Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The One Question Writers Should Never Ask Themselves When Reading

Over the course of writing and maintaining this blog, I've found that there is one sure-fire way a commenter can set my teeth on edge and make me bring out the snide comment gun. (Well, I suppose it would work for someone to write an ode to queries beginning with rhetorical questions, but so far I have been spared that unfortunate spectacle.)

Nope. The thing that makes me craziest is when people dismiss any book, especially bestsellers, using the words "trash," "terrible," or "suck" and its variants without further comment, or worse, when people say something along the lines of "well most published books suck anyway." My teeth are chattering at the thought. CH-CH-CH-CHAATTEERRIINNGGG...

Firstly, these books plainly don't suck if they are attracting readers in large numbers. You just don't happen to like them.

Secondly, call me an old fuddy duddy OMG I sound like my parents, but we have brains and we can use words, and in a perfect world those two abilities would combine to form a thought more insightful than "X sucks."

Thirdly, if this is all an aspiring writer is taking from a book, they missed the main point of reading it. All they figured out is whether they liked the book or not.

And quod erat demonstrandum pro quo tempura I don't actually know Latin, the one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, "Do I like this?"

Here's the thing about the question "Do I like this?" Who is that question about? Well, it's about you. It's about your taste, and whether the book fit in with your likes and dislikes. It's not about the book. It's about you and whether the book spoke to you.

In other words, all you're learning about when you ask "Do I like this?" as you read a book is yourself.

Now, don't get me wrong. Knowing what you like is important. But by the time we're an adult we pretty much know our likes and dislikes. Sure, some things can take us by surprise (like my inexplicable and deep-seated love of The Bachelor), but plumbing the depths of our likes and dislikes is about entertainment, it's not knowledge that is overly helpful as a writer. Knowing your likes and dislikes will help you imitate, but it won't help you learn tools you can really use.

The real question aspiring writers should ask is not whether they liked a book, but whether they think the author accomplished what they set out to accomplish. How good is the book at what it is trying to do? Dan Brown did not set out to be Marilynne Robinson, and Marilynne Robinson does not set out to be Dan Brown. So why judge Dan Brown's prose against Marilynne Robinson's or Marilynne Robinson's chase sequences against Dan Brown's?

If the author set out to write a cracking thriller did they write a cracking thriller? If they wanted to create beautiful prose and make us think deeper about ourselves, how well did they do that?

Once you start looking at an author's intent, you'll start to see where they succeeded and didn't succeed at what they were trying to accomplish. And you'll also start seeing that what most megabestsellers have in common is that the authors were phenomenal at delivering the thing(s) they set out to accomplish and at giving readers the experiences they wanted to give them. You'll start absorbing the positive attributes of books you might not even like all that much.

Asking this question and really thinking about it is the place where nuanced reading starts, and where writers will start noticing craft, technique, and things they can actually use when they write.

So if you want to be a writer, please please please don't reduce books to pithy generalities like "suck" and "terrible," and think and speak about books with more nuance. My chattering teeth will thank you.






206 comments:

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Kiersten White said...

This is why I cringe when people tell me my book will be "the next Twilight." It's not because I hate Twilight--it's because those books already did what they needed to do, and did it perfectly. I'd hope Paranormalcy does something different.

Also, Marilynne Robinson? Swoon, swoon, swoon. I want to be her when I grow up. It's not likely to happen, but still.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Someone called one of my books stupid one time in a review, and it really, really bothered me. Fine, you didn't like it. But stupid? Really? That's the best word you could come up with to describe my book?

Anonymous said...

"what most megabestsellers have in common is that they were phenomenal at the thing(s) they set out to accomplish and at giving readers the experiences they wanted to give them."

^^^ um, this is kind of a big point. maybe I'm dumb, or it's still before noon, but I want to know more what you meant by this esp. the 'phenemenal at the thing(s0 they out to accomplish' part

re: sucks, does "that's gay" elicit the snide lock 'n load, too?

Joseph L. Selby said...

While I would never say "everything published today is trash" and make a concerted effort to avoid the "x book sucks" comments, I dispute the "if it's popular, it's good" argument. There is more to assessing a work than personal taste. There is an element of craft to what we do and a book can be poorly written and still be popular.

Amanda Sablan said...

I wholeheartedly agree. All our likes and dislikes vary and we cannot help that.

When people bash other books, they're just TO'ed that they're not the ones published. ;]

Fleur Bradley: said...

So true; you can learn the most as a writer from simply reading.

The only bummer is that I can't read a book or watch a movie anymore without picking it apart. My comments on character development, set up and payoff etc. drive my husband nuts...

IsaiahC said...

That's why I read across genres, time periods, and cultures. Mass exposure helps me to learn a greater appreciation for the eclectic nature of literature. It's also taught me that, no matter what genre, era, or culture, the real question isn't whether something is quality. That's already been answered by the throngs of editors who have perused the manuscript to death. The real question is, is it marketable quality? And I think that is where so many amateur/pre-published writers fail for lack of experience.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Excellent. The question I become vastly interested in is, "What do people find so appealing about this book?" So it becomes a psychological and social challenge as much as a literary challenge, helping me understand my fellow humans.

Scott Nicholson
http://www.hauntedcomputer.com

Daryl Sedore said...

I completely agree. For me, even if I don't like the book, I always plow on, reading it out of respect for what the author has tried to accomplish.

In the last ten years I can count on one hand how many books I set down because I couldn't connect with what the message was.

There are a large number of people involved in publishing a book. They can't all be wrong.

RobisonWells said...

That's always bugged me with the extreme negative reactions to Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. While huge sales don't necessarily mean a book is "good" (whatever that means), huge sales definitely means that the author did something right.

A.C. Tidwell said...

I've been guilty of this. I guess the positive here is that I recognize it. Personally, I've always felt that there are writers who push the envelope or make new routes to old stories. I guess it is more disappointment than dislike when people seem to settle artistically.

Maggie said...

I think it's okay to ask it sometimes if you are trying to write a book that you yourself will like. I think every writer wants to write a book that they can be proud of, a book that they will indeed *like*, otherwise, what's the point if you don't like your own story? Reading can help you figure out what works for you and what doesn't. If I don't like a certain type of heroine, I will try not to make my own MC that way. I think the important question is "WHY did I like or dislike this book?" In some cases, it can help you craft a book that might not be better than the ones you've read necessarily, but that at least you will enjoy and you can be proud of whether or not it is published.

Of course, I agree that no one should ever call a book "stupid" or say that it "sucks." Words like that don't help anyone.

Julie said...

I want to give this post a hug, and maybe buy it dinner.

Rena said...

Excellent post, Nathan. For a writer to slam another writer's work only shows you what type of person they are.

AdelleSouth said...

I constantly think that when I see things that compare books to other in blurbs or anything else. I am reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman right now and I think that part of the reason why it is getting negative reviews is because of the ways its been likened to Harry Potter. This book is in no way like Harry Potter!

I think we should really change the phrase from "Kill all the lawyers to kill all the public relations people." Quite honestly I tend to find the the blogosphere is more honest anyway.

Laurel Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hosta said...

Firstly, these books plainly don't suck if they are attracting readers in large numbers.

There's a logical flaw here in that most readers lay down the money before they read the book. Heavily-hyped books, books attached to celebrities, and high-concept books all regularly rack up thousands of sales sight-unseen. They are sold based on their covers, not internals. Deathly Hallows was pre-ordered to hell and back. It didn't suck and there was no reason to think it would, but it could have, and by then the sale was long since made.

Nathan Bransford said...

joseph-

I'm not saying that everything that's popular is "good" in terms of craft, but everything popular is good at something, and it's useful to try and figure out what that something is.

Deni Krueger said...

Something to consider...I do think likeability comes into play the more you study the craft. A well written book, regardless of genre and style, can be a good book.

Maybe the question should be:

What do I like about it?

What don't I like about it?

And the responses need to be craft oriented.

I've used those questions with beginning writers to help them think about form and structure.

Elisabeth Black said...

I would like to eat this post with a spoon.

Anonymous said...

unfortunately the next line usually is:

"And that's why I'm going to self-publish!"

:P

Rebecca Mahoney said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. My pet peeve when reading reviews is when people state their opinions as fact, and of course, when they don't like it, it must be a stupid book that only idiots would like. I don't like TWILIGHT, but a lot of other people, even friends and family, would disagree with me.

texasapril said...

I just think it's funny how the people that bash best selling books are usually non published writers... hmmm, how does that work again? Oh yeah, it's because they have so much advice to offer on the subject...oh wait.

Lisa said...

While I'm not one to label any book with "sucks," I can read over the few reviews I've written and it's clear - I only say if I like the book or not.

Your question gives me a new way to approach the way I read. So thank you for that. It will make me a better reader and, hopefully, a better writer, as well.

Kate said...

Great post. I don't always force myself to keep reading, but I do try to think about what didn't work for me and why.

I recently put down a book--an international bestseller, mind you--even though I thought the writing was excellent. I was almost halfway through. I just found that while I loved the writing, I wasn't anxious to know what happened next. I've realized that the pacing was off for me. There was too much build up and my attention span couldn't take it. Halfway through the book and the momentum of the story felt as if I were still on the first page.

As a result I learned how important momentum is and that I definitely want to create that in my own writing.

Stu Pitt said...

I disagree with most of your post.

"Firstly, these books plainly don't suck if they are attracting readers in large numbers."

There is no correlation between popularity and quality in any art, in any medium. How many of the bestsellers from previous decades are in print today? Calling a book trash is not a bad thing. It's acknowledging that it is disposable; fun, entertaining, sure--but ultimately disposable.

"the one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, "Do I like this?""

This is the only question one should ask when reading; stop if the answer is no and read something else.

"In other words, all you're learning when you ask "Do I like this?" as you read a book is yourself."

Discovery of yourself by reading the words of another is one of the most amazing parts of reading a book; it might be the only reason to read.

"So why judge Dan Brown's prose against Marilynne Robinson's or Marilynne Robinson's chase sequences against Dan Brown's?"

Because life is short and one cannot read everything, and one should not read trash at the expense of a better book. If one wants to get the most out of narrative then they should read better and be encouraged to do so by critics, publishers, and other readers.

Sheryl Nantus said...

Recently I picked up "The Passage" at my B&N via my Nook.

