Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making Taste Overly Personal

In the annals of Great Ways to Annoy Literary Agents (TM), saying you wrote your book because you couldn't find any good books to read (or, its crass corollary: because so many books are "trash") may not be in the top 10, but it is at least in the top 5,000. (The list is infinite, by the way - this blog may be here a while).

Let's examine why calling most or all or even some books "trash" is akin to slowly inserting a sliver under your prospective agent's fingernail while hitting them over the head with a wet fish:

1) The agent is currently working their gluteus maximuses to the maximus to sell books that are actually really great, and is probably having a hard time with some of them because this business is too tight to sell all of the really good books agents come across, let alone anything that could remotely be considered "trash."

2) The agent has represented any number of incredible, awesome books that are just sitting on bookshelves waiting to be discovered by people who are overly quick to dismiss everything or lots of things as "trash" and not quick enough to go looking for said gems when in fact there are way too many good books published in a single year for anyone to read in an entire lifetime.

But let's be honest, hmm? Avoiding the list of Great Ways to Annoy Literary Agents is not the real reason aspiring writers should hesitate before bashing swaths of literature as "trash."

Here's why: when a writer calls a book "trash" they have closed themselves off from learning anything from that book.

Taste is extremely personal. Amateur cultural anthropologist Nathan's theory (that's DOCTOR Amateur Cultural Anthropologist to you) is this: we are hard-wired to want to be a part of the "In" group. We want people to like us, and we want people to like the things that we like. When something that we can't stand becomes very very popular some sort of survival instinct kicks in, and we want to tear that popular thing to shreds so that we are not left out of the group. And we will even turn ourselves into Crazy Raving Lunatics in order to make this happen.

Horrible Amazon reviews, irrational hatred of Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, slandering of books as "trash": one part jealousy, five thousand parts making taste overly personal.

People very quickly forget that every book they consider "trash" is someone else's most favorite book ever. And what happens when writers of all people do this is they turn the book they hate into the "other." The book (and the author who wrote it) becomes the enemy. And then they learn nothing from it.

Every popular book is popular for a reason. Sure, chance is a big reason, but if thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people like a book and are talking about it and passing it along to their friends: the author has done something right.

It may not be a great work of literature, it may not be something that you personally would want to read, it may have some typos, it may drive you to the brink of insanity. But the author has done something well if they are published and their books are selling. If you have hopes of reaching a big audience someday you would do well to absorb and learn from what that "something" is.

In other words: sure, go ahead and irrationally hate something. It's in your DNA! (Note: probably not true) But try and resist the "trash" syndrome, especially if you're a writer. Not only have you probably stopped learning, but don't forget: someone else thinks your books are trash too, and they're no more right than you are.






155 comments:

TwitterNovel said...

Good point, sir. I can't personally hate on any book -- if it's out there and people enjoy it, great.

Kiersten White said...

I really like you, Nathan.

That's all.

Well, except this year for Christmas I am sending you a wet-fish-proof umbrella. Because I like you.

Cat Woods said...

Amen.

If we all loved the same thing there would be need for only one writer, one agent and one publisher.

P. Grier said...

Teaching middle school students means shelving many, many books I would consider less than stellar. But it also means that, when I don't say negative things about, let's say, Stephanie Meyer, I might later find them picking up Kafka.

Besides, I read Katherine Woodwiss as a child. Who am I to talk?

Kristin said...

I think this pretty much sums up everything I've been trying to tell Twilight/Eragon/Dan Brown haters for the past year(s). Except I never did it quite so awesomely.

Bane of Anubis said...

CIP: TWILIGHT... Personally, I'm not a big fan of this book; however, much as I hate to say it, it is a great book b/c it speaks to a large segment of humanity. Sure, I can think it's fluff and that the writing lacks verve, but instead of focusing on my beliefs, I should focus on those of the audience and learn from Ms. Meyer's ability to captivate an audience.

Shoot, one day I hope people think my books are trash... I think that means you've made it.

Margaret Yang said...

Nathan, you're not worried that someone is going to read JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW and call it trash, are you?

Because if someone did that, I would have to beat him up.

Just sayin'.

Deniz Kuypers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

MY-

T-minus two years until the great WONDERBAR is trash-fest of 2011. I'm prepping.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tina Spear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tina Spear said...

Unfortunately some people seem to find pleasure in trashing others. The same thing happens in writing contest.

It's often particularly evident when you get three different judges. Two scores are close together and the third one is way below those. Makes you wonder sometimes what agenda people had. In a recent contest my scores were 78%/80% and 46% - and that last judge hated every single word I wrote.

oops --- found a typo in my former comment - absolutely had to remove it.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, you've got to learn to be more forthcoming. I think what you mean to say is, "Shut up, stop poor-mouthing other books, worry about your own." Close?
Always get a charge out of reading your blog.

Scott said...

Well done, Nathan, and what you said is absolutely true.

Oddly enough, I think critique partners can fall into this same trap. We provide feedback based on our likes and dislikes rather than objectively looking at another writer's work. Any advice on avoiding this ... I'm a beta reader for a friend right now and want to do a good job.

Thank you!

Travener said...

I love reading trash. It's a guilty pleasure, like elevator sex or bowling...

Natalie Whipple said...

Yes. Exactly.

It really bothers me when writers can't be civil with each other. Of course we're allowed our opinion, but you can express it without hyperbole. We should be more supportive of each other.

spwriter said...

Well said.

This same sort of thinking drives some folks to trash entire genres without a second thought. Sadly, the most egregious examples of this I've observed have been Christians quick to categorize all Christian fiction as "worthless crap" in an attempt to elevate their own work as The One Great Book that Will Change the Face of Christian Fiction Forever.

I spend my daylight (okay, and nightlight) hours editing works of fiction and with each book I touch - no matter how well-written, no matter what genre - I gain new respect for writers. I may not love every novel I see, but I DO love seeing what every novelist has accomplished.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I know dozens of writers who think erotica and romance are "trash." I admit I used to lurk among them, until I wrote and sold one.

It's still not my first choice to read, but nearly half the book-buying population can't be wrong.

jjdebenedictis said...

[W]hen a writer calls a book "trash" they have closed themselves off from learning anything from that book.

I so agree with this. I got two of my best story ideas ever from sitting down and trying to figure why (other) people liked vampires so much.

Steph Damore said...

Taste is extremely personal.

Exactly. And you're right, one person's trash is another person's treasure. It can be maddening at times, but with books no one's forcing you to read said trash (well, unless it's for school).

My point is, if you don't like it, don't read it. And then when you're at a social function and everyone's talking about how great the book is, just lie and pretend that you have - that way you can still feel cool.

Okay, probably not the most ethical advice and don't blame me if you get busted...

Steph Damore said...

Wonderbar = Wonderbra - Nathan, I'm already prepping.

Totally kidding. Delete this post if you want. I don't need any hate mail.

Jacqueline said...

I also feel anger inside my core whenever I come across the "trash" label. Who gave these people the power or permission to talk down to writers like that? I would love to see their work, and I know that even if I don’t like it or don’t love it, I really don’t have any authority to judge someone else’s writing. I think no one should be allowed that. If the public loves Stefanie Meyer is definitely because she did something great with her books. (Actually I love her books-total Twilight fan).
Ultimately I believe writing is a form of art. Maybe you hate Dali or any other form of abstract painting, you may not like it, but these people should think ‘because I don’t like it, do I have the right to call this ‘trash’?”
The only thing I think is trash: people that go around sticking their jealousy and envy labels. Now that is definitely the kind of behavior that stinks.

Thomas Taylor said...

I dream of the day there's an elitist backlash against my novel!

Mind you, I dream of the day it gets published.

Actually, just finishing it would be good:-/

The Writing Muse said...

Well said. Thank you!

Keri Stevens said...

This world of publishing is smaller than many would like to think. I've read some horrid reviews and outright character assassination online. I don't remember much, but I remember who the nasty people are who wrote those things.

