I am currently reading a recent genre novel by a well-known genre novelist. I’m 230 pages into this 400 page novel and am struggling to finish it. I kind of want to know what happens, but am not sure if I can make it. I find myself bombarded with infodump after infodump. I’ve been playing a game with myself where I pick out typos (I’m finding at least one on every other page) just to keep some modicum of forward momentum in my reading.
As a struggling fledgling writer, this whole ordeal is discouraging. This is a book from a huge publisher, one I would love to work with in the future. It was edited by a well-known editor and written by a well-known author, both of whom I respect and know are capable of producing wonderful things that achieve commercial and critical success. The first readers mentioned in the acknowledgements are all well-respected (and talented) authors and editors in their own right. Yet, I find myself wondering, page after dreadful page, how this mess of a narrative ever got published? I know the answer, but hate to admit it: Because it would sell. And I’m sure the publisher got a return on their investment.
Why did it sell? Not because it was particularly good, per se, but because it had a viable market and a publisher who knew how to get this product into the hands of that market.
Yet, regardless of sales, for me, as a reader, this book is a massive failure. Because of this book, I will be less likely to buy this author’s next book when it appears. I may check one of his books out of the library if I hear enough good things, but I won’t buy it. I already have enough terrible books clogging my bookshelf as it is, thank you very much.
But it isn’t even the typos (I’m not a Grammar Nazi) or the infodumps that really bother me. So why does it fail? In the end, it all comes down to one thing – it bores me to tears. What bores me is the fact that the book, so far, has failed to strike an honest emotional or intellectual chord with me. Not once.
This failure of a book made me think about what makes a book successful, in my opinion.
In the end, I decided a book is successful if it doesn’t bore me. If it can seep into my head or my heart in some way and not let go.
Let’s take The Bone People as an example. I mentioned this book on my year’s best list for books read in 2009. It is, in many ways, a failure from an editorial standpoint. There are plot threads that pick up and go nowhere. The narrative goes from first person to second person, from past tense to present tense, and sometimes does so within a single paragraph. The formatting is wonky, to say the least. It was a hard book to read due to subject matter. I had to put it down a few times because it was so dark and depressing, and I felt really sick about what would happens to one of the characters. It was not a page turner by any stretch of the word, and it took me a long time to finish. There were characters who were somewhat unbelievable in some respects.
Yet, the book was still a success in my opinion. Why? Because it carried me through to the end and left me feeling inspired. Why? Because it did not bore me (at least not as a whole – there were still some slow parts I had to struggle through), and, most importantly, the story struck a human chord.
I also have been thinking about a lot of the short stories I seem to be reading these days in professional magazines. I’ve read quite a few lately that I thought were boring. They weren’t bad. They were well-written in a clean work-shopped way. Yet, still, I found them boring. They didn’t strike that human chord.
The short stories that stick with me the longest may have imperfections. They may not be workshop clean. Some even have too many adverbs *gasp* :0) – Yet, a good short story or novel never bores me. I often find these stories hidden among smaller presses. There are still quite a few published by the major publishers every year if you look hard enough. These stories are sometimes experimental, sometimes just plain different, sometimes they’re well-written, sometimes they’re riddled with typos and factual errors, but they’re not boring. They tend to have an element that speaks to my head or my heart. That’s a great thing.
As a writer, I’ve decided I would rather strike that human chord than create a mass-produced work which is workshop clean (although I still strive for both, obviously – who doesn’t want to be both critically & commercially successful, after all).
Based on this somewhat random train of thought, I came to two conclusions:
1) I’d rather read an interesting failure than a boring success.
2) I’d rather write an interesting failure than a boring success.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work on this unclassifiable weird western novel I’m currently writing. I’m hopeful it will be an interesting success.