but writers love to drag it out into the light.

  3. I hava a confession to make.
    I read The Da-Vinci code. And I quite enjoyed it. Yes, I was well aware that there were hugely clunking sentences in there, and the plot, ohhh the plot, it was ludicrous... but fun.
    I also read worthy uplifting stuff, honest. The problem is that all too often the celebrated literary discovery is unreadably dull.
    When I see a book "shortlisted for the Mann-Booker prize", I shudder, because I've read too many turgid shortlisters, written, crafted, oh so carefully, using every little literary device the author has learned, in their academic hot-house. "The author teaches a creatve writing course at the University Of........".

    I have about a million and six books, and I suppose I should invest in worthy looking slip-covers to disguise some of the dross up there on the shelves. on the other hand, I've read so many interchangeable plots and predictable dialogues that I ought to be able to create a series of best sellers with ease.

    I used to collect favourite phrases. As a teenager, I read a lot of books by Alistair Maclean (Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone, etc) And mister Maclean always seemed to be able to slip the same phrase into every book. You knew it.. In a storm at sea, or out on the ice-cap, or clambering along the top of the runaway train, as soon as you could see a taut-stretched rigging wire, or the antenna on the ship... here it comes "Ululating Threnody!" Let's hear it for ululating threnody, folks, Mister Maclean obviously paid big bucks for those words, so he was determined to get his money's worth by using them in as many books as he could...
    And yes, I did have to consult the dictionary, dammit, I was fourteen.

  4. @Stephanie B - It wasn't aimed at you; I try not post about anyone in particular usually. But it was you who gave me the idea. Perhaps we will see your expansion on this theme somewhere else.

    @Descartes - I have had my share of wake-up calls whenever I start thinking I'm a pretty hot writer. McCourt can slap me down, as you mentioned. Another one is an English writer by the name of Laurie Lee who can draw you right inside his stories as if you were part of the scenery. A story to tell, and the power to describe it vividly. But there is more to it than that; a certain something that separates them from me. If I can ever learn to articulate it, I'll share. Right now I have it filed under "magic".

    @Soubriquet - I read the DaVinci Code too, though I am not that into fiction. I bought it because of the hype surrounding it, which is not a good reason. I didn't find it believable, thought the concept was intriguing. I thought the movie was worse, though. There are a lot of books of high repute that I read on that reputation or was forced to read in school, that I didn't like at all. Some were reread as an adult and my opinion didn't change.

    That said, I like quite a bit of the trash out there.

    I had to look up Ululating threnody in the dictionary too. Not to be confused with ovulating parody.

  5. Though, if I tell the real truth as I see it, I think Frank McCourt only had the one story in him, and his brother none at all.

  6. Yes, Frank only had the one book in him. And so did Harper Lee. And so did Margret Mitchell. And so did John Kennedy O'Toole and so did. . .

    Not all writers can crank them out like Stephen King and Laurell K Hamilton and John D MacDonald. That doesn't mean the one story is not worth telling, or not something special.

    But yeah, Malachy's stuff is total ululating threnody.

  7. I don't know what threnody is but, ululating is already in my vocabulary. I have classic greats in my collection of all time favorites {Poe, Dumas, Irving, Sake, O Henry, Bronte, Shakespeare [really!]and I have representatives of "mainstream" fiction as well as reps from all the pulp fields: romance, fantasy, SF, mystery, damn, even horror. Admittedly, many are older writers whose work has stood at least some test of time, often in fields where novels can be forgotten six months after publishing.

    I don't apologize for anything I like, even the Twilight series and Nora Roberts, nor for any of the things I'm supposed to like but didn't (or never bothered to read).

    And I will be writing about this on Rocket Scientist, though I might need more than one post.

  8. @Descartes - Point well taken. One doesn't have to write reams like Stephen King to write masterpieces. All of those you mention proves this. I can't even tell you what my point was, since I personally don't even have ONE book.

    Harper Lee's was an example of a book I was forced to buy and study in high school American Literature, but it rebuts my earlier statement about not liking to be force-fed, because I LOVED the book. Her "To Kill a Mockingbird" introduced me to the nuanced world of plots and subplots and subsub plots - and the fact that sometimes right CAN prevail. I don't know about Ms. Lee's real family, but I am convinced Scout WAS Harper Lee.

    @Stephanie B - I don't think anybody should apologize for what they read, what they like. Not you, not anyone. Maybe that was why I was somewhat taken aback to hear you be border-line elitist on who and what should or should not be published. I also can't wait for you to tell me what "fair" means and why it should be a factor in the marketplace. Does one make up a list of "good and worthy" books that should be published? Then, is "fair" 12 "good" books get published for every one on one's "trash" list?