I will still remember their names when I'm Super Mega Author someday.

Tantrums are perfectly fine in the privacy of your own bathroom, but share your nastiness at your own risk.

The Greens Committee said...

Right on point Nathan! Authors can be an interesting bunch to say the least.

I mean, would you ever see or expect a person who is walking through an art gallery to repeatedly point out "trash" that does not appeal to her/him? No way, they just move along and admire what strikes them.

After all, the artwork is hanging on the wall for a reason.

Cary
www.insidethehedges.com

pjd said...

I had to write my own comment on this post because all the other comments are trash.

Kristi said...

Doctor Nathan - well said. I would think that those who put that in a query letter didn't read any blogs such as this one before doing so. I also think that for those haters out there, it's more than one part jealousy - more like half.

Mark Terry said...

I SO agree with this. It's like the : If it sells it smells. I just don't agree. There are plenty of things I love to read (or watch, or listen to, etc) that many people don't like and do like. If everyone in the world liked everything I did and hated everything I did, it would be a very narrow world indeed.

I get pretty frustrated hearing this from non-writers, readers, and aspiring writers, but you have to be careful even once you're published, successfully or not. Look at all the criticism Stephen King takes from so-called literary writers. And although Jodi Picoult may be a great writer, when she wrote a column in Writer's Digest suggesting that readers in Australia sure did love fine literature more than Americans did largely based on the fact HER books sold better there, it was a bit hard not to grit my teeth.

Christina Adams said...

I totally agree, Nathan. Even though there are some books I come close to hating there are things I have been able to learn from them. This seems to go back to the whole being a professional. If one book does really well it helps the whole book industry. Sure, it's fine to wish that book had been mine, but trashing that book does not make other people more interested in reading mine.

Thermocline said...

Insulting others is always a fantastic way of promoting how wonderful you are as a human being.

Amy said...

Yay! Thank you for that post.

Rick Daley said...

Oh, snap:

someone else thinks your books are trash too, and they're no more right than you are.

(NOTE: is it appropriate to use a comma in "oh, snap" or does the casual nature of urban slang lead to relaxed rules of grammar? I get confused sometimes.)

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

Some people just love to hate whatever is popular or mainsteam, like this girl I know who loved Regina Spektor back in the day, before "everyone knew who she was."

Also, travener's comment just made me laugh out loud in the bank where I work, and now all the tellers are looking at me like I'm nutty.

Natalie said...

Amen.

Anonymous said...

I mean, would you ever see or expect a person who is walking through an art gallery to repeatedly point out "trash" that does not appeal to her/him? No way, they just move along and admire what strikes them.

I am a visual artist as well as a writer, and trust me, people say all kinds of things in galleries and museums, too. It never ceases to amaze me how it never crosses their minds that the artist may be standing right next to them.

Saranna DeWylde said...

This is a great blog! I have seen some behaviors in the writing community by other authors that make us all look like horrible back-biting bitches when it should be a community.

No one knows what a writer goes through but another writer. (I'm sure it's the same with the Herculean feats that agents pull off as well.) It can be a lonely business and there's no reason for it.

If you don't like someone's book, hey, that's okay. Bashing it publicly or to an agent is a turd of a different flavor.

I'm all for a little healthy competition, it's fun and can motivate you to produce more.

In fact, I'm in the Dorchester contest now on Textnovel and I made some great friends. We're plotting our strategies together and tarting each other for votes.

Someone's heart, soul and blood is in those pages and you have to respect that even if you think the story they told wasn't very good.

Great blog!

Tara said...

You would think that as writers we would understand the amount of work which goes into a novel. Putting a novel into a "trash" category devalues the time and effort a team of professionals put into that story. I'm glad it makes the list of things that irritate agents (and others).

houndrat said...

So true. You, Doctor N., are preaching to the choir here. I totally agree re: Twilight. I mean, seriously--if it's such a huge hit, SM must have done something right. You might not like it, but thousands--heck, millions--do.

Of course, I write in a genre that, until recently, hasn't gotten much love---YA. So maybe I feel the sting of labeling books as trash a little more than some.

Great post! Keep 'em coming!

Rick Daley said...

Are rhetorical questions the Number One Great Way to Annoy Literary Agents (TM)?

Anita Saxena said...

I soooo agree.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right about too many people, especially writers calling each others books trash. The only books I would ever dare consider as trash are my own!
That said, the taste for books are like the bum. Divided.
Every reader has his or her own opinion and as you said, if millions of readers consider a book interesting, the writer must have got something right.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Hmmm. "Try and resist the 'trash' syndrome."

Does that apply to self-published books, too? I hope so, because Bastard Husband: A Love Story is shipping today! www.bastardhusband.com (Sorry for the shameless self-promotion.)

One more thought about comments on yesterday's post about self-published authors charging new writers to edit their work: You never know, some self-published authors just might have 20 years of technical writing experience under their belts and may be perfectly qualified to edit the work of others. Just saying.

TKA said...

Hear, hear, and amen!

And let me say, as so many others have before, Nathan, you are funny!
I am really looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar.

Melanie Avila said...

Well said.

I've never called anything trash. I may not like it, but rather than focus on the books I don't like, I'd rather spread the love about the books I DO enjoy.

John said...

Actually have a manuscript of a character (librarian) panning an author's work as trash, despite it selling well. One of 3 that can be submitted now. I don't think books are trash, some are more difficult to read, but they tend to be worth it in the end. Dostoevsky anyone?

Finding agent/publisher/editor is beyond my $ means, but I need to get published.

Lisa L. Spangenberg said...

I'd reckon at least half of the novels that are now considered canon and literary classics were, in their time, dismissed as popular trash.

Really. Austen, the Brontes, Twain, Melville, Dickens--all were denounced as trashy; some were essentially said to destroy the moral virtue of the reader!

Ted said...

I always scratch my head when I read a complaint that some bestseller is trash. Why should anyone get upset when something they don't like is successful?

What bothers and frustrates me is when books I really love (like A FAN'S NOTES or FISKADORO) don't get the attention I think they deserve.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett said...

Good advice not just in publishing, but in life. And what I try to teach my kids.

Sissy said...

This is certainly a thought provoking topic, because I think at one point everyone has come across a book they don't like. I tend to disagree with what Oprah recommends almost 9 times out of 10, but if she were to recommend my book I would shut my mouth and smile.

Patrice said...

You left out all the bad karma that sort of thing creates.

Karen Mahoney said...

This is so timely & appropriate it even made me de-lurk and post a comment for the first time in 3 years. ;)

Nathan, great post! Really wonderful.

I read a 'review' on Goodreads today by a seriously high profile person. I was shocked that they opened their review of a huge bestselling paranormal romance author's book with: "Trash, trash, trash." But then, of course, went on to give the book 4 stars & say she "might" give the next book in the series a try.

I really, really want to call her out on it, but I admit to being scared of the 'high profile' part.

Grrr...

Cheers,
Karen

Renee Collins said...

SO love this post, Nathan! Well said.

I would make one minor change, though. "Horrible Amazon reviews, irrational hatred of Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, slandering of books as trash" seems more than one part jealousy to me. I'd say at least half. Not to mention, adding sour grapes into the equation.

Jill Edmondson said...

A humbling reminder... My book will be released in November, and someone will hate it, someone will say it is the greatest thing since sliced bread,

I think it's irresp[onsibble to say "trash" though - it implies no redeeming qualities. Even the books I least enjoyed had something good about them, something of value, something I could learn ...

Cheers, Jill
www.jilledmondson.blogspot.com

Laurel said...

It seems worth considering that denouncing a book as trash is particularly self-destructive for aspiring authors. Talking smack about bestsellers sounds a little jealous but apart from that it would make me wonder if a writer is really plugged in to what might be commercially viable. Not to mention the possibility that the agent who repped that book might read that you question both their taste and sanity in thinking it was worth printing.