An hour later I put the ebook back down and walked away. It didn't work for me, but I can respect that somewhere, someone decided to buy it and did so multiple times.

It's easy to whine "All books coming from the big publishers suck!" - it's harder to try and figure out why a bestseller may appeal to the public at large.

Unfortunately for some writers this leaves them open to vanity presses and the like who wave this line in front of their faces and then offer to publish their book for only... well, you know the rest.

jennysanchez said...

This is great advice. While it's impossible for every book to appeal to everyone (imagine having to fill that order. Editor says, oh it's good but we just don't think everyone in existence will like it), we should consider that if a book is published, then the author did something right. This puts it in perspective-the author set out to do something and succeeded. Quite possibly, not every author sets out to impress everyone with his/her literary finesse.

Mira said...

I really like this post, Nathan!!

First, I just plain appreciate how diplomatic and tactful you were, even with a topic that makes your teeth set on edge.

And I agree very much with your point that if something is a bestseller the writer did something very, very right. Absolutely!! Reducing a book that didn't sell to 'trash' is unkind and unhelpful, but reducing a best-seller to 'trash' is totally missing the point. Obviously, a best-seller did something right if millions of people are willing to pay money for it. It speaks to them.

But what I most appreciated was your suggestion that we focus on whether the author accomplished their goal. That never occured to me - what a wonderful suggestion! That viewpoint alone - just thinking back on books I've read, that's worth gold.

Thank you for the gift of a highly useful perspective, Nathan.

(Once again, sincere.)

Nathan Bransford said...

stu-

You answered as a reader, not as a writer. I agree that "do I like this" is the only question readers need ask themselves. But this is post about reading as a writer.

And I think there is a certain correlation between quality and popularity. There are lots of different ways to define "good," and I wasn't using an artistic definition there. What I'm getting at is that all popular books are good at something, even if it's not "good" in the sense of art, but "good" in the sense of entertainment.

Stu Pitt said...

@Lisa Schroeder

There are many telltale signs of a lazy reviewer, and calling a book stupid is one of them. Fuggedaboutit

Jennifer Lyn King said...

Fantastic discussion, Nathan. And excellent thoughts, sure to stick through piles of reading. Your writing accomplished just what you set out to do... Leave new thoughts with many readers. Thank you. -Jennifer King

marjoriekaye said...

With apologies, I must disagree.I qualify this response by saying I have read only one of his books--The Da Vinci Code--the last of my time and money to be spent on Dan Brown, who, in my opinion, sucks big time. He sat out to make money and he has accomplished his goal but he still sucks. His characters were flat and the plot beyond predictable. I wince every time I see a new Dan Brown product advertised. Additionally, people who write are not aspiring writers; they are writers. Some of us suck to varying degrees and some of us don't. The degree of suckiness and non-the-same is a matter of subjective opinion,like my opinion of Mr. Brown's work.

Thank you. I feel better already.

Marjorie Kaye

agirlandaboy said...

At the beginning of our book club discussions (and then again at the end), we go around the circle and rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. I always have a hard time with that, since for me there are so many different qualities to rate--two of them being whether I liked the book and whether the book accomplished what it was supposed to do--but, for me, the biggest factor that determines what I think about a book is the quality of the writing (on a micro level--word choice, sentence structure, etc.), and although "quality writing" is certainly subjective to a point, I also have no reservations in saying that Dan Brown is NOT a quality writer. A good storyteller? Maybe. A writer who appeals to a large portion of the reading public? Sure. But a good capital-W Writer? Not hardly. Even people who like the book have agreed with me on that. That's usually what I'm talking about when I talk about "trash lit."

Sara Samarasinghe said...

I completely agree. And I would say that Dan Brown definitely did something right for so many people to appreciate his writing, and so did Stephenie Meyer. Personal opinions aside, their writing has been liked by many people.

And Dan Brown does not "suck." I doubt the people who say that are capable of coming up with The Lost Symbol on their own.

Sheila Cull said...

No trieda upsa ucka. That's my Latin for, I'm not trying to be a suck up. But, after I breathe through my jealous nostrils, I always only think, "What can I learn from this book?" And, "What did they do right to get published?"

Couldn't agree more.

Carol Riggs said...

Yep, we as writers have to be careful about our liking and subsequent labels, but aren't agents nearly as subjective, with the "I'm afraid I'm just not falling in love with your manuscript" reason given for rejection? I'd like to THINK they have concrete reasons for not "falling in love" rather than a simple like/dislike issue, however.

Kristin Laughtin said...

True! If we're aspiring to be published writers anyway, our choice of words should, in most cases, be more eloquent than "That sucks" with no further explanation. It's much more useful to look beyond whether you like a book and try to discern whether the author did certain things well: pacing, dialogue, etc. Learn from that.

Pete said...

While I agree with the spirit of your post, I find this statement to be completely false:

"Firstly, these books plainly don't suck if they are attracting readers in large numbers. "

By that logic, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are great filmmakers and Brittany Spears is one of our greatest singers. Popularity does not, in any way, equal quality.

Stephanie Barr said...

Here's what I like to ask myself: "Why did I like this?" or, if I didn't like it, "Why didn't I like this?"

If it's the kind of book I ought to like (my kind of genre, ostensibly my kind of character, whatever), I want to understand why I didn't like it, which helps me separate personal preferences (rapist protagonists, for instance, completely turn me off) from things that fell flat. Even if they were popular, I learn things that I found irksome or disappointing and resolve to correct such things in my own writing - which also reminds me to look for things I liked even if the book fell flat.

And, for books I like (whether "trash" or classics, popular or not), I tend to read and reread so I understand what worked for me, what touched me, what captured my interests and why. That's the sort of thing that helps me in my own writing so that I can write books that work, touch and capture at least a reader like me.

Roza M said...

Awesome post. I agree, as a writer there are so many things to look at inside a book. How is the opening, was it slow? How was the description? How was the flow? Did it get to the plot point when it should have? How was the style compared to other things I've read? I take all these into consideration before I place my judgement on it. I never put tags like it sucked, or blew, or was so stupid. I usually tell people this wouldn't be something i recommend reading and I would tell them why I thought that with all the above questions answered.

JES said...

A-men, Nathan, and thank you for saying this. It's a problem not just in judging finished/published works, but even in crit groups and writers' workshops, where a common response is along the lines, "Now, if I were writing this, here's what I would have done instead..."

Of course you can't always know what sort of book an author "meant" to produce. But it seems really ungracious not to even try.

Jil said...

Just what I wrote on here last week. So glad you think the same way, Nathan.

daniellelapaglia said...

As a member of a book club, I am often "forced" to read books I don't like or wouldn't normally pick off the shelf. The benefit for me as a writer is finding the good points. The book I'm reading now will never be on my favorites list. I don't care for most of the characters or the plot, but the writer has beautiful imagery and writes amazing dialogue, and she is getting her message across to the reader. I don't happen to care for that message, but she's conveying it brilliantly.

Claudie said...

Actually, I'd like to disagree. Somewhat.

"Do I like this book?" is a question I always ask myself when I start a book for the first time. There's a simple reason: it allows me to separate my reading into two categories.

First there's the books I read for fun. I want to breeze through the story and enjoy these characters without spending my time trying to figure out why I can't put down the book. I want to be a reader, not a writer.

And if it's a book I love, I know I'll enjoy coming back to it. It will be fun to open it a second time, this time like a writer.

Then you have those books I dislike. Reading them becomes a chore, because we all know there's all those great books we could be reading instead. I have the urge to stop, put them down, move on. It's important for me to know it's a book I don't enjoy, because I'll approach it as a writer right away. I'll read it for the learning experience, and then move on (never to return).

So in short, I think it's good to ask ourselves if we like this book. The mistake comes when you stop reading because the answer is "No." I'm a writer. Reading books I dislike is homework. Painful, but necessary !

Shmologna said...

This is a simple statement but...

It's just rude to say, "That book sucked, man."

Such comments are like a lousy, b-movie script.

~Britt Mitchell

Julio Vazquez said...

While you're correct that single word comments like "stupid" and "sucks" really don't help, I'm not sure I agree with your assertion about liking what you read. The reality is that an aspiring writer will, most likely, emulate well-liked writing rather than writing that turns them off.

For example, I think Ian Fleming was awesome at scene setting. When I write fiction, I try to emulate his style for settings without going overboard. If I didn't like his work, I wouldn't even think about whether he was effective at what he did because I wouldn't care enough to look closer at what he wrote, let alone how he wrote.

Zeig-Zag said...

As a wise person once told me, you can never become that which you dis. If you want to become that NYTBS-ing author, find out why that story appeals to so many people instead of just dismissing it as trash or stupid.

swampfox said...

I read as a writer and try to learn from what I read. Although I refrain from using words like "suck" and "trash," I have found bad writing out there.

For example, Nathan, remember your advice to never use similes? In that post you went on to say that if an author does use similes, no more than TWO per book should be used.

That day I scoured my 90,000-word manuscript and deleted every simile but two. (OK, maybe three.)

I browsed through a random book not long afterward and found a book that had SEVEN similes on the first page!! No, they were not clever ones and they weren't necessary. I considered it bad writing.

And of course it was my opinion. It's a subjective thing, right? How many times are we told that? Isn't it true that bad writing for one person may not be bad writing for another?

Even the comments on this very thread demonstrate that.

Dena Daw said...

AMEN AMEN AMEN.

I noticed this attitude from my AP English teacher in highschool, years ago. She asked everyone who their favorite writer was and mine was Michael Crichton (still is) and she rolled her eyes. She was a major snob when it came to literature.
But if the point of a book is to entertain someone, then Michael Crichton did a good ass job. People read his books for years because they were entertaining. I took a "who do you write like" test and my result was Stephen King. I was amazed at all the negative feed back I received...by writers, no less. All I can say is me and Stephen will be laughing our asses off all the way to the bank :p lol

Kristi Helvig said...

Trashing books sucks. :)

Two Flights Down said...

I cringe at this, as well. I also bite my tongue when an aspiring writer asks me what I studied in college and after answering, "literary analysis" they complain to me about how critics should be non-existent because nobody can know a piece of writing more than the writer and for somebody else to read something else into it is wrong. I usually reply, "If you're a good writer, then I will more than likely get from your story the message you were trying to convey." I could rant a lot more about this, but most of the people who complain to me about this aren't really listening.