    Of course I am being VERY tongue-in-cheek here. But I am genuinely interested in what you meant by "not fair" when certain books don't get published.

    I can't wait to see your blog post(s) on these issues. I know very well I didn't even scratch the surface with my own post, so I hope you and others can expand on this debate.

    I wish I had asked you on your other blog to do this on a question-answering basis, but I waited too long. I apologize, because that would have been the proper place for your response. But so is Rocket Scientist, since that's where the debate started. I'm not kidding about wanting to read what you think about this subject.

  9. Say what? I looked back at my comments. I said:

    "I have to work on it, too, Jeff. Getting angry at "crap" in print when you aren't in print yourself is very easy." - by way of noting a FAILING in myself that I try to correct and

    "I once felt that way [reader comment: I just love the folks who are convinced they've read deep meaning into something, when it really has none at all] myself, but I don't any more. With a few exceptions. I feel if someone gets something useful or meaningful out of something, if it speaks to them, who am I to take it away? Every once in a while I find something that so turns my stomach that it's hard to be open-minded, but I suspect we all have those sort of things. Still, I make a point of not begrudging someone else their happiness."

    Where do you get that I'm elitist on what should be published? Sometimes, RM, I think you just say this stuff to push my buttons.

    I wrote the first post. Heaven only knows what you'll read into that one.

  10. 1. I took your statement to mean you thought your work was obviously better than some of the crap being published.

    2. "Getting" something or not getting something out of a book is a different subject than crap being published. (Not relevant to what we are talking about here, I don't think.)
    3. I got the impression you were thinking you had the right to say what is good and what is crap and therefore what should be published. That would be not only elitist, but arrogant.

    Obviously I am misreading you. This is a failing on my perception ability or on the clarity of your writing, one or the other.

    Going to read the first post. If you wrote it clearly, I won't be able to read anything into it that isn't there.

  11. "If you wrote it clearly, I won't be able to read anything into it that isn't there."

    Well, just goes to show we disagree there. I've seen you read things into what I wrote I've never said many times. My post was no exception.

    I suspect (but I wouldn't presume to tell you what you're thinking, that you are looking for the hidden intent behind what I write. Bad news. There is none. If I have something to say, I say it or I probably don't think it. I'm not afraid of saying what I think, even if it's not popular.

    I will, however, write a post specifically on the differences between "crap" and the "good stuff" later today. Perhaps that will clarify things for you.

  12. Having spent the last five hours sorting second-hand books which included 6 copies of Angela's Ashes and two of 'Tis, I came to realise certain truths are self-evident. And the first of these is that one man's meat is another man's poison. The books that people donate fall broadly into two categories - the ones that few want to read, and the very popular, well thumbed, blockbusters. It made me wonder about Angela's Ashes. It seems a far less popular popular on this side of the Atlantic.

    I think books can be considered well written or poorly written independently of unreadable/readable, giving four combinations. Just because a book is well written, doesn't mean I'll find it readable, and the reverse is true. I enjoy many light-weight novels that are far from good literature, but I also enjoy a a more challenging book that makes you think and, possibly the key, lives on with you. I can plough through a poorly written book if I find the subject interesting or compelling.

    I've heard people dismissing a book as "dreadful" because they don't like the subject matter, such as "The Bookseller of Kabul", and over-hyping for the reverse situation. "Suite Fran├žaise" was a fascinating insight into the invasion of France in 1941 in a book written at that time, but nobody is going to convince me it's a masterpiece. An important book, but not great literature.

    Is it not better that people should read something rather than nothing? And since the world is made up of all sorts of people with all sorts of tastes, publishers should cater for all. I read as many of the scorned Enid Blyton's books I could find as a child. I'm glad the literature snobs didn't win the day because Enid Blyton's so-called second rate stories engaged the minds of many thousands of children and started them on the path of reading.

  13. @Stephani B - I can't believe you are denying what you wrote when it is right there for anyone to see. I am about to give up. You can't pretend you didn't write this stuff - other people are commenting on it, so they must see it too!l Ok, start over. Just what is your thesis? What point are you trying to make with this? I thought (because you wrote it) that you were disturbed that much "good" writing was being overlooked or at least not being published, and "bad" writing (which you gave clear examples of) WAS being published, and this was unfair. How can you now say you didn't say these things? How can you say I am reading things into you writings that you didn't ever say??? Why this tactic? Just defend your assertions. Don't say you didn't say them. Arrrrrrgggggghhhhh!!!!!