I'm sure agents read blogs, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting Oscar The Grouch stuck in my head.

I love trash,
anything dirty or dingy or dusty . . .


So, anyway, point taken. I shall now call all other books "rubbish."

Terry said...

Well put, Nathan.

There seems to be a certian amount of snobbery involved as well and a holier-than-thou attitude.

Whether you're writing for love or money, it's not an easy job. In fiction, especially, you not only use your head to write but often, if not always, your heart is in it.

All of this trashing must hurt the authors, no matter how thick skinned.

Marilyn Peake said...

Your blog today had so many hilarious lines in it, I found myself giggling through much of it. You’re hilarious, Nathan! Nevertheless, I’m of two minds on some of the points you made.

I agree wholeheartedly with the points you made in your first paragraph. There are so many brilliantly written books published today, I often wonder, when writers say they wrote their book because they "...couldn't find any good books to read (or, its crass corollary: because so many books are 'trash')..." if they actually don't read many books.

I also agree with your anthropological theory. In fact, I recently heard a similar psychological theory for why our society has become so obsessed with celebrity. The theory goes like this ... In earlier times when we lived in small villages, it was a survival instinct to have a brain that immediately gravitated toward faces we saw on a regular basis. Those people were members of our tribe, the group that gave us security. With human brains now hardwired that way and cable TV constantly televising news stories about specific celebrities, many people come to think of those celebrities as members of their own tribe. We want to know how they’re doing. We want to know the tribal gossip about them.

To expand on that theory in regard to agents, by the way, I think most agents defend the publishing community because it’s part of their tribe, as well as where their bread is buttered. Writers, not so much, because many creative types tend to be rebellious. Many writers are whistleblowers – Think about THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair, THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck, or the many Russian novelists sent to Siberia for writing literature not approved of by the state. After your book’s published, Nathan, don’t be surprised if the writer part of you suddenly rebels against the agent side of you. Just kidding. :)

OK, here’s where my other mind kicks in. Despite my strong feeling that so many great books are published today that it becomes a huge mistake to think that "only trash" is published, I think it’s way too morally relativistic to say that no "trash" is published. I feel the same way about TV: many shows are better than ever before, but there’s also a lot of trash. And our news has been incredibly watered down and turned into celebrity gossip and schoolyard fights in order to draw people in and make money. Think about the major news stories on TV right now – How many are about really important world events that will impact our future, and how many are about celebrities and inflammatory arguments? Is it morally acceptable to downplay important world events to make money?

Scott said...

There are books I like, and books I don't. There are movies I like, and movies I don't. Everything is subjective - a glowing or caustic review doesn't necessarily mean that a book/movie/whatever is glowing or caustic, just that a reviewer thought so . . . and that's his/her personal taste.

Anonymous said...

Wow wow wow! I cannot believe the comments I am reading here.

Nathan, ordinarily I agree with you and I think your blog is awesome, but not today.

I'm sorry if the rest of you don't consider literary criticism legitimate and you think giving a book a bad review is "mean," but that's your opinion, not mine.

Book reviews are very important to me. I read a lot and almost every book I read is based on recommendations from other people (reviews). Those recommendations count for zero if nobody is permitted to give books negative reviews. Negative reviews are important to literature. No great reviewer I know of gave good recomendations by only giving positive reviews. You need to see both sides of the coin for it to count.

And the argument that negative reviews are mean and that reviewers are just jealous is, quite frankly, childish. Seriously, grow up. People like me enjoy and value book reviews. You want better reviews? Then write a better book! That's the way to do it, not lamely accusing negative reviewers of "jealousy."

Marilyn Peake said...

pjd said:
"I had to write my own comment on this post because all the other comments are trash."

That is hilarious!! ROFLOL.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

There's a pretty huge difference between writing a negative review and calling something "trash." I never said people shouldn't write negative reviews, just that writers should avoid shutting closing off their mind to the books they don't like.

Maureen said...

Well said. Thank you. The "trash" term is very negative and those who use it rarely define why they dislike a book. That type of arrogant criticism is insulting to so many people.

As you and others have said reading likes and dislikes are personal and every choice doesn't have to be enriching. I like to think of the fluff as dessert reading -- the whip cream on top of the sundae. Ahhh! Just smile and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been through this. I used to say, “I can’t believe so and so is actually published. Who is actually reading this stuff?” Recently, I made myself read a couple popular authors in my genre that I would never normally pick up. Their storylines may not have intrigued me, but when I studied their writing, I realized they were actually very talented. And I did learn a thing or two. I haven’t made a comment about so and so since

Anonymous said...

When I used to review books for a major city paper, I was in awe of the authors, even if I didn't love their books. But I called one top mystery writer's book "leisurely-paced" instead of plodding, and another book "detailed" instead of cluttered. Boy, am I glad--now if I ever meet these authors in person, I won't have to hide. LOL
i.e. You can state your opinion without trashing an author's work--maybe that's the best they can do, even if you don't like it.

As an aside, I saw the movie Twilight cuz I thought it was a fast way to see what the fuss was about--and I was mesmerized! I'm an adult--I don't read YA or vampires or paranormal, but loved the movie. Go figure!

Marilyn Peake said...

Stephenie Meyer writes about literary agents’ reactions to her original query letters for TWILIGHT on her website: here. It’s interesting reading, including her comment that her "queries truly sucked", that one agent sent her a particularly "mean" reply, and that she was incredibly "naïve" about the publishing world.

Livia said...

I notice that in grad school, the younger grad students are more likely to trash papers they've read. I think it's because it's safer to trash something -- no one will think you're stupid for pointing out flaws. It's more of a social risk to say you like a piece of work and leave yourself vulnerable to critics who point out the flaws in the work that you missed.

Paul Neuhardt said...

Huzzah to Nathan!

I learned this lesson more years ago than I care to admit, when in my 20's I was told to read a Stephen King book.

"But he's a horror writer, and I hate horror books," said I.

"I can't stand horror either, but trust me. This guy tells a story well enough to transcend a dislike of the genre."

I took the advice and read "The Shining." I've been a Stephen King addict every since, because my friend was right. Damn, can that man tell a story well.

And isn't the point of a novel to tell us a memorable story?

(Side note: With the exception of "Carrie," "The Shining" and "The Shawshank Redemption" I've always been disappointed in movies made from King novels. I have always wondered how many people have judged his novels from the movies and not by reading them. Another case for occasionally reading books we think are "beneath us" or not something we might like.)

J. R. McLemore said...

Bravo Nathan! I agree with this whole-heartedly. Even when I don't like (or even hate)a book or story, I still think that there is something I can learn from it. I've read Stephen King's book, On Writing, and out of the many truisms he mentioned, the one that I find myself thinking of most often is that "even the bad books have something to teach". I read widely, and I've learned quite a bit from those I've considered badly written. One of the things I've learned (from other agents' blogs) is to never call another book trash, because you never know if that agent or editor has ever been a proponet of said book. While I am not a fan of some of the wildly popular books, I know that their authors have done something right. I just hope my book will be as successful!
Kudos on your blogs, they are always insightful and inspiring.

Laura said...

Some good thoughts.

I'll add that it comes off as incredibly arrogant to say a book is trash, though I tend to feel that way about Meyer's work. There are enough technical problems with the writing that you can't call her a good writer, even if she does have a flare for plot.

But yeah, I'll leave that out of any discussions with folks in the biz. After all, like you're saying, who am I to judge? If it'd been up to me, most of Faulkner would never have made print. Too convoluted and boring! (see? I have no taste as far as "academics" are concerned, though most of them might agree with me on Meyer.)

Anna Claire said...

Oh snap, Nathan. You are so right on all levels.

Joel Hoekstra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

Both political comments have been deleted.

Pete said...

"let alone anything that could remotely be considered "trash."

I don't know how you can even say that. Have you been in a bookstore?

DG said...

Great as usual Nathan.