And you know what--same thing goes for music. Just because it's pop and you don't like it, doesn't mean it sucks. Not all of it, anyway... ;)

HistorySleuth said...

Ditto Fleur. I also read and watch movies in a whole different way. Sometimes the movie watching can be fun. If 3 plot flaws turn up in the first 30 minutes then it becomes a game as to how many we can name before the end of the movie. (Ah the crazy things I do to to enhance my kids brains, and they don't even realize it.)As for books, Twilight was the first book my daughter has enjoyed reading, read them all. I can't fault that. We do discuss the books still too which is cool. The books were better than the movies we agree on. I'm thrilled that so many of the teens I know are reading more.

Thermocline said...

Great post. I've found myself pinging back and forth as I read books now. I always try to focus on figuring out what works but can get so sucked into a good book that I forget to pay attention to how the author is accomplishing it. Tricksy authors!

Rick Daley said...

I once read a book on the history of the vacuum and it sucked.

Emily White said...

I think there's a big difference between good and literary, and a lot of writers confuse those two terms.

A megabestseller's sales DO prove the book is good. Millions of people would not purchase mediocre drivel. What sales don't prove is whether or not the book is literary.

I think there are a lot of literary masterpieces being published each year that don't see the sales the bestsellers do.

That being said, I don't think lack of sales proves a book is bad. There are so many variables in the market that such a judgment could not be accurately made.

However, It's wrong to say that just because something is a bestseller it doesn't mean it's good. What someone actually means to say by that is that it doesn't necessarily mean the book is literary. Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, etc. wrote *good* books. The books didn't break any literary barriers and probably won't go down in the records as being overly insightful the way we think literary works should be, but you're right Nathan, they accomplished what they set out to accomplish--they entertained.

J. R. McLemore said...

I actually had the audacity to poo-poo Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING when I first read it because I hated Vardaman's stream-of-conscience. It ruined my opinion of the book because I couldn't let it go. I kept harping on my distaste for that one character's misaligned, chaotic stream-of-conscience.

Once I calmed down, got off my soapbox, and realized I had no room to bash a famous writer's prose, I re-evaluated the book on a higher level and found that there was so much genius within the pages. I still don't like much of Vardaman's contribution to the story, but I can now realize what a fantastic writer Faulkner was and I've even used some of his techniques in my own writing.

How else can an aspiring writer succeed than borrow techniques from the greats!

Thanks for this blog, Nathan. It was very insightful.

A. Lockwood said...

Thank you, Nathan. Helpful post. I've been trying to get into the habit of writing up book recommendations, and this post re-clarified for me that the point is not "what I liked about this book" but "what worked in this book."

I appreciated Claudie's comment too. There are times "I want to be a reader, not a writer." I never want to lose the joy of reading books I love.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average?

So do we have to write an entire book report explaining why a book that sucks sucks? Or do we just have to admire any book that attracts the devoted attention of teenagers and adults who read one book a year, maybe?

"A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read ‘The Lost Symbol’, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it."

—The Economist

Livia said...

I think there's some sociology going on here too. In grad school, I've noticed that the most junior grad students are often the most critical of other research. I think this is because it's safe to criticize. If you go on a limb and say that something is good, you risk someone else coming along and saying "OMG, didn't you notice that the author did X or Y wrong? How could you possibly like that?" You seem so much smarter if you just stick to pointing out problems. It takes more courage to come out and say you think something was done well.

And the social pressures are definitely there. Nobody wants to be caught admiring something that's been declared bad by the masses. Honestly, how many aspiring writer bloggers would be brave enough to post something praising Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown's writing skill, even if they secretly enjoyed the books? Ironically, the only blog post I've ever seen praising an aspect of Dan Brown's technique was from a publishing veteran who had been in the industry for decades.

Tere Kirkland said...

You sound like my HS art teacher. ;)

But you're right, avid readers ought to be able to express exactly why they liked or disliked a particular book. But the even more mature of us ought to be able to realize that our opinions are just that: OPINION.

ryan field said...

I also find those who do use words like "trash," "terrible," and "sucks," aren't taken seriously by anyone. For me, it's instant dismissal.

Good post.

Dana said...

I'd like to say that the same is true for the opposite. If someone says 'this book's great'. What does that mean? And by what standards? I'd say any reviewer should show not tell;)

Steven Till said...

Well said Nathan. I completely agree. I've heard readers use similar terms to describe Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, which I thought was a fantastic book. Follett's style may not appeal to some readers, and some graphic scenes may be a turn-off to others, but I believe he accomplished what he set out to write: a sweeping epic dealing with complex characters and politics in 12th century England.

His prose may not appeal to everyone, but his story and characters are truly engaging, and that's what has made it his most successful novel written to date.

Have you had a chance to watch the new eight part mini-series on Starz based on the novel? It just began airing last week. I need to catch up on Netflix streaming.

DG said...

Bingo Nathan,

So many times I've felt like commenting on a particular topic regarding well published authors but have held back since many of the comments "trashed" either an author or a book I like.

Seems like books and wine fall under the same highly subjective rating scale. Those who have their favorites in either category are so sure theirs are the best and everyone else's choices are crap.

flibgibbet said...

When people call a book trash, they're actually insulting the people who liked it, the industry that published it, and implying that their own taste is far superior.

That's the dynamic at work, and why it's such a bad idea.

I don't like Dan Brown's writing, but it certainly behooves me to understand the reasons so many did.

authorsoundsbetterthanwriter said...

But surely being able to elucidate why you didn't like a book is more important than knowing if the author met his objectives. If you don't like the book, no matter how well the author met his objectives, you don't want to reproduce a similar piece of fiction.

If one disliked a certain author's style of prose, for example, even though he/she has succeeded in thrilling,fantasy-ing or literary fiction-ing an audience, you might not want to thrill,etc your audience in the same way.

I, sadly, divide my fiction into books I like and don't like. If I like it I ask what the writer did to make me like it. If I dislike it I ask myself what they did to make me dislike it and I make sure, such turn of phrases, or plot devices, or whatever it is, are never seen in my writing. I can see why others may have loved a piece but their reasons don't work for me so they won't work with my writing.

But that's just me :)

Jill Elizabeth said...

This is a huge pet peeve of mine, as well. Right up there with lumping categories of books together. Like when I tell people I write YA and they're like oh, like Twilight? (which I enjoyed, by the way, so not intended to be a dis).

reader said...

I don't agree with saying book X, Y, or Z is trash, nor do I ever say it.

However, lots of times when writers make that assesment, they are talking about the WRITING -- not the overall plot or characters or intentions of the book in question.

Stephen King famously (in print in EW) said that Stephenie Meyer "just isn't very good." I don't think he was trashing what she set out to accomplish. Certainly, she absolutely WON at doing what she wanted with that book -- creating characters to swoon over, big time. But the actual mechanics of the writing was poorly done in certain patches, and that surely that couldn't have been her intent.

When the MECHANICS of the writing takes away from the author's intent, I think that is a very real and valid observation to make about another writer's work.

Because it's an observation you must make about your own work on a daily basis. Is this the right word choice? Should this sentence bew shortened? Cut? Is this dialogue too banal?

Fawn Neun said...

I have to agree with Stu - life's too short to read crap for the sake of discovering what makes it tick.

On the other hand, it never hurts to look at a book outside your own preferences to try to identify why it DOES works.

If 'crap' can sell, it must have some jewel of universal appeal, some resonance in the cosmic consciousness. And it never hurts to incorporate those color of gems into your own, more skillful prose. :)

There's a lot of best-selling literary fiction. Dystopians are the hot new rage, right? Like, um, er... The Road, maybe.

reader said...

bew = be.

Alwyn said...

I actually had the discussion about liking and disliking and being critical with the best friend the other day. She's the daughter of an English prof and can usually be found cracking out a whole mess of Lit Crit terms. But having managed to pry her out of her George Eliot and gotten her addicted to Suzanne Collins she brought up the excellent point that it's actually much harder to learn from/be critical of something that we enjoy reading. Sure if I sat down and thought about it I'm sure I could pick out some specifics of Hunger Games and analyse what's great about them. But every time I'm enclined to start criticising it I just end the sentence with "I don't know. I just loved it!" and sort of gloss over any specific strong points or shortcomings in favour of the overall (Her way of putting it is more along the lines of "Well it'll never be Thomas Hardy but IT WAS SO GOOD!" And I point out, exactly as you did, that it's really not meant to be Thomas Hardy, Katniss does not equal Tess of the Durbevilles). But I think as a writer I'm much more susceptible to learning from things that I don't find as engaging, things I didn't enjoy as completely because I can sift through the novel and pick out good points, and where, for me, it fell short much more critically. Simply because I'm not so busy being a squeeing fangirl that I'm willing to forgive it almost anything and am totally unable to look too hard at what precisely has made me squeee.

Maggie said...

I must respectfully disagree with those who disagreed (at least those who disagreed in the "Dan Brown does, in fact, suck" way).

It seems to me that people who say this really mean that Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc are not the highbrow literary fiction that we are taught is "quality" writing. And no, they are not that. As Nathan pointed out, they are not trying to be that. This does not mean that their writing is bad, even if they phrase things differently than you might.

Anyone who has been exposed in any way to a slush pile can tell you that the writing of either of these people is amazingly much better than 99.9% of the writers out there--yes, just purely based on their writing skills.

(And yes, though I do read my share of lit fic, I also quite enjoyed both The DaVinci Code and Twilight, and am not ashamed to admit it!) :)

hannah said...

I think I might be misunderstanding your point?

I understand that at as an analysis, "I don't like this," isn't valid. But when I'm reading for pleasure? "Do I like this" is the most important question I ask myself. Because I don't have a lot of time to read for pleasure, and if I'm not feeling a book, I'm going to put it down. I don't feel bad about that.

I probably sound like I'm rehashing Stu's point, but I actually mean this a little differently; writers need time to read as readers, and writers deserve to read what inspires them, because we don't *have* a lot of time to read as readers.

And slogging through a book you're not enjoying isn't just detrimental to your reading time, but also to your perception of the industry. The people who think books are trash are the ones who are reading things they don't like (or not reading at all and making arbitrary judgments, but that's a different kettle of fish all together.)