  14. I don't see hidden intent in what you write. I see waffling and evasion. :)

  15. @A. - I agree with almost all of your thoughtful comment. What you say makes sense to me in the real world. The part I don't agree with is that publishers should publish a little bit of everything. Since I believe they are in business to make money, they should still only publish (and they do) only which they think will sell.

    But there are many publishers. And they cater to specialized tastes, so that's how we get around that. But I don't think ANY publisher publishes bad writing on purpose. Well, there is one exception to that, and that is if the book will sell on the strength of the author's name alone. Then it can, and often is, bad writing. Good examples are books by people running for U,S. President.

    So even what I disagreed with in your comment is still true somewhat. Good thoughts. :)

  16. Cut and paste where I said that, RM. You're only confusing me.

  17. Yes Stephanie, I will. One at a time. Watch this space. Fear.

  18. Of course they should publish something of everything because they can sell something of everything. They don't have to publish everything in the same quantity. I do understand they are there to make a profit, and fair enough, but if they get their print runs right, they will.

  19. I don't know, A. You try printing up a run of 5 books sometime and see how much money you make as a publisher. Sell the books for 4 or 5 hundred pounds each. Make a killing.

  20. I used to see a commercial for Apple or Google that had a college classroom filled with wanna be writers-the Professor tells them that they will never be printed, because it cost too much. The hero them jumps up and says-Not So! With printing on demand we call all be published! (There is something about your comments that make me giddy about explanation points.)

    Yet lo and behold-we are NOT all published. Well, not in printed books anyway. I think a great many writers are now bloggers and I am always amazed at how many real writers have blogs and blog on a daily basis.

    Yes, Publishing is a business and if people will line up to buy formula stories about tweens and vampires then that is what they will publish.

    As a portrait photographer and good portrait is one the family buys-a bad one is the one that doesn't sell.

    A.-maybe Angela's Ashes is not popular there as too many people there lived it and here it is pure fantasy.

  21. Wrote another post. Hope it's clear enough for you.

  22. This is a very exciting comments section - in fact, one might almost make a clever remark about it being a literary form in itself, blah blah, but - good gravy, I am way too tired to even attempt it. Plus it would be pretentious, I think ;)


    I pretty much agree with you, except that I am not a huge fan of Harper Lee, though may go back and give her a try again. McCourt really ought to have stopped after Angela, no doubt about it. Also Ishiguro should have stopped after Remains of the Day (for example).

    Since I am currently working on a historical mystery novel I am very aware of wanting both to write well in a literary sense but also to entertain people. I like Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton, Ross Macdonald et al very much. I will be glad to do a fraction of what they have done (I'll just be glad to have a decent MSS to send out, really).

    Stephanie, I am going to go catch up with your posts! I need to know what's going on here...

    This was an excellent post, BTW.

  23. "Also Ishiguro should have stopped after Remains of the Day"

    Oh don't say that! That would mean that he would never have written "Never Let Me Go" which still gives me shivers.

  24. RM, if you want to see me squabble with someone else for a change (on movies instead of writing) check out the comments here.

  25. @Descartes - With on-demand printing, a few too many get published. My opinion. But anyone with a little money and a desired to see their baby in print can do so now, I suppose. I do agree that if one is writing (or taking photographs) for a living, "good" means someone bought it. Thank you for your interesting comment today.

  26. @Stephanie B - I saw your new post. It is not unreadable. :)

    @Lidian - Yes, very exciting: they bring out the exclamation points in some people. :) They are more interesting when YOU stop by, though. Good luck with your novel. You are writing a few books at the same time; don't know how you do it. You will be famous one day and never come back to see us.

    The only thing that keeps me from being TOTALLY in awe of you is your sadly lacking literary taste in not appreciating Harper Lee. But you do seem trainable.

    Thank you for your comment. :)

  27. @Sheila - Oh. Never mind. You weren't talking to me. Anyway, hello. :)

    @Stephanie B - Thank you for the link. I went to read the argument. He kicked your ass.

    But I think you should go back and tell him his blog takes much to long to load because of all his unnecessary movie thingys. Tell him to use links instead. I never did get the whole page loaded, and my Mac is a downloading fool. He won't be able to argue with you and you will win. :)

  28. Relax Max, if you think he kicked my ass on that topic, I see why you think you get ahead in our conversations.

    They still teach debate, and providing examples and data to prove points, don't they? Or was that just in the old days?



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