As a physical therapist by training I couldn't let you get away with your spelling gaff: no "o" in gluteus. And the plural is glutei maximi.

Lydia Sharp said...

In the words of our dear friend, The Rejectionist, "Nobody likes a jerkwad."

That applies to so many things.

Nathan Bransford said...

pete-

Have you spent more than 5 minutes in one?

Anonymous said...

@ the recent West Hollywood Book Fair, there was a panel moderated by Eduardo Santiago about writers who went into prisons to teach - writing but also reading to young people.

The most provocative insight (for me) that came out of the discussion were the books most popular with prisoners: Nora Roberts.

Eduardo described a boy who'd been incarcerated at twelve and, at eighteen, because he'd never been with women, read Roberts for insight into the opposite sex and about romance.

Annalee said...

On your actual point, being telling a literary agent that the industry doesn't know its *** from its elbow, I think you're totally right. Even if I believed that (and I don't), I wouldn't tell an agent that I think all their other clients are talentless hacks. That's just--well, duh.

On the word trash in general, I disagree in two directions:

1. I call some of my favorite books "trash" or "trashy." I don't mean it literally; I mean "this is not a challenging book that forces me to think." For example, John Scalzi is one of my favorite writers, but I've been known to refer to THE ANDROID'S DREAM as trashy. Not because I didn't love it, but because it's a book written for grown-ups that opens with a chapter-long fart joke (and it's awesome and you should all read it right now).

2. I don't have a problem with people using "trash" as a rhetorical device, given what other things people will say about books. I think it speaks volumes about an author's work if their asked to promote in and they've got nothing to say but "Dan Brown sucks," but I know of far worse ills than the t-word (book burning is the one that really gets to me. The one time I saw a book-burning protest, someone dear to me had to hold me back to keep me from injuring myself trying to save the books. Which was a stupid instinct, but there you go).

Buffy Andrews said...

Nathan, I appreciate your post and all of the hard work you put into your blog. Here's something to think about. To be honest, it's bothered me for awhile. When I read it, it's like fingernails scratching across a blackboard.
I would not call another writer's book trash. And I also would not refer to reading manuscripts as "reading slush" or manuscripts as "slush." I guess I feel it's a lack of respect for someone's hard work. Am I weird or what? Do any other writers feel this way? It's not that I'm an overly sensitive person, I just wouldn't feel right. Since you brought the trash talk up, I thought this was a good thing to discuss as well. I have enormous respect for editors and writers and agents and everyone who works so hard at what they do each and every day. So, yeah, slush doesn't work for me. Does it work for you? Why or why not. Maybe I'm missing something here.

Nathan Bransford said...

buffy-

I tend to use "Inbox" instead of slush pile, because there's neither a pile (at least physically) nor slush. I wouldn't take the term personally, though. I don't think it's intended as a slight.

hannah said...

Not that I don't agree with this post, but the genre I write it wouldn't exist if not for one sixteen-year-old who wrote a book because, as she's said in numerous interviews, "everything out there for teenagers was trash." And I believe she's repped by Curtis Brown...

Scott said...

Nice post, Nathan. Lopsided or one word reviews either positive or negative can be entertaining, but one should probably do one's best to apply as much balance to any literary critique as possible.

And to follow through a little on what Laura said, none of this should be to say there isn't poor writing out there to learn from, as well. A "trashing" writer may come off as a ignorant bore, but an overly diplomatic kiss ass risks doing the same.

To be fair (and to take my own advice, I suppose), the industry, especially now, is engendering a lot of bitterness, resentment and careerist aggression. There are more of us trying to be published and far more information about it at our fingertips. Thank goodness Milan Kundera wrote some of his authorially intrusive "telling" novels back when male fiction writers were welcome to do so. :^)

ajcastle said...

Extremely well said! I have thought this very thing so many times. I see many many many -- writers especially -- trash talking other authors and their books. The very first thing that comes to my mind is "they're just jealous".

There are things that really aren't my bag, and it's totally fine with me if other people don't agree with my tastes. But I don't bash stuff that's not my thing and say they're complete and utter trash. Obviously, as you said, the author did something right in order to get published and sell that book.

Myra said...

Preach it, yo.

Laura Martone said...

Your grace never ceases to amaze me, "Doctor" Nathan. (Is that wrong, incidentally, to use emphasis quotes in this manner? LOL!)

You're right - taste is extremely personal, and as Melanie Avila wrote, I've never called anything trash. I may not like it, but rather than focus on the books I don't like, I'd rather spread the love about the books I DO enjoy.

I must admit that I have expressed my dislike for certain books from time to time (like The Princess Bride - sorry, Bill), but I would never call anything trash. I think it's fine to express one's opinions, as long as it's in a professional manner and not just vicious to be vicious (which smacks more of jealousy and mean-spiritedness than anything else).

There are a multitude of opinions in the world, and thank goodness for that! As Cat Woods so aptly wrote, If we all loved the same thing there would be need for only one writer, one agent and one publisher. Egads! I hope that never happens...

Anonymous said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with the bulk of these comments. From the outside, it seems like novels often get published because of their platforms - not because the writers showed originality of thought or true writing ability. I know writing a novel is difficult and that it takes a ton of diligence and hard work. But it's not really all about talent anymore, is it? For example, now that celebrity is so all-consuming, we have all these celebrity-penned novels. After the Da Vinci Code was such a success, a ton of similar books came out. Same with the Devil Wears Prada. And while there are many haters on the originals, I think we can at least recognize where these authors went right. But I also think there are a lot of poorly written books being published - perhaps they've made sense from a business perspective, but as a reader, it can often be a disappointing landscape.

Clarity said...

Interesting but I have to disagree with you here. While I think many should be POLITE and diplomatic when discussing ... another word for trash? ... pulp reads (nothing wrong with them, but we know they're not Hemingways), it is vital to retain some sort of quality control in today's overtly and increasingly commercial "market place".

While I like how your description of book trashing reminded me of zenophobia ("The Other", abasement), I can understand how writers can feel like some publishing houses are not unlike vacuous blockbuster pushing studios.

At the end of the day, without these voices saying "No, we can do better", mediocrity will slowly become the norm and NONE of us want that, not even the literary Fang Farmers.

Clarity said...

Isn't "Doctor amateur" an oxymoron?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

It's really not true, especially for novels, that an author needs a platform. A platform can help break a novel out, but it's not much of a difference-maker when it comes to a book actually selling to a publisher.

And, again, what you consider poorly written might be what someone else calls fantastically written. People mock Dan Brown for his prose, but there are few better at pacing and cliffhangers and just straight readability.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Really, Nathan? Really? People who are trying to get in the good graces of literary agents, slam other peoples work. Really?

If I was an agent and someone sent me a query that showed any negativity, they'd get a form letter.

Nathan Bransford said...

clarity-

That's exactly right - some publishers are blockbuster studios. Other publishers churn out indie books that are literary, others focus on niche audiences.

Is this a bad thing?

I think what you and anon object to is that the more literary books aren't the ones that get the backing of the major publishers (setting aside that Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, etc. etc. etc. etc. are all published by major publishers).

But publishers publish what people will buy. I don't think you can expect publishers to mainly publish literary works when there are huge segments of the reading audience that don't want to read literary books.

Bob said...

It's like going to Human Resources at Microsoft and saying you think Microsoft sucks, but you want a job there. Every book published had someone put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it.

I see it all the time when I teach. Writers bemoaning the 'crap' that is getting published while their masterpiece is ignored.

Write better books.

Courtney said...

At the risk of this already having been said, I really don't care about literary quality.

Shocking, huh? The real stunner--I'm an English major who really doesn't care about literary quality.

The way I see it, if I like a book, I'll read it, if I don't like it, I won't read it. It doesn't make any difference to me whether the book has so-called literary merit, or whether the rest of the reading populace absolutely loves/hates it--that's their call.

And yes, I loved the Eragon books--despite their flaws.

Clarity said...