It's reading books purely for analytical value when we're supposed to be enjoying ourselves that's breeding all this contempt in the first place.

Nathan Bransford said...

hannah-

Well, I really only intended this post for writers, and have said farther up that as readers, "Do I like this" is the only question that needs answering.

But I would actually argue that it often feels like too many aspiring writers spend too much time reading just for pleasure considering how often I hear that all the books out there are terrible or such and such book sucks. I don't think someone who is reading along the lines of, "I might not be the target audience of TWILIGHT but I'm going to read it anyway to see what she did well" is going to come away saying, "TWILIGHT sucks." And yet even around these parts you hear that really often.

I'm all for people reading for pleasure, but I think it's still pleasurable to read in the way I describe in this post. You enjoy books on a different level, kind of like how you might like watching basketball before you know what a pick and roll is, but once you know the strategy you enjoy it on another level.

I don't think the problem is reading overly analytically - if someone is coming away from a book with nothing more to say than "This sucks" there wasn't much analyzing going on.

Lila Swann said...

I agree with you, Nathan. It seriously annoys me whenever people bash on whatever's popular (currently the trend is hating Twilight, but I remember when people were hating on Potter). My favorite criticisms for Twilight are from middle-aged men...who, unless they're gay, I doubt have any hope in the world of enjoying it.

I, and every other teenage girl in the country, didn't read Twilight for the quality of its writing. That's why we go to school, where our reading lists consist almost entirely of dead people's books. We read Twilight because we're pathetically in love with fictional characters, and nothing you have to say otherwise is going to change that.

I'm probably going to take some heat for this, but I think the main reason writers like to bash on whatever's popular is that it creates a safety net. I mean, let's face it - if my book gets published and it doesn't sell, it would be nice to moan into my Ben&Jerry's tub about how my book is simply too HIGH-CONCEPT for the normal public to like! The idiotic public...why are they so STUPID as to not recognize the genius of my novel? Instead of realizing, look - I got so carried away with my snobbish style that I lost the story along the way, and at the end of the day, all people really care about anymore is story. Sorry.

If you've noticed, most of the biggest trends that we've seen in books lately are in YA/children's, and that's even assuming if you classify Potter as a children's book. (In later novels, it certainly seems more YA to me, but whatever.) If you want to try and claim Dan Brown as a trend, sure - but I'm pretty sure he didn't have lines at the movie theater when his novels were released, and I know that no bookstores around my house featured release parties for later books. So clearly, the people fueling the recent "phenomenons" are teens, and there is nothing that a teen hates more than a snob. We deal with book-snob English teachers, librarians, colleges admissions people (a college admissions rep came and talked to my school bemoaning the flood of Harry Potter essays), authors, booksellers, etc. Essentially, if you're a snob, teens aren't going to like you, so good luck getting us to kickstart YOUR next book as the "next Twilight."

Whenever I sit around and daydream of publication, I always become so confused. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Rowling/Meyer-level success? But in the end, I always shy away from that dream because I know that there will be a torrent of jealous authors determined to tear me to pieces over personal taste and the slightest typo. I'm not quite sure if it's worth it. Jealousy and bitterness are extremely unbecoming features in authors.

abc said...

Marilynne Robinson lives 3 blocks away from me! Practically around the corner! And yet I do not stalk her. Because I'm a grown up. Sort of.

I hate that kind of comment, too, Nathan. It is dismissive of others. What if I happen to like Twilight and you say "oh, what a stupid book".

I tend to like films that I know many others wouldn't go for. And I tend to not like a lot of mainstream stuff. But I see its place. I just stick to "well, it's not my thing" if someone asks my opinion of, say, The Hangover. And if I have an opinion, I try to own it instead of assuming I'm the expert on everything.

Thank you boys and girls for listening to today's lesson on me.

terryd said...

Brilliant post. Why not try to figure out what makes popular books tick?

On a related note, regarding reading to divine an author's intent, make sure to lock up your retort cannon before your Amazon reviews start coming in.

Keri said...

I'm sick of hearing, "This book sucks, I could do better" because most people couldn't no matter what they think. They're getting ahead of themselves and pumping their own egos (while most of them haven't even done the work to prove anything) while stepping on other people's work.

Why can't they elaborate on why they don't like something? I mean I don't like the Harry Potter films but I can explain to people why and I don't go around saying, "I could do better" because I'm not that delusional.

Anonymous said...

I read Twilight and loved it for the STORY it told. I reread it and looked at the writing. I reread it (bunches of times actually) for both learning more about great STORY and writing (both good and correctable).

For me, there is lots to learn.

Reading as a writer has helped me to look at a lot of writing I used to not be able to look at. As a writer, I am learning to look differently.

(In the past, I have really been turned off by some books, i.e. Did NOT like. and really turned on by others. As a reader, I want to be inspired, entertained, enlightened, surprised, etc. As a writer, I want to grow.)

(PS And if things were nicer out there in writer world, I wouldn't be such an anon, but just look at Amazon comments. Woah! It can be a brutal world for the wordsmith.)

Latoya Alloway said...

I could not agree more. I review books on my blog and I find something great in all of the novels I read. Due in great part to all of the reasons you listed above. I am an aspiring writer reviewing novels so I can learn from everything I read. Also, I know I am a chicklit fan but that does not mean I can't appreciate crime fiction or YA. I do. I give objective reviews based on that knowledge--no matter the genre or author.

http://confessionsofabooklover.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Keri,

Best misread of the day for me:

I misread your "pumping their own egos" as "pumping their own eggs"
and LOVED IT!!!

Anonymous said...

Huh?

So I'm not supposed to say that Dan Brown sucks?

Uh... okay.

Donna Hole said...

I read a series of books that my most consistent comment was "I didn't like the MC". Many peopl asked "If you didn't like the book, why'd you finish the series?" The simple answer is, I didn't say I didn't like the books - or rather the concept of the series - just the MC.

There was a whole list of things I disliked about that character - I almost had to pull off my shoes to tick them off - but I had to agree she had appeal to a great many of readers. And I understood the draw.

Picking on one aspect of a story, or author, and judging the entire work by that one criticism isn't doing the novel justice. My unprofession opinion; that's the issue many writer's groups need to overcome to effectively critique a WIP. You don't have to "like" a project to appreciate what the author is attempting to accomplish.

.....dhole

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have even heard people dismiss Shakespeare, Proust and Goethe as "sucking," which clearly says more about them and their cognitive abilities than the writers. It takes a particular kind of arrogance to insult another artist's work, which is why we have art critics.

We should resist the snobbery of assuming that anything popular is inferior. When I write, I hope to reach people on whatever level will connect us and forge the contract which ideally exists between writer and reader.

meredithmansfield said...

When I don't like a book, I usually try to figure out why. One book I read recently annoyed me with excessive use of flashbacks, for example.
On one occasion, I turned around and reread a book I didn't much like. It was by an author I usually do enjoy and I wanted to see what didn't work for me in that story, where the others had worked so well.
There's always something to learn.

PV Lundqvist said...

Such ad hominems sound catty at best, envious at worst. Especially from an aspiring writer yet to prove himself.

Besides, 'bad writing' that sells is by definition GOOD FOR SOMETHING.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joshua Peacock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

(deleted)anon-

I'm more than happy for people to disagree, and plenty have done so. No need to insult people, just register your disagreement.

joshua-

Popularity proves nothing.... other than huge numbers of people like something. Which counts for nothing? How is that?

Nathan Bransford said...

Whoops, looks like Joshua deleted his comment.

Joshua Peacock said...

Nathan I usually agree with you and don't respect you any less after this post, but popularity proves nothing.

There is good story telling and there is good writing. We know it exists because logic and intelligence can show us. Redundancy? Unrealism? Spelling errors? Lack of clarity or impossible statements due to broken grammar or construct? Plot holes? Shallow plot? Plagiarism?

What's the point of worrying about these things as we strive to become better writers if they go right out the window if enough uneducated people decide something that violates all these is great?

I don't use "uneducated" maliciously. People generally don't study writing, read lots of literature, and really make an intelligent evaluation.

Genella deGrey said...

In addition to books, it always floors me when people slap on "pithy generalities" (well put, btw) on blockbuster films.

Remember when the movie critics tore apart the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" but the box office told a totally different story?

:)
G.

Nathan Bransford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

whoops, take 2:

joshua-

Further to your revised point, I'm again posing a different question than the one you're taking from this. I'm not saying, "The most popular books are the best written," I'm saying, why don't we judge the books based on what they're trying to do.

Many popular books are not striving for artistry, so why should they be judged by those standards? And why would someone read a potboiler if they're looking for Shakespeare?

I like Mad Men and I like the Bachelor. My brain doesn't explode from the contradiction, I just like them for different things, and I consider the shows "good" in different ways.

Judge the books by their own standards of what they're trying to achieve, not by trying to judge them all by some standard they're not even trying to achieve.

Again, the point of this post is the question I think writers should ask themselves when reading, not regular readers, academics, critics, etc. There are things to take away from even the popular books, and rather than sneering at them or calling the masses uneducated I think it's more helpful to learn from them.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Unless I find a book's story completely enthralling, I find it hard to turn off my inner-editor.

There's a certain book which is very popular that started off terrifically, IMO, however, somewhere after the mid-point of this particular tale, the voice faltered, which made all the strange wording choices stick out. The storyline degraded into a series of cliched and overly contrived Deus-ex style saves and "cliffhangers" (that made me want to stomp on the fingers of the guy clinging to the cliff).

By the end, the book I'd found so promising was on it's way to my trashbin.

It was so strange that reading two halves of the same book by the same author could just flip a switch like that. So I guess it accomplished what it set out to do in the beginning, but failed in the end. Either way, the book sold well, so I'm sure the publisher was happy with it.

I'm not sure if the beginning was edited more or maybe the end was and the difference in voice reflected the editor's input. But I found it distracting, and couldn't recommend that particular book to anyone afterward.

Maybe if I hadn't been in edit mode it would have been different, who knows.

MJR said...

I agree with this. I read TWILIGHT, but kept in mind the whole time that Meyer was writing it mainly for teenage girls, not for me. She does get into the moony teenage girl mindset perfectly.

Unfortunately I can't read a book I don't like--even for the purpose of studying why it became a bestseller. If it doesn't grab my interest in the first chapter, I'll put it down--doesn't matter if it's a thriller or literary fiction.