Well you know the publishing world better than I so can say,

"there are huge segments of the reading audience that don't want to read literary books"

The fact that the literary book in your response went under the indie churning publisher category stood out. I may seem like an odd defender because my book is of the "commercial" variety but the labels struck me. Are smarter books not right for the common denominator? Can we quantify this? I'm being serious because I am concerned that books may die a slow death in my youtube generation and well, I would hate the last remaining text to be Paris Hilton's fifth autobiography.

What do you want to represent Nathan, that intrigues me, beyond what will sell or not, what work would you like to represent?

Rachel Blackbirdsong said...

Whenever I see one writer trashing another I always chock it up to sour grapes. That's especially true for those who haven't been published who seem to thrive on putting published authors down. I once knew someone who would deface books for typos and grammar to make himself feel superior. He'd never published anything, but hated those who had. Another put me down for having my poetry published by saying, "It's easy to get poetry published." So I told him to try it and I haven't heard from him since.

There are many of us who have written books, and that's something to proud of. But there are many who just do that and never risk rejection. Getting published isn't easy. You do have to have a thick skin and learn how to accept rejection. So for those who get their books published they have nothing but my deepest respect.

So what if the subject matter isn't my cup my tea? Clearly an agent or publisher thought enough of it to put it out there. Hopefully someday that can be the case for all of us who are working on books.

Jeff Adair said...

Bravo! Well said...for a literary agent.

(I kid, I kid!!)

wendy said...

We-ell, I'd never admit this to an agent/editor, but one of the reasons I started writing was to create stories I wanted to read that weren't out there. Stories that were powerfully, haauntingly beautiful - as I define it to mean - and had elements of 'fantastique', speculation but not conflict - indeed, something I thought much better.

I haven't succeeded, but I persist. *g*

Anonymous said...

My advice is read something that pushes you out of your comfort zone from time to time. You might be surprised what you learn.

Mireyah Wolfe said...

Trashing another writer is just bad form.

How can they justify alienating another person in their field? There is always going to be someone out there who doesn't like somebody else's work. It's a fact of life. But to humiliate both yourself and the other person is stupid. It only hurts the person doing it.

The writing community is fairly small, and I imagine things like this spread like wild-fire!

lora96 said...

I've read books before and capital-letter HATED them. The thing about their authors is, they got me to think and talk about the story. They inspired me to use my critical thinking skills to analyze, disparage, and detail their work.

If a book gets you thinking and incites you to talk about books, it can NOT be "trash". No one discusses their actual garbage because it's dull.

Love it or hate it, if it elicits a strong response, it is a powerful piece of writing.

And that's just cool.

Plus, bashing other authors is an insult to the self and the craft. That is, of course, not cool in the least.

lora96 said...

One more thing:

I teach 2nd grade. I read the kiddos tons of books I love and find worthy of celebration.

I also get copies of books I do not adore, such as Captain Underpants and some novelization of the Hannah Montana movie...because I'm not 7 and they can love something whether I understand/like it or not!

I don't have to quiver with laughter over "The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman" for it to be worthy of notice.

I am not such an accomplished arbiter of excellence as that.

Richard Lewis said...

In my youth, when I could tolerate heat and mosquitoes better, I went on surf adventures to rainforest jungle reef points, deliberately carrying a trashy book or three, ones I very carefully selected and knew I would enjoy reading. As I read in the heat of the day or by flashlight & firelight at night, I'd rip out the pages to use for certain, um...oh, never mind. I think I'm regretting writing this comment already. But hoofing that weight in was a great honor to the authors. Seriously.

(And growing up on a small tropical Asian island, where there was no TV, I devoured all books I could get my hands on. I loved them all. I even once stole a novel from a hippie's backpack in a public bus...I've told that story elsewhere on the Internet.)

Ryan Ashley Scott said...

I have made 2 negative comments about authors in my life, both of which happened with the last month. I'm feeling a bit like my 16 year old self who's mom just caught her smoking a first cigarette behind the garage. Note taken.

On the other hand, maybe I can sneak this message to the voice in my head that keeps wondering, "will someone make fun of this?" when I'm trying to write.

Sarah said...

I couldn't agree more!

I'm not a fan of Twilight or the DaVinci Code, but good grief, blasting them has become like an exclusive club's secret handshake- you're not a real writer unless you loath them. Far better to learn what you can from the books you don't like.

Here's hoping we all find our WIP's out on the shelves, with critics wondering why they're popular.

Joanne Sher said...

I "almost" lived this firsthand. I had an idea for a novel, and before I could start it another author had the AUDACITY to write it and GET IT PUBLISHED. I SO wanted to hate her and her book (I even bought it with the hopes it would be lousy!). But it wasn't. And I now follow that author on Twitter and FB. You can learn from ANYTHING you read.

D. G. Hudson said...

'Trashing' of anything other than your own work implies arrogance and immaturity.

If we as writers want everyone to read, then we can't restrict what they read.

I like your point, Nathan, that if we're on the receiving end of this type of comment, we'd probably feel it was unfair. We're not all equal judges of what's good quality, we're only entitled to select what we like and leave the rest for others. IMO, of course.

Darin said...

Wow. This really hits home. I have been known to express negative opinions about certain authors, albeit within my own writer's group and friends and certainly never in any public or professional forum, and now feel a bit chastised. The one thing that I would like to add to the discussion, however, is that more than anything with these authors, when I am expressing my opinion, I am frustrated. I go to writing conventions, read blogs, go to my writers group, read books, learn all these things that help to differentiate good writing from bad writing, and even more importantly, great writing from merely passable. I apply myself as hard as I can, rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite and then can't get anyone to get past my query letter, much less look at the actual product. Then, I go into Barnes and Noble, pick up a book that has just "gone platinum" and find 47 adverbs on the first page, typos throughout the book, passive voice, etc. I may be alone, but besides just calling "sour grapes", understand that some of us are merely frustrated by the fact that the very crimes that we are trying to expunge from our own writing are all over the pages of the latest best seller. I almost certainly wouldn't go so far as to call any book trash, but I make no bones about discussing among friends and fellow writers the pros and often cons of various books and writers. Great discussion everyone!

Next said...

Come on--you're a lit major? Taste is all 'subjective'? This is undergraduate posturing at its worth, Nathan. Yes, one should be classy enough to not call books trash (even if they are trashy). Probably this is jealousy, in a lot of cases (even if the books are trashy). But to then move from that claim, to a further claim that 'everything is a matter of taste' is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and to surely miss the whole point of reading--the education of the sentiments, the hierarchy of values. You drunk?

Anonymous said...

Yes. True.
BUT sometimes when I read a picture book to my kids I think to myself, "Huh?" Some of them are just not good. But then again, I have a small library in town with not a lot of newly released books. Maybe. You gotta admit that a few of them are stinkers.
Although I could be getting pickier in my old age. I keep going to movies with high expectations and I haven't see one in awhile that I like.
Maybe it's me!
Oh no.

Hollie Sessoms said...

Ha! Love it! As an unpublished writer, I feel a bit like a jerk for criticizing successful writers. It's like that friend of mine who wasn't even good enough to play college football, but watches the pros play EVERY SUNDAY and criticizes EVERY PLAY that is made and can't believe it when someone fumbles.

How uncool is it of me to talk about Dan Brown's shoddy writing when I'm sitting in my pjs cataloging rejection letters?

Adam Heine said...

I really, really, really like this post. I made a similar realization recently.

Nathan, have you read Blue Like Jazz? It mentions something like your "in group" theory, using the analogy of a rowboat.

Like, we all have this idea that we're on a sinking ship, but there aren't enough rowboats for everyone and only the "cool people" (in-crowd, important, necessary, you name it) will get spots. We don't know where the cut-off is, but we're constantly comparing, trying to make sure we're at least "better than that person over there" to convince ourselves we'll get a spot.

This mentality results in garbage like this -- treating people terribly based on their opinions when, by definition, an opinion cannot be wrong.

Anyway, I think you're on to something. You may have a career waiting for you in amateur cultural anthropology.

Nathan Bransford said...

next-

You're disagreeing with the parts of my post that aren't actually in my post.

Next said...

Nathan, Good call. I was a little trigger happy there--I've been reading awful undergrad essays all day. Sorry. However, writing "Not only have you probably stopped learning, but don't forget: someone else thinks your books are trash too, and they're no more right than you are" strikes me as false. No?

Nathan Bransford said...

next-

It might be a little glib. But if Steven King thinks Stephenie Meyer sucks and Harold Bloom thinks Steven King sucks and Stephenie Meyer thinks Harold Bloom sucks (she hasn't said this, but it would complete the trifecta), who's right?

Dara said...

I just don't get why anyone would put that in a query...some personal opinions aren't meant to be shared :P

Note: I hope that doesn't sound like I think most books are trash 'cause I don't! I know I'm a picky reader--much of it has to do with a lack of attention span. Sure there are books out there I don't like but I don't call them trash.

There's also a division between a negative review and one that trashes the book. Reading reviews like that on Amazon or wherever make me cringe and sometimes I just want to write a scathing comment back to said reviewer. But I never do, probably for the best :)

Mira said...

Marilyn, you're awesome.

Nathan, this is a killer post - really funny and clever. The last line is just really good.

In terms of the topic, I think telling an agent in a query that most books are 'trash' is an example of really not knowing your audience.

I imagine that someone might include that in a query letter in order to try to bond with the agent about improving the quality of literature, e.g. representing their particular book. It strikes me as a tactic that is very likely to re-bound. I hope people who might be tempted to try it are reading your post.

In terms of people calling books 'trash' in ordinary conversations, I'd imagine that some of it is jealousy, definitely. But I think some of it may also be an expression of frustration - like Darin said - or sort of a hidden concern about what makes something popular, and will their own book reach people. I'm not sure I'm saying this well, but something about: What is it that people like? Will people understand and appreciate what I have to say in my book? I think that's what's hidden underneath.

B.J. Anderson said...

Great post! I think its just plain rude to say books are trash or dis an author's work in a public forum. Whatever happened to good manners?!

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks, Mira! Wow, what an incredibly nice surprise to find that compliment here!

Mira said...

Marilyn -

:)

Donna Hole said...

I don't put much energy in reading reviews for the simple reason that "taste is extremely personal".

I've finished books that I really didn't like because I knew there was something to learn. Either about story composition, or character building, or writing style.

There are some authors - and novels - out there I really don't like, but when I get stuck for a concept, or emotion, I'll pick up one of their novels to get a sense of the emotion or action I'm lacking. Lets face it; if they're on the best sellers list, they must be doing something right - even if its not to my taste.

............dhole

Dominique said...

Great post.

Twilight isn't trash. It's potato chips dipped in chocolate and then crack. By which I mean that everyone read it and loved it while they were doing it and ate it up with a spoon. Then, afterward, feeling of regret and shame set in, and now we're all disavowing it like we didn't love it. We read it. We liked it. It's not trash.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's all too easy to point fingers and "trash" a popular novel--but that person was once an unpublished hopeful just like most of us. Notice most of the folks pointing fingers have never had anything published but are posers pretending to be literary snobs.

We should try to keep that in mind and hope that one day our books are good enough to be published and at least discussed, if not dissed.

Linguista said...

I like this post. I've recently started a blog reviewing books I read and one of the first books I reviewed was Catcher in the Rye. A classic, but I didn't like it.

The reason I didn't like it was because it was to analytical, and so negative. It was hard to read, without almost feeling guilty for being a part of society. However, that's part of what makes it a good book" scathing, unapologetic criticism.

If you approach any book with an open mind, you'll find you can learn something.

Going to shut up now, before I start singing the Pocahontas theme song! lol!

Billi Jean said...

Nathan -- cracking up, but not so much at your blog, well, the wet fish is still an image that can raise a chuckle, but have you read your comments? And I love the ones that start with: I agree....then disagree!

Maybe that would be a great next blog.

;) billi jean

Monica said...

Well said, Mr. Bransford. I had the misfortune of encountering Twilight bashing at, of all things, a writers' conference. Jealousy is such an ugly beast.

Whirlochre said...

Wanton trashing, I disagree with.

But nothing — even books — is beyond being trashed. In an infinite universe, the trash is out there somewhere (and some of us may even have written it).

My view on trash is that if you're going to summon it as a weapon to deride a book/person/thing

a) You'd better have an eloquent and reasoned argument.
b) You'd better be prepared to be wrong, and for one to a zillion people to hate you.

onelowerlight said...

Well said. I totally agree.

The strange thing for me was when my writing mentor had this reaction to my work. She isn't a published author--just another aspiring writer, like me--but I call her a mentor because she helped me to set daily goals and treat writing like a profession, not just a hobby. I asked her to be an alpha reader for one of my first novels, and she told me it was so bad she couldn't bring herself to finish it. Very weird.

I think this is what happened: she knows all the "rules" of writing by heart and tries very hard to follow them, but when she saw me violate them, she decided my writing was bad because it broke the rules. Truth was, I knew the rules and "broke" them with my eyes wide open, careful to be sure I was doing it for a reason. I later submitted that excerpt from my novel to a university writing story contest and won first place--which probably made this girl hate my writing even more.

There's no way to win with people like this, except to wait patiently for them to come around and change on their own. I don't hate her for having that reaction, and even though we don't talk as much, we're still friends. Her opinion of my work doesn't threaten my work, and that outlook enables me to keep from responding in kind.

I want to be a writer so that I can write books that change people's lives in the ways my favorite books changed mine--I hope that the people who think my writing is trash don't make me lose sight of the people whose lives I manage to touch.

Steve said...

A few quick comments.

(1) Does anyone kno wwho it was that somebody earlier referred to who created a genre by declaring "everything out there written for teenagers is trash"? What was her book and what was the genre? I'd like to hunt it down.

(2) THose who are obsessed with the idea of "literary quality" might do well to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The author chronicles how he went temporarily insanne from trying to rigorously define quality in writing.

(3) I find that a very highly regarded writer of the new generation who writes in a genre I enjoy, has good politics, and appears to be a heck of a nice guy nonetheless consistently comes up with material I find unreadable. Can't say why for sure, it just seems "clunky". Like looking at a buildinbg and being able to see all the spot welds and construction scaffolding. And the prose appears to be written as much to instruct as to entertain - fine if you can do it well, Heinlein was a master. But with this writer, it just seems to impede the story.

But all that being said, I'd never call his work "trash". It just strikes me as surprisingly less well written than I would have expected.

So, I agree with your point, Nathan. And I'll go further to say that I think people who call popular fiction "trash" because it is popular are revealing their own snootiness and elitism.

-Steve

Andrew said...

There's 3 different points here.

1. Saying books are trash in a query letter: No-brainer, if you put it in, you're a moron, apply to X factor at once.

2. In general, thinking/saying almost all books are trash: When you are saying 95% of a medium is awful, you don't like the medium. Be it films, music, art, literature, car design, financial packages, headphones - If you like a small sliver of that medium and dismiss the rest, this is your standpoint: You dislike all of it, it's just that a tiny fraction is palatable enough for you to enjoy. I dislike poetry, can't get my head round it. I've found maybe a dozen ones I like. Ergo, I'm not a fan of poetry, ergo, trashing it en masse makes me look like a prat.

3. You think something is so bad you feel the need to tell someone, aka, 'Trash':

OK. This is an opinion. It seems to me the problem is you are not allowed to have a open negative opinion. If you think something is great, you are allowed any public forum to say so. To use the same public forum where 'opinions' (and remember, good and bad, they are both opinions) are stated to declare you loathed something, is deemed "trashing".

Now I do believe in the housewives adage, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say it", however, if you extol free speech you've got to expect someone to say something unpleasant once in a while. Otherwise what's the point of opinions and/or public forums? If you're not allowed to state a public opinion unless it's positive, for fear of censorship, is Fascism.