Nathan Bransford said...

(deleted) anon-

I meant you're welcome to disagree with the content of the post, not with how I handle the comment section. That part's not open for discussion in the comment section, but you're welcome to e-mail me.

Stu Pitt said...

"I'm saying, why don't we judge the books based on what they're trying to do."

Because "trying to" do something often isn't good enough.

Stephen King writes horror novels. He is trying to write a frightening horror novel every time he sits down.

King will never write a book a frightening as McCarthy's "Blood Meridian". He cannot do it. Probably no one can.

Would you recommend a budding horror writer read the latest King novel or "Blood Meridian" to learn about good horror writing?

Nathan Bransford said...

stu-

I don't read or rep horror, but I'm sure the people in the Forums would have good suggestions.

Bob Mayer said...

Agree 100%. It sets my teeth on edge when aspiring writers slam published books and say they suck. Every book that has been traditionally published required the author (and agent and editor) to put tons of effort and sweat equity in. To dismiss such an effort so easily is insulting.
Also, if a book is selling well, to make that a sign that it's shabby, is stupid. Something's working. Don't read it to not like it, read it to figure out what worked. I've read plenty of bestselling books I didn't care for, but I focused on what made them work and I've learned a lot.
I once took all 15 books on a random Sunday NYT bestseller list and read all of them, regardless of genre, author, etc. It was amazing how much I learned getting out of my comfort zone.

Joshua Peacock said...

Nathan I see your point (And I do apologise for the immaturity of my first message, that was stupid and it's the reason I deleted it and posted again). In some ways I can agree with your point. it won't stop me from really not liking something that is poorly constructed, but it also won't stop me from learning from it, and learning why it was or was not popular.

Twilight succeeded in connecting with millions of teenage girls...I guess it was good for that. At any rate it's good AT it.

I'm not a popular book hater, though. I read all the best-seller classics. Lord of the Rings, to Kill a Mockingbird, Foundation, Dune, etc. Stephen King novels are among those.

Nathan Bransford said...

joshua-

Thanks and I see your point too. I'm not trying to say that all books are created equal and that all bestselling books are "the best" or or that we should give up trying to decide which books are good and which aren't. And especially in terms of craft, some really are better than others.

It's more that I believe strictly thinking as writers it makes sense to try and figure out what works and doesn't work from the standpoint of the author's own criteria rather than from the standpoint of our personal taste.

But it's tough to sort all these things out. "Good" can mean lots of different things.

Anonymous said...

Sturgeon's Law. 90% of everything is GARBAGE. You could burn 90% of all the books in every book store and the world would be a better place. Junk. Trash.

Beth Mann said...

Couldn't agree more. For the record, I would never call a book "trash" or PUT a book in the trash, because that's just wasteful, isn't it? ;P

P.S. Does anyone else think that the new "Bachelor Pad" would be more aptly named "Herpes House"? I'm just sayin'...

M.banks said...

Agreed!

I worked in a bookshop and often debated with snoody co-workers that those three-books-published-each-year writers were, in fact, respectable for accomplishing their goals well.

Beth Mann said...

*I should clarify, couldn't agree more with NATHAN, NOT Anon.

Terry Stonecrop said...

So right. Good, bad or sucky is just opinion.

I like the idea of seeing if the author did what they set out to do. I'm going to start looking for that. Thanks for the advice.

Also, I often find, if a book doesn't grab me, I set it aside on a special shelf and six months, a year later, I pick it up and like it and maybe even love it. Go figure.

Malia Sutton said...

Someone pointed out that if you're looking for literature you should be reading literature and not judging genre or even commercial/mainstream fiction.

In other words, if you think it's going to "suck," don't read it. And if you don't like the fact that Twilight, or books like Twilight, have done so well with the mainstream reading public, stick with what you personally love to read. But do this without bashing and trashing someone else's hard work.

For readers, reading is a fun way to escape, especially when the economy sux and people are facing so many problems these days.

February Grace said...

Another excellent post! Taste is subjective as they say (and everybody's a critic, there is my allotment of cliches for the day)but at the very least anyone looking at it from the standpoint of a writer not a reader should be able to pick out a passage that made you react- in one way or another- and learn from it. I do this with not only books but movies and television series as well. I don't watch them as a viewer, I always think of them from the writing perspective, noting what works and what doesn't.

But as far as saying "This book just sucks, blah blah blah," (which usually conveys the sentiment "mine is so much better" beneath which ain't pretty, people)a writer would do better to realize that you can learn a lot-- even about what you don't want to personally create with your own words-- if you listen and pay attention more than you run your yap...

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Anon 4:17,

Sorry, your logic doesn't play out. If Sturgeon suggests 90% of novels are bad, well, far more than 90% of novels fail to get published. If they're in the store, they're generally not part of the bottom 90%.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

I've read some books that have been tough to keep reading, but I've continued reading anyway. I used to read for entertainment, but now I'm writing I also read to be a better writer. I want to know what the writer is trying to do, and how. It's a bit like looking at people, everyone is beautiful or has something to teach us. I read looking for the gems. I'd like to know why something is popular so I can emulate what the writer's accomplished. Comments like this sucks lack maturity. I'm a mood and emotion reader, and I think that's what writers need to create. Poor story telling can still do that.

Tahereh said...

i am standing on a table and cheering.

this post is made of diamonds, a horse, and two tickets to that thing i love.

THANK YOU

Annette Lyon said...

Holy crap, yes!

I've had a reviewer slam my work because that's not how she would have written it.

Um, so what? Did I do a good job of what *I* set out to do? Determining that is sort of the reviewer's job, not saying whether or not it's their personal cup o' tea.

Same thing happened when I was a judge for a literary award. One judge kept throwing out, "Well, I didn't LIKE it."

SO WHAT? Did the author do what they intended to do? Did they successfully tell the story they were trying to tell? Being on that panel was extremely frustrating because no one could get it through her head that this wasn't a popularity contest or a "what do I like" contest. It was about the quality. Same judge gave a 1-star review on GoodReads to a book by a Newberry Honor winner--not to the honor book, but still. That author isn't *capable* of penning a one-star book. If you didn't like it, fine. But you can't say it sucked.

JD said...

I think a good story is a good story, whether or not the prose makes me think hard or not think at all about it. Folks can say derogatory things about Dan Brown's writing (and I suspect what they mean by "it sucks" is that they just would've written it differently or somehow "better" in their opinion), but his stories pull me in and keep me in until the last page. Isn't that the major objective of a good read? Some books make me feel like an utter maroon and some others do not. That doesn't mean the books are bad or good. Taste is subjective and reading is a very personal experience.

And Nathan, I must agree with you: if us writerly types dislike a particular book, we should be able to articulate why. If we can't, we need to read more and learn why.

Anonymous said...

I think someone else hinted at this point earlier, but in my opinion if we are reading as writers we should be trying to read better books.

Surely we should strive to be as good as the best. If we limit ourselves to competing with lesser literary works then publishing will never move forward. No-one will ever raise the bar. Everything will stay at Meyer-level because hey, Twilight worked so why bother?

I agree that saying "such-and-such sucks" isn't constructive, but then excusing everything isn't constructive either.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Anon 5:00,

I don't think he's suggesting you give everything a pass - just that if you think something's wrong with a work don't just say it sucks. Make an argument. What doesn't work, and why? And while you're at it, why not think about what does work? Because any writing that makes millions of people believe in its fictive dream is doing something right.

There are no perfect books - and no perfect readers. What we can have, though, is a productive dialogue on the craft and art of writing a story. Saying something sucks is merely a dismissal of writers and readers, a refusal to engage in that dialogue. And a refusal, at times, to think.

I think that's what he's getting at, as I see it.

Corra McFeydon said...

A very interesting discussion. I've never said a book 'sucked,' but I am quick to dismiss it some books -- and you're right: that doesn't 'teach' me anything. I think I can provide intelligent foundation for why a book didn't work for me, but I don't often exercise the 'why it wors' muscle.

Thanks for pointing out the difference. :-)

- Corra

elizajane said...

The very good advice I was once given about writing book reviews was, "Figure out what the author was trying to do, and then think about whether or not they have done it. Don't blame them for not writing the book you would have written." I always try to follow that advice.

As for reading and hating best sellers when you're a fiction writer, perhaps the question should be, "Why do other people like this book? What has the author done right? Can I isolate that into an aspect that I can respect/appreciate, even if there is also an aspect that I do not appreciate?" I've learned a lot from doing that.

Myrna Foster said...

I agree.

elizajane said...

As for us reading "better" books, I'm not sure it works. I've spent the past month reading really great literature and it just overwhelms me. Before I return to my own YA novel, I need to go back to reading popular YA books and thinking, "how does this book work? What makes people keep reading it?" Not "Why did this writer win the Nobel Prize?" In that way lies madness.

The Red Angel said...

I absolutely and completely agree with you, Nathan. Too often do people shrug of a book or a movie simply because they personally didn't like the plot or the ending because it didn't fit with what they thought should've been.

There are tons of books that I personally don't like, but I think were very well-written. I do my best to distinguish between what is overall a good book (amazing characterization, well-thought-out plot, etc.) and what I did not enjoy.

If a person says that a book is "stupid", a "useless" read, or some other shallow verb, then he/she should at least have reasons to back that up.

Daniel W. Powell said...

So well said, Nathan. I think one forfeits any credibility he or she might have when the ol' name calling comes out.

I teach Stephen King in my classes, and you should hear the rants about "popular" writers. Then they read the stories, and the whole perspective shifts.

The writing is what the writing is, and some will like it and some won't, and some will really dig it and it'll sell 118,000 paperbacks in three days (kudos, Mr. Brown).

Taste is subjective, but if one illustrates a lack of vocabulary...well, that speaks for itself.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

My only issue with the mainstream industry (and with the film industry, which seems to have gone all PG13 to enlarge their market) is the dumbing down. I don't mean of themes, but of content. I just tend to want a lot more extreme stuff than what comes over the pike lately. (Except for TrueBlood. I think Sunday's episode was brilliantly bloody and out there-genuinely risk taking and it made me wonder how many viewers they lost with it).