To the "I don't hate any books - they all have worth" brigade, or the "I never judge anything" crew: What?

Cynically, I think you could be lying just to make yourself look nice and fluffy in the public domain while behind closed doors you're stabbing effigies of Neil Gaiman with hairpins and throwing little wax JK Rowlings on the fire. In reality, it's probably a little personal pride that you give every book you pick up a chance, while forgetting the times you've been in the pub after a few, arguing that Clive Barker should be burned at the stake. And then when you remember this you reach for the utterly worthless statement "If it's popular it must be good." If it is true, I don't want to talk to you. Anyone who can't passionately dislike something, can't possibly understand me who does. Those who like everything or, even worse, thinks everything is brilliant and fluffy and lovely, makes me sad....and precariously close to homicide.

There is such a thing as the Emperors new clothes. Now, I don't think this is a widespread phenomenon, but it does happen. There is very little other way to explain the fact "The Sun" is the biggest selling newspaper in England, or that Doop had a number 1 single with "Doop" (not to mention 'crazy Frog's remix of Axel F). How else do you explain that the source of all evil in the world, Max Clifford, is a millionaire and not a blind, paraplegic leper like he deserves to be? Sometimes people get caught up in the hype, in the 'in crowd', and follow the same fashions, expressing pleasure and adoration in the process.

To use Nathan's anthropological argument, as much as people will knock something they are not part of in order to justify and improve their position, others will assume the likes and loves of a group in order to gain acceptance. "Peer pressure" in other words. I will state for the record that this occurs much, much less than many 'pop-culture' bashers with their pipes and their dog-eared copies of Chaucer like to think. But it does still happen. I loved the Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, I read 'Digital Fortress' and wound up in hospital. That’s not jumping on the Da Vinci Code Bandwagon. That isn't Trashing ‘Digital Fortress’ either, that’s opinion. I'll open the "Devil's Bible" (as I like to call it) and point you through everything that's wrong with it if you like.

A mindless, unconsidered opinion, be it negative or positive (oddly enough the positive comments nark me more than the negative ones) is as useless as an articulate, insightful one is valuable.

GhostFolk.com said...

Not only have you probably stopped learning, but don't forget: someone else thinks your books are trash too, and they're no more right than you are.

You're a genius and a diplomat, Nathan. That last clause could have gone two ways. Thanks for taking the high road. It is much appreciated.

Adam Heine said...

Coming off of Andrew's point, I think part of the problem is a confusion between:

(1) Saying you dislike a book (music, art, whatever).

(2) Saying a book is bad in a way that implies good/bad is objective.

(3) Implying that another human being is worth less of your respect because they like a book that you think is bad.

I'm guessing (in a completely unscientific manner) that most people will agree (1) is okay, (2) is a good subject for discussion, and (3) is childish.

What I think a lot of people don't realize is how often we do (2) and (3) when all we meant to say was (1).

liv said...
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liv said...
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Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it really depend on what standard the book was being measured against?

The standard uncritically assumed here seems to be "someone likes it." Apply the same standard to, say, food and you justify an all ice cream diet. Apply this like-able food standard to dogs, and you justify slurping up a puddle of sweet, sweet anti-freeze from the driveway.

Don't drink that, Rover, it's trash.

You arrogant, myopic elitist! Bark!

Apply the same standard to public discourse, and you get... well, 21st Century public discourse, in which ill-considered, uninformed "trash" that nevertheless makes some people feel good competes on par with well-considered, informed opinion.

"But, reading fiction doesn't set public policy or making me fat; it's just for enjoyment!" one might protest.

The psyche can't be corrupted by trashy but enjoyable input like the law or the body can, right? I mean, if it could, we would see the corrupting effects manifest in... oh... thinking about quality in a diffuse and unqualitative way.

Joseph L. Selby said...

What about rational hatred of Dan Brown and Stepenie Meyer? Are those okay?

GhostFolk.com said...

Steve, I think it was S.E. Hinton, who wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen because Young Adult fiction of her time didn't address anything Young Adults cared about or were actually living through.

But I don't know if this was the author that was being referred to. I think many people consider S.E. Hinton the originator of the modern Young Adult contemporary novel, though. I know I do.

Rowenna said...

Very true--and I think we could all be a little nicer to fellow writers. I prefer to think of them as members of the same crazy team, not as potential competitors who I must despise for their success (naive thought, probably). I once said that my goal was to write someone's favorite book, and I'll ignore how many people hate it.

At the same time, I have to give a nod to the "I can't find any books I want to read" camp--this can be based not on "because they're all trash" but more on "because the current trends in writing style and topics of interest just aren't my cup of tea." I find that I'm tending to go back in the annals and read older stuff because I'm just not enthralled with the stories en vogue right now. That will, of course, change, as all trends do!

Elisabeth Black said...

Do people really put stuff like that in a query? How... um, irrelevant, to say the least.

Jan Markley said...

Nathan: I should have had you there when I was defending my masters thesis in cultural anthropology! You could have gone all 'innovation vs tradition' on them (no wait save that for the electronic book vs. paper book debate). Also b/c I had just broken my ankle in three places, had surgery, and had a knee high cast - but that's another story).
Next time you can use the highly esteemed anthropological theory that was derived from a shampoo commercial back in the 70s, commonly known as the 'I'll tell two friends, and you tell two friends' theory of networking.
We have a simultaneous need to belong and be unique. At first we want to be part of the group of people who are reading a certain book and then we want to break away and be unique by rejecting it.
I think it is fair to say that a certain book isn't in a genre that you tend to read. I'm a bit of a literary snob but make a point of reading in other genres and recently enjoyed an urban vampire book (even though I'm still all 'why can't vampires and werewolves just get along.' I also saw some interesting plot and character devices that I will utilize at some point in my writing.
As writers there is something we can learn from everything we read.

Ink said...

I'm with Adam Heine, as I think people too often conflate "I don't like this" with "This isn't any good." Yet lack of quality and disliking something are two vastly different things.

Sad to say, not all books are written for you. In fact, most aren't, as they have a different intended audience with a different set of sensibilities. This is not the book's fault, nor does it make it a bad book. It merely means you are likely not to enjoy it. And that means you chose the wrong book, nothing more.

The problem with calling somethign "trash" is that it's a dismissive statement, not an analytical one. It's fine to dislike something. It's even fine to hate something with a burning passion. But neither this dislike or this hate make it a bad book - it's just a bad book for you.

Critical discourse is something different, an attempt to evaluate a book. And that critical discourse is only as good as the argument it makes. "Trash" is not an argument. And any honest critical discourse should attempt to examine the book for what it is, not for what you want it to be. You don't analyze a thriller against a set of values determined by Ulysses. It wasn't attempting to meet those values.

So, critical discourse is fine. All books have flaws (particularly since flaws are so often subjective). Certain bestsellers will have lots of them. I don't think there's anything wrong with critical commentaries pointing these out, either. But these flaws still do not make something "trash". A bestseller with many flaws has still pleased many, many readers - it has succeeded despite its flaws, a feat in its own right. And it might be relevant to figure out how it did so.

That, to me, is what critical discourse is all about. And I don't see much of that in "trashing" something. Your likes and dislikes are arbiters of quality only for yourself. If someone has a critical argument to make, they should step up and make it. And leave the insults on the playground.

Just my take.

Bryan

Lisa R said...