I sometimes wonder if when folks talk about all published stuff being "crap" they mean they don't take the risks some of us are looking for. But I try to keep in mind that artists are a different breed. Risk, if we're any good, is in our blood. If we as artists are out there pushing ourselves all day long in the art we create, it's natural that we expect it of the art we consume.

Suzanne Fox said...

Thanks, Nathan. I found the post both completely amusing and utterly on point...the point not being, at least to my mind, whether published books are good or bad, but what approach to all books serves a writer best.

Doesn't being curious about our own response, and others...thinking about why we are having a particularly strong reaction to a book...and exploring about why many other readers, say, like something we don't, teach us much more than stopping at a purely instinctive reaction?

I don't mean to suggest that this kind of exploration will teach us how to write, nor that we should write poorly just because we believe some other writer does. I'm just saying that it's possible to learn from so-called "bad" books as well as "good." Indeed, sometimes it's easier to learn craft from what another writer does poorly, than what s/he does well.

Eric W. Trant said...

This post sucks.

;)

- Eric

Mira said...

I'd like to add one quick thing.

People read for different reasons. I really don't think one reason is better than another. My sense is that people read to:

- be entertained
- learn something
- have an artistic and/or cultural experience
- grow as a person
- be informed about the world

Maybe some other reasons, too.

All the reasons are valid. That's the wonderful thing about books. There can be many different types of them.

Finally: Commercial fiction and literary fiction are not enemies. They are bedfellows.

Commerical fiction keeps the field afloat finacially and literary fiction keeps the field growing artistically. They are both valuable and necessary.

Ginger Rue said...

Let the church say AMEN! Nathan, I've been reading your blog for at least a couple of years now, and this is my first time to comment. You are so right. When I taught English, there was always some kid who'd announce, "[Famous Poet] sucks!" I got into the habit of having the students write their own sonnets or villanelles. Once they saw how hard it was to say something meaningful within the restrictions of poetic form, they were a little more appreciative of what the great poets were able to pull off! It's easy to be dismissive until you try it yourself.

Marilee said...

Normally, I don't respond to reviews, but when someone accuses me of plaigerism, I felt I had to respond. The bad part is the review was posted on Amazon and remains there to this day. The reviewer apologized (almost), but it is still there for the world to see. Hopefully, people will read the comments and realize the woman was totally out to lunch.

missmystra said...

Haha, I'll bet you absolutely hate GetGlue.com, Nathan! All it lets you do is "like"/"dislike" books, movies, etc. I'll admit it is very limiting.

missmystra said...

Haha, I'll bet you absolutely hate GetGlue.com, Nathan! All it lets you do is "like"/"dislike" books, movies, etc. I'll admit it is very limiting.

hannah said...

Nathan--

Cool. I think we are coming at this from different directions. I'm always trying to recreate the reading experience as it used to be, before I was tearing everything apart in my head and wondering what it is about this scene that's making it stronger than how I would have written it, or how I would have changed the shape of a character arc or something.

I miss reading. The way it used to be.

MommyJ said...

I think there are authors that can write a really great story, and authors that can write a really great story with really great writing.

Is Stephanie Meyer's writing sensational? I don't think so, but she created a story that was really compelling to a lot of people. She should be commended for that. (Because, you know. With all those millions of dollars, she probably needs my commendation.)

I think applying blanket statements like "That sucks" or "It's horrible" are juvenile in most circumstances, but most especially when describing the written word. If one cannot be original with their insults, they ought to keep their mouth closed all together.

D.G. Hudson said...

Well said, Nathan, thanks for identifying one of your 'touchy' points.

If we want to argue the merits of a book, we should be able to put together succinct words to express ourselves. I've been trying to study books by two well-known mystery writers and by watching an old 'Poirot' (Agatha C.) series in an effort to study the techniques of two of the masters.

Thanks for the lesson.

Yat-Yee said...

So true. And sadly, the tendency to confuse one's personal taste with objective, universal truths is prevalent in areas other than writers/readers reacting to books. From "what blind architect design that ugly monstrosity?" to "you call that art? My elephant can do better with one leg tied behind its back" to "and she calls herself a gourmet cook?" to "that teacher is awful."

Also, the fact that the responder has to resort to thoughtless put-downs such as "stupid" or "suck" is probably the best indication that he/she has not engaged in nuanced reading. (Love that phrase, btw. Will use it seven times in the next few days."

Never mind about your chattering teeth: how's the jaw holding up?

Backfence said...

Excellent blog, Nathan. One of your best ever!

Soooz said...

I find that the comments /reviews on a book can be so generalized as to what the book is actually saying thats it's best to avoid reading them at all. I don't go into a book with a preconceived notion of what I may learn from it. Other than it's genre I avoid knowing too much of other peoples opinions. I have read marvelous books that entertained and informed me as they set out to do, that other people have branded rubbish.

I am stunned when that happens. Is it rubbish because the reader/reviewer just didn't get it? Or perhaps the snob factor creeps in and the reviewer gets off on damning the book because the trends tell them they must.

I love to read. It's that simple.
If by reading my own skill as a writer is enhanced that is pure bonus. Great article.

Moyrid said...

I think this is my favorite post that you've ever written. You are exactly right. Even if you don't love a particular book you can still learn so much from how it was written. What makes you turn the page and keep reading and what makes you want to just go to sleep.

Kaitlyne said...

I guess this is where being an English major came in handy. I almost always look at a book while considering the author's intent, and I'd never really thought about it before--or the fact that other people don't do that. I think it just comes from being trained for years to think of books from that perspective.

Interesting post. And one that has made me appreciate my lit classes. :)

Michael G-G said...

Years and years ago, in a "red brick" university in England, I had a professor who was running almost on empty. If you saw you were in his tutorial group for that term you would groan, because you knew all you would be doing was sitting through long declamations of "The Ancient Mariner," and other Romantic stuff. (The prof.'s saving grace was that he had a magnificently sonorous voice.) However, as the term was winding down, he did say something that has stayed with me: "Always ask yourself what the author intended. And then, did he succeed" (it was the age of 'he')"in his intention. That is the secret to good criticism."

The professor is probably long dead, but his words live on, it seems, in what he might have termed a 'Bransfordian pronouncement.'

(Thanks too for the Latin chuckle of the day. If Cicero had been more of a gourmet might he not have proclaimed "O tempura, o morels?")

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nathan. I think some of this is an adolescent holdover trait. They think it somehow makes you cooler if you can diss everything popular.

Phoebe said...

Nathan, great post. Back when I taught poetry writing to undergrads, this is precisely how I taught them to approach one another's work--the first question I always asked them was "What's the writer trying to accomplish here?" By the end of the semester, it inevitably elicited eye rolls, but it taught them that they were there to help their fellow writers reach their potential; advice along the lines of "I don't like the concept of this. Change it" is rarely helpful.

That being said, I write reviews in addition to writing fiction, and so my reactions to reading tend to be a mixture of subjective ("Do I like this? Why or why not?") and objective ("What's the author's intention, and have they successfully completed it?"). I think personal reactions can be helpful to others, if explained well enough. Unfortunately, my coworkers at my old job never quite seemed to understand why my being a radical, liberal feminist meant that I wasn't the best audience for Twilight. But c'est la vie.

Xena said...

well said

Steppe said...

I like this theme. I like books that leave me scratching my head wondering if I really grasped the writers overt and possibly covert social critiques and criticisms that occur due to a third person narrator rationalizing the behaviors of characters who are in conflict, as they are drawing the first person portraits as introductions with early snippets of back story. Then I rate the prose comfort wise if the characters go on later to summarize in tight dialogue the gist of what the writer was already driving at from different angles using several characters speaking directly.
My pet peeve is I like single spaced books and 325 pages on the nose. The old fashioned recipe where you get soup and salad before the main meal with a full close of desert then ice cream and coffee. I don't know, I like complicated stories that are hard to follow. Maybe that's what the Davinci Code, Harry Potter and Twilight have in common; they demand an investment of imagination. Hay in the end Moby Dick was just a big fish and Ahab had OCD but it all seemed very deep when my English teacher suggested I consider the whale a symbol for God.
Then I was like "Oh, hmmm... A fish god. Wow maybe that whales a deep deep thinker"

Dominique said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I try to avoid saying "such-and-such sucked," because quite frankly if I got exposed to it, it's because several people between me and its originator thought it was worth something. I think the important part is to look past what I didn't enjoy and see what worked.

Jenny said...

texasapril brought up the point that it's generally unpublished authors who state that a book 'sucks.' I agree. But her comment reminded me of the mini-scandal that broke out when Stephen King said that thing about Stephenie Meyer--calling her a 'bad writer.' There's also a long line of published (legendary even, because Mark Twain seemed to think everyone sucked except himself) authors who do sound off about their peers' work.

The difference is in the *level* of criticism. Just saying that a bestseller sucks does nothing, except sound whiny and pithy. If there is some thought put behind a critic's position to explain why they think a piece does not work, then they add merit to their position.

I think that peer review and criticism are fair methods of evaluating the merits of a piece--more so than popular opinion, though that does have its place. Writers talking about other writers’ writing (say that three times fast) points to how writers want to be evaluated. As a culture of writers do we value character more than action? Do we put more emphasis on sensory detail or dialogue? How does that inform what those writing around us create?

That discussion is where trends come up, and it’s also where people like Hemingway and Kerouac break away from the popular bits and create something new and funky and fabulous. It’s a talk, and we respond to one another as writers in our writing.

And here I have to disagree with Nathan a bit—it’s our likes and our dislikes that drive the passion for that discussion. Why don’t I like Stephen King, or why do I worship him? What did he do that I liked so much/not at all? Do I want to write like that?

Whatever the answer, whether yes or no, if I can articulate my reasoning in regards to the writing, it’s a legitimate thought/critique. So I don’t think that we should eliminate the question of personal taste.

Though I completely understand the frustration of having to listen to the casually tossed comment that has absolutely nothing behind it except bruised ego and jealousy.

That sucks.

Barbara Martin said...

I often select books for ARCs that are not of my usual reading genre just to see what I may learn from that particular author. Often I end up loving the story within the pages while seeing the method it was put together. Sometimes I don't like an author's writing style, but it doesn't stop me from continuing and completing that book.

John Jack said...

Mom and 'em said try it you might like it. They was talking about food and stuff, you know.

One of my brothers read part of a book once. He didn't like it and never read anything he didn't have to again. His palate isn't much broader either.

I don't care for cauliflower or brussel sprouts. There's not much else I won't eat, including some exotic delicacies most people will spontaneously regurgitate if they'll even touch them. Snakes and snails and oxen tails, for example.

I read the same way. I don't much care for author surrogate stories, nor self-deprecating protagonists, whiners and complainers and jaded cynics who say things like that sucks.

I don't like cauliflower and brussel sprouts because their bitter flavors overwhelm my sensibilities. The other courses just don't taste right accompanying strongly bitter flavors.

Najela said...

My teacher was just talking about this in class especially when we have to submit critiques. Thank you for this post.

Anne said...

Great comment. Spend one day as a librarian and you see how different people and their tastes can be. Yes, the question is, did the novel work? Did the ending accomplish what was intended?

scott g.f.bailey said...

If I pick up a book to read, I'm a reader first and foremost. If I become aware that I don't like the book, I'm an idiot to pretend that I'm not aware of that fact. Also, you know, for some of us "Do I like this?" is equivalent to "Is this well-written and entertaining?" Sometimes the answer is "No," no matter how many units the book has sold. And sometimes, books just suck. Because they just suck. It's not really clear what your point is here. Are you saying that if a writer says she doesn't like a book, she should be able to analyze and articulate why that is? That's a fine enough position to take. But if are you saying that a writer has no right to declare that she thinks something isn't any good, then you are taking a remarkably foolish stance. If you are saying that people shouldn't hate on popular books because those books are popular for a reason, that's different. But it's still fine to point out when a wildly popular book is poorly written at the prose level, or whatever. And you do everyone (readers, writers and publishers) a disservice if you try to supress that commentary.

Megan said...

Really good point.

sometimes people don't have reasons for not liking something, but more often that not people are just being lazy.

it's easy to pinpoint why you don't like a book - characters, plot, writing etc.

if your going to take the time to write a comment why not expand a little!

Augustina Peach said...

While I'll make allowances for personal taste, there are still rules that we as a community have decided characterize "good" writing and "bad" writing. We can just look back at this blog to find examples of how to make our writing better according to those rules. I guess I just assume that anyone who writes a book has a basic goal of writing it as well as possible, both at the story level and at the sentence level. Regardless of what other goals the writer may have (to write an entertaining romp or to create characters readers can love), I always assume good writing is a primary goal. That's why I don't feel at all guilty about saying I don't like something because it isn't written well.

I also assume that anyone who writes a book intends for it to sell as well as possible. Yet I've read several books over the past year that have been well-written but are nowhere near the bestseller lists. Are these books failures because the writer failed to meet his/her goal?

Bernard S. Jansen said...

This post sucks.

Actually, I have to admit that I agree completely; painful as that is.

Who are the people that bought and loved the best-seller that you think sucks? These are the same people that you want to buy the book that you're trying to write, and sell.

IsaiahC said...

Came back to check the comments, and ... wow. Ok, here's some things I've been thinking in response to some of the opinions.

1. No matter what field or industry you're going into, refusing to learn from the success of others is a sure fire way to never have it yourself. You might hate Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Michael Bay, Britney Spears, or whoever, but if you can't admit that they are good at what they do, you're doomed to be an amateur.

2. It's naive to think that successful people/books are successful simply on the merit of their performance/writing. There is a whole package to every successful person, and this is what so many pre-successful people fail to realize. It's not just that Dan Brown writes well, but he also is marketable and a good salesman. Stephanie Myers, like her or not, created an amazing product. The woman has Barbie's of her characters, for crying out loud. Seriously, who wouldn't give their right arm for that?

3. When we strictly define what constitutes as "quality" in regards to art (whether visual, music, or literature) we move out of the role of artist and into the role of critic. Certainly, there's plenty of room for critics, and without criticism there is no growth, but at least professional critics realize that every critic has their own taste. So many times I don't see that when I hear blanket "this sucks" statements. Art is an incredibly subjective field, and if we want to succeed in it, we have to embrace that fact.

4. Nathan's blog is a blog primarily about publishing. It's not about reading, or even about writing, really. It's about the business of getting your book out of your "My Documents" folder and into someone else's iPad, via a major distributor, for a decent amount of money. To that end, anyone that isn't willing to learn from others is probably not going to be someone who makes that leap well. I'm just saying.

Sorry for the epic tome here, but I just wanted to get that out.

Julie Wright said...

The Bachelor sucks . . .
JUST KIDDING! :)
I completely agree which is why I'm commenting. Another thing young writers should never do is slam another writer's work AT ALL. If for some reason the new writer gets a book published and ends up speaking at a conference with the slammed writer . . .things could become uncomfortable. Play nice in the very small sandbox, or you might end up getting your cheeks bitten by parasitic sand fleas.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post!

This reminds me of an experience I had once while posting on the crit board of a professional writers' organization. One poster's comment on one of my PB manuscripts was along the lines of, "Nope, this is not a picture book. It's terrible; throw it in the trash." Not only were these comments hurtful, but they were unhelpful, for me and for anyone else trying to learn from my critique experience.

A while back, Nathan, you linked to a post by a published author about knowing your goals as a writer. In other words, knowing whether you want to write something that makes it onto the NYT best-seller list, or something that tops it, or something that moves people to tears or laughter (but you don't care how many/few copies you sell), or whatever. If you accomplish what you set out to accomplish, then you have succeeded.

While I agree with those who have commented here that it is important to know whether or not you like a book, it is also important to know what you do and don't like about it. If your goal is to write something that eventually has a similar share of the market, then it is valuable to understand what about that book is successful.

There has been some back-and-forth about this in the forums here.

This also brings to mind what many agents have said about the difference between "commercial" (plot-driven) and "literary" (character-focused) fiction - both have their place on the shelves, but it is important to know which one you are trying to write.

Admin said...

The last two books that I said sucked were actually ones that sucked.

One was pulled from distribution because it was copy pasted from Wikipedia, the second was a crass fiction blended with the biography of a pop star from the 70s to make it seem like it was associated with them to improve sales.

If both were intended to achieve sales by deceiving the readers... then they sux-ceeded.

I just think it sucked that they were transparent, and I get angry when people forge talent. How the hell did these books go to print anyway?

Angry Johnny said...

Im sorry I have no idea why my openID posted as admin.

EEEK! THat Sucked

Anonymous said...

Books are timely. They fit into the generation they were written, which is why I have a more difficult time consuming "classics" over mainstream lit.

I think the important question to ask is: am I entertained?

Ellen Faith said...

Ahhh. I've heard - and had - this arguement many times over. The way I see it is this: if a book is published it has a reason to be there on the shelf, whether you like it or not. To be published is a great accomplishment and your personal taste has nothing to do if it's 'great or not.' I get really annoyed with the whole Twlight love or hate relationship. To be as successful as Meyer is you would have had to do a number of things right.

And it was a great post as usual.

Teri said...

If someone dislikes a book, the next question should be: What did you not like about the book? If the answer is the main character was too shallow. Maybe the author wanted you to see the character that way. There have to be reasons behind the dislikes and that delving into this dislike may open one's eyes to look further into the book.

WriterOne said...

Nathan, great post! I have never understood the "reviews" people post simply to tell the world they didn't like a book. In March, I blogged about that (http://bit.ly/cfV0pr) as a result of a horrible review of a fellow writer's work--an author who has many books on the top selling lists.
Thanks for getting this discussion back into the mainstream. I hope lots of people read it!

M.J. Nicholls said...

Books such as Dan Brown garner so much critical opprobrium, to read it would be to fly in the face of a common-sense consensus. I don't think any book should be dismissed in a word, but I do think you can dismiss books based on reading reviews, summaries, and excerpts.

Lorenda said...

Nathan - thanks so much for this post. Someone mentioned how it stinks for this kind of thing to happen in critique groups. I'm completely there with you.

I hate it when I hand over my WIP to someone who reads it, then tries to tell me how to make it more like their writing. It's an absolute, jump for joy moment when you find that special someone who can read your story, and make suggestions to make it BETTER, not more like their story.

And now that I'm totally off-topic, hurrah for awesome critique partners!

Anonymous said...

One size doesn't fit all.

Don't like my writing? Don't read it.

Thousands of others enjoy my work, and I'll continue to write for them.

It's enough for me. It pays the bills.

Life is too short to sweat about the "it sucks" crowd.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but reading bad prose (cliches, unrealistic dialogue, boring descriptions, etc.) will make you a bad writer. Garbage in, garbage out.

Shari said...

You know I'm not sure if I ever ask myself that question but my husband does. He'll notice if it's taking me a bit longer to read a book and then say, "Do you even like the book?"
But it's never about whether or not I like it. I usually get something out of a book even if it doesn't make my top ten list.

Matthew Rush said...

Disparaging others' creative work is petty and divisive. Leave that to professional critics, at least they get paid to do it.

J. T. Shea said...

Ohmigod! Not the Snide Comment Gun! Anything but that! But do you really hate rhetorical questions that much, Nathan? Are you sure?

An ode to queries beginning with rhetorical question? Working on it...and also on a query consisting ENTIRELY of rhetorical questions. Mwahahahaha!

You won't be surprised to hear that Ireland is unusually hot at the moment...

Joely Sue Burkhart said...

I apologize in advance--I couldn't resist! Ode to Rhetorical Queries.

Jan Markley said...

Great post Nathan! It's not about what we like or dislike as writers and readers. Let's look at what we can learn from various writers and what they do that works that we can bring to our writing.

RebeccaH said...

I do see your point. However, the question “Do I like this?” has been invaluable to me as a writer. It forced me to stop trying to write like I thought one ought to want to write and to start trying to figure out what I really enjoyed in reading, and therefore wanted to write. Perhaps “by the time we are an adult” some people do know their likes and dislikes. But really? I don't think this is true for many of us. I think a few lucky people do know, but most of the rest of us spend a few more decades figuring out the difference between what we really do like and what we thought we were supposed to like. Learning what we really like may take overcoming a lot of childhood brainwashing. As a writer, when I first admitted to myself that I didn't enjoy some highly praised contemporary tomes and that I did enjoy what I called my junk reading (mysteries) it felt like a revelation. Aha. I could write what I enjoyed reading, and it would be so much more fun, not to mention, so much more productive.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this blog?