I don't think you should call other peoples' books trash in a query letter. That seems pretty obvious. I mean if you're going to do that then you better be prepared to bring it. You better be a freaking literary God. I agree with Nathan that you can deplore a book but that you can always learn something from it. There are plenty of books I hated that I learned from--even if it was "that's not what I want to do in my own work". That said, I really didn't enjoy Dan Brown's work all that much but I totally respect what he's done career-wise and did find the premise very intriguing. Also I have no interest AT ALL in anything vampire-related but I'd hardly call the vampire work out there today trash since there is clearly a huge market for it. I think that you can hate a particular book or author but still respect that they have done well for themselves or done something original or sold millions of copies--whatever it may be. I hated Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath but there's no denying his literary genius (and I learned that whole thing about the inter-chapters or whatever they were called!) Also I think the whole calling other books trash thing is a lot like the bully in the schoolyard syndrome--you need to "trash" other people to make yourself feel better.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post!

I write a lot, and read a lot, and read a lot of "quality" and - guess what - I really enjoyed The DaVinci Code years ago on a vacation. Because he did a great job of entertaining and keeping me turning pages. Take that, High Literary Writers!

Also left a writing and discussion group 2 years ago because two academics were in it, and you had to like what they liked/dislike what they disliked, on pain of shunning, and anything with a story or entertainment value was disliked. Life is too short for nonsense - I got back some free time and they are still getting paid little to nothing to publish literary, cutting edge poetry that no one buys or reads....

marnini said...

I agree. I give kudos to anyone that is willing to embrace their creative side and try and make a go at it. That alone is a treasure not trash.

Fawn Neun said...

Art is subjective and can't be measured.

The purpose of art is to reflect the human experience, and there are more subtle shades and perspectives of that than can be dreamed in any philosophy.

The strong use of universals is what helps grow the popularity of a work of art. (And even if it's "trash" it's still art.) I think the best instruction I've ever gotten on the definition of art was from Tom Rollins' "Skinny Legs and Well". Create something you wish to see that cannot already be found in the world. This is elevation to a higher plane, and cannot, artistically, be "judged".

Oh, you can check off demerits for sloppy grammar or messy brush strokes, but art is humanity striving for the divine, to become a creator in the world, in every way that human beings are capable of striving.

Who the hell are we to "judge" that?

Paul Neuhardt said...

Having commented on Stephen King, I'll go to Stephanie Myer now, as she seems to be one of the two main literary whipping children here, Dan Brown sharing the stocks with her.

I read all four of the Twilight novels for no other reason than I wanted to be able to have a conversation with my four teenage daughters (13, 15 and 17, Lord help me).

They loved the books, while I found them mediocre, particularly the second, New Moon. What I found interesting was that we all had the same general commentary on the books.

The kids all loved the story lines, and I agree that Meyer has created an interesting twist on the vampire novel. Not amazing, but interesting.

The kids and I all agreed that Meyer spends too long on the teen angst of the protagonist Bella, and that we all were ready to slap the whiny little child and tell her to grow up already. The 13 year-old was the most irritated by this, interestingly enough.

We all agree that some sections of the books tend to drag, and she seems to have spent more time trying to boost her page count than advance her story.

We all agree that we have read better written books (including Meyer's own "The Host," another decent but not outstanding work).

What we don't agree on is the quality of the books. They all label the books as "really cool, and everyone needs to read them." I give them all a rating of, "It's not time ripped out of your life, but I've enjoyed many other works a lot more."

Now, do I think Meyer's books are quality? You bet I do. Why? Because they engaged a large audience and brought reading pleasure to that audience Are they great works of literature. Certainly not. But they were read and enjoyed by a wide audience, and that in and of itself denotes a measure of quality to them.

Okay, so the audience was teen girls. Nothing at all is wrong with that. If I thought I had anything to say that the teen girl audience would want to hear, I would be happy to write for them, and I would be overjoyed to have as many people read and enjoy my work as has Stephanie Myer.

Isn't the joy of reading what it is supposed to be about?

Lisa R said...

Mr. Neuhardt:

Well said. I think books that get kids, particularly teenagers, interested in reading is a fantastic thing. I used to teach children and I remember when Harry Potter first came out I saw children who hated to read so much they wouldn't read the words on a cereal box lugging around these giant Harry Potter tomes, completely enthralled. It was very exciting. I agree with what you said about Meyers' books.

L. V. Gaudet said...

Never bash the trash.

I like coffee, you like hot cocoa, and that's ok.

Kate said...

Yup, I'm guilty of this. Sometimes the snob rears her ugly head. Jealous? Absolutely.

Personally, I think that some of the most chastised authors are only guilty of giving many readers what they really want--good old fashioned love making, drama, over-the-top action, etc--in the purest form. Maybe readers don't have to work as hard for it--but who decided reading has to be work?

Amanda said...

Amen! It makes me very sad when people hate on my favorite sparkling vampire. What's wrong with enjoying a book for enjoyment's sake? There is a reason we have different genres. One size does not fit all. :-)

Anonymous said...

I don't think all "hatred" of popular authors is always irrational or jealousy. Sometimes people have legitimate reasons for disliking certain authors, and their popularity doesn't factor into it at all.

It's very unfair of you to say that hatred of Stephenie Meyer, or Dan Brown or anyone else is irrational. That completety discounts and dismisses those who have real, valid issues with what those authors (or any others) write.

Also, why is calling something "trash" unacceptable, but calling something "the greatest book ever written" is fine? They're both opinions, and both, in all likelihood, hyperbole. And both can be disputed by people who disagree. Just the same, though, that's what the author of those opinions feels. And they have every right to feel that.

It's not right to say they're wrong to call something trash unless you also say they are wrong to call something the greatest book ever. Because, in all honesty, an opinion is an opinion, no matter how exaggerated, and everyone's got a right to find something to be trash or to be the best thing ever, even if everyone in the world disagrees.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the 'Don't trash' thing. I've always thought it says more about the trasher than the trashee, and not in a good way, either.

Jon Gibbs
Still can't get open-id to work :(

Cari said...

It's a great way to annoy a librarian too :-)

Wayne K said...

I hate lots of books, but am able to keep it to myself. My personal opinions are, well, personal. Bringing other people over to my side isn't going to happen, and it doesn't strengthen my conviction.

Pickles said...

You say: "...they're no more right than you are".


Nathan, after having a discussion with someone I admire, I've changed my mind about something. I believed that all people's opinions were equal because everyone has a right to believe what they want... But now I realise that not all opinions are equal. People can be pretty obtuse sometimes, ignorant (I am, I admit it), and not everyone has the same information to draw upon when they state their opinion(s). Some people can't make an unbiased decision - they don't know all the facts, or all the facts aren't there to learn. But I think if you do learn and you do study, you can state your opinion, and no matter what it is, it's as equally valid as the next. But if you just state what you think and have no idea of all sides...

So who is best to state whether a book is great? Can you judge it from numbers sold? Some writers sell millions of copies, yet their writing lacks finesse and artistry. Conversely, how many writers never see their work published even though their prose is elegant and meaningful, just because they're not in the right time with the right piece? Or with work that's too deep for most markets? (My friend has this problem: editors have told her she's going to struggle to sell it even though it's great.) Not every reader wants a work of art; some just want a quick getaway from their life, or they don't appreciate the prose anyway (the standard of grammar today - my own family among them!). Mass-appeal books fill this space. Does that make these worthy of aspiring to, writing to aim for?

I believe (rightly or wrongly) that makes them lucky. They wrote a book that fills a need in a time when people want quick fixes and fast-paced plots.


So I don't agree that all popular books are something to learn from. I admire books that teach me something, that make me question my beliefs. I admire the artistry behind carefully chosen words and sentences. I admire strong characters and intriguing worlds. I don't admire action for the sake of action.

And before anyone thinks I'm a writer who's been rejected and wants to place the blame elsewhere, I'm not. I'm only just editing my novel now. :)

Oh, and I certainly wouldn't trash an author or tell an agent that I know best. I don't. My beliefs are mine, and I'll admit, they're often flawed through ignorance when it comes to the wider world. Honestly, even if I personally dislike an author's work, kudos to them for beating the masses and getting a publishing deal. Just don't expect me to admire their linguistic skills.

Well, now I've added my two cents, away I go to bed. Goodnight from the UK!

And I hope you don't mind this belated contribution!

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