Here's a quotation that made its way onto the newswire recently.

Stephen King via USA Weekend

“Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.

People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because it’s not overtly sexual.

A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

Basically, he's saying that she sucks.

Okay, he's identified why the books might be popular with young girls - but he's still saying she sucks.

It doesn't matter that the books have sold millions of copies. Bad is bad. And Twilight isn't just bad, it's super bad.

It's ridiculous to say that a book isn't bad because it's sold a huge number of copies. Who gives a damn if a book has sold millions of copies - that doesn't make the book good. Two hundred years from now, when people look back, are they going to say that Dan Brown was a great writer because he sold millions of copies? I have my doubts about that.

But what exactly am I being asked to do here? - analyze books such as Twilight and try to find out why this writing is so appealing to a certain demographic so that I can try to write like that myself?

As an unpublished novelist I'm trying to elevate my game, not go in the other direction.

I'm not going to start studying the works of Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer simply because they've sold millions of copies.

All I'm getting out of this blog is that you don't like it when unpublished writers sneer at god awful writers who have lucked out and sold millions of copies of their books.

Greg Mongrain said...

I agree with anonymous that bad is bad. When "Baywatch" was the number one show it the world, did that mean we should take our sets off mute? No. The show was still terrible.

LSimon said...

I tend to ask myself what a books strengths and weaknesses are. Try to learn a little something without bein' all judgy

m clement hall said...

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Other Lisa said...

Last Anon, the point here is not that all books are created equal or that best-seller-hood = quality. It's looking at why Book A is a huge huge success. What is it about that particular book that resonated with so man readers? I can really not like certain books and even think they are terribly written, but I am always interested in that question. Why this book, and not that one?

I think the post is asking for writers to be more thoughtful in their analysis in books, whether they are "good" or "bad."

Courtney Price ~ Vintage Ginger Peaches said...

If you say "it's popular", I can sum up with "it sucks".

Honestly, if we were face to face, we'd have a better discussion about it, but this is a blog. Everyone sums up their opinions in blogs. Did I read all 177 comments before me? No way! I think this has more to do with the way we are communicating than calling people dumb for summing up their opinion of a work of fiction. I would guess that 99% of your readers have more to say even if they sum up with "x sucks". Please; clearly you can see that everyone has more to say? Most of us just assume that one person (you or a reader) will not have the time to read it all.

Anonymous said...

I'm still chuckling to myself over the idea of a Marilynne Robinson chase scene.

Frank P.R. said...

What a good article. I wonder if an author was recently slammed to provoke this discussion. I'd be interested in hearing about other's approaches in preparing a reader for what their novel is going to deliver. Outside of Prefaces or Prologues, if some use these, the back cover and inside flap blurbs usually describe the story. I've heard author interviews in which they explain what they had wanted to do in writing a novel, but it isn't always known just by looking at the novel and it's introduction. How do YOU try to preframe a reader for the novel their about to read?

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

While it seems kind of pointless to comment...what the heck!
You hit the nail on the head - has the writer set out to accomplish what he or she wanted to accomplish - that is the question.
The question is not - is this the next great American novel.
Thanks!

Mia Turner said...

This is a bit off-topic, Nathan, but I am thinking it might be a good idea for a new blog. I have heard a lot of negative things about the Twilight series. I myself only read the first 80 pages or so of the first book, so I am not qualified to answer this question. My question is, So what DOES the Twilight series do well, from a writer's perspective? Any takers? If this is not the correct forum to explore this question, can someone please point me to a website that is?

dlc said...

OMG This article sucked! =) Just kidding. I actually appreciate and sympathize how you feel. I recently had a reviewer state they wanted to see more of a love story between two characters in my book. The only problem was the book wasn't about those two characters and it's an action/sci-fi not a romance novel. I often just shake my head and move on but I feel your pain!

Cyndy Aleo said...

What about when the book might actually suck?

I'm saying this only because my mother and I got into a heated argument over the latest Evanovich book. They are light and fluffy in general, and certainly not going to be nominated for a Pulitzer any time soon, but we've enjoyed them.

The latest installment, however, felt like Evanovich was doing no more than going through the motions. I'd hazard a guess that sales are due to rabid fans who would buy the phone book if her name was on it, and fans like my mother and me who keep hoping the series will return to its original fun.

I'd hazard a guess that if that book as is was being shopped, it wouldn't have been picked up, or if it had been released with names changed under a penname, it wouldn't have sold. At this point, the name becomes bigger (and better than the writing). I think we've all seen it when authors have the clout to do submit pretty much anything, and Evanovich just jumped houses to the tune of a huge contract.

At some point, isn't it possible that a book really isn't great, and sells based on the laws of celebrity rather than anything about the book?

P.S. I've read Twilight, more than once. Writing? Not so hot. But she's an incredible storyteller.

Jan Priddy said...

Interesting article, but thank you, Stu Pitt. Yes, we should be judged according to our goals, but if the goal was to write best selling disposable trash, a reader can still label it trash. If the goal was loftier... and it's trash, well, that's sad.

And to another poster, your AP English teacher is SUPPOSED to be a literary snob.

We read what we like, and that might include Black Swan Green or Twilight, but if your high school English teachers do their job—and you do yours by learning—you recognizer the difference.

As a writer, we should be reading and studying the sort of books we wish we'd written. First, stop reading trash, the stuff you feel you are better than. Second read the stuff you aspire to and figure out how you'll do that.

K.C. Shaw said...

Reviewers who write "This book sucks" or the like aren't writers, even if they claim they are. They're certainly not reviewers and can be safely ignored.

I run a book review blog with three other people. Two of the reviewers aren't writers, and the other two (including me, of course) are. However, all four of us seem to read in roughly the same way. Basically, we look for what works in a book, and we look for what doesn't work. When we review, we point out what we've learned--but we also state whether we actually liked the book or not. Failing to do so would make for a bland, passive-voice, useless review.

In other words, the things you say writers should be doing while reading are the things all readers should do. And asking yourself if you like a book or not is actually a perfectly valid question, for writers and non-writers.

I'm 40 years old and my sense of what I like and dislike is still evolving. That's why I read widely and take chances with the kinds of books I buy.

annie diamond said...

i've already prepared myself for the fact that if i should ever get a book published, there are going to be people who dont like it and have bad things to say and that's OK because i have bad things to say about other peoples' books too. everybody has a right to what they like and dont like.

Kellye Parish said...

Overall, I agree with your assessment Nathan, and that it's important to read both good books and bad books in order to see not only what works, but what doesn't work.

However, I don't necessarily think sales are a good criteria for assessing what books suck and what books don't. I can't begin to count the number of books I've bought that I quit reading two chapters in because they were badly written. But even though I think those books were bad, statistically it still looks like I liked them, just because I bought them. In actuality, more than half of books never even get read all the way through after they're bought.

"It seems to me that people who say this really mean that Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc are not the highbrow literary fiction that we are taught is "quality" writing. And no, they are not that. As Nathan pointed out, they are not trying to be that.

^ I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. This is absolutely not what I really mean when I say, "Twilight sucks." And for the sake of honesty, I'll just go ahead and say I've made that simplified assessment before, not because I think it's that simple to explain why a book so badly written can do so amazingly well in the commercial market (that's a pretty complex issue in and of itself) but because it would take me a dog's day to explain everything I find wrong with this book from an editorial standpoint. To say that I would have given it a pass as an editor is a massive understatement.

I think it's overly sensitive of enthusiastic fans of "bad" books like Twilight and Da Vinci Code to equate a scathing review of a novel with a scathing review of their literary tastes on the whole. All literary critique is pretty subjective, and you're bound to find wildly different opinions on the any given novel.

I don't expect literary genius when I pick up a pulp paperback off the rack. But I do expect protagonists that don't act like they walked out of a Mary Sue fanfiction, a plot that makes some semblance of sense as the story arc develops, et cetera, et cetera...

If I book doesn't have those basic things, I really don't have any qualms with saying that it sucks.

"One should not read trash at the expense of a better book."

Preach it brother. Call me a literary snob if you want, but I think it's really important to maintain a clear distinction between what is considered good writing and bad writing.

A six-figure advance does not a good book make, and as a writer, if you are more concerned with earning an advance like Meyer's than you are about telling the best possible story that you can, regardless of whether it sells or not, I feel pity for you.

Kellye Parish said...

Overall, I agree with your assessment Nathan, and that it's important to read both good books and bad books in order to see not only what works, but what doesn't work.

However, I don't necessarily think sales are a good criteria for assessing what books suck and what books don't. I can't begin to count the number of books I've bought that I quit reading two chapters in because they were badly written. But even though I think those books were bad, statistically it still looks like I liked them, just because I bought them. In actuality, more than half of books never even get read all the way through after they're bought.

"It seems to me that people who say this really mean that Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc are not the highbrow literary fiction that we are taught is "quality" writing. And no, they are not that. As Nathan pointed out, they are not trying to be that.

^ I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. This is absolutely not what I really mean when I say, "Twilight sucks." And for the sake of honesty, I'll just go ahead and say I've made that simplified assessment before, not because I think it's that simple to explain why a book so badly written can do so amazingly well in the commercial market (that's a pretty complex issue in and of itself) but because it would take me a dog's day to explain everything I find wrong with this book from an editorial standpoint. To say that I would have given it a pass as an editor is a massive understatement.

I think it's overly sensitive of enthusiastic fans of "bad" books like Twilight and Da Vinci Code to equate a scathing review of a novel with a scathing review of their literary tastes on the whole. All literary critique is pretty subjective, and you're bound to find wildly different opinions on the any given novel.

I don't expect literary genius when I pick up a pulp paperback off the rack. But I do expect protagonists that don't act like they walked out of a Mary Sue fanfiction, a plot that makes some semblance of sense as the story arc develops, et cetera, et cetera...

If I book doesn't have those basic things, I really don't have any qualms with saying that it sucks.

"One should not read trash at the expense of a better book."

Preach it brother. Call me a literary snob if you want, but I think it's really important to maintain a clear distinction between what is considered good writing and bad writing.

A six-figure advance does not a good book make, and as a writer, if you are more concerned with earning an advance like Meyer's than you are about telling the best possible story that you can, regardless of whether it sells or not, I feel pity for you.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think writers should say any book sucks or is trash or something else like that. If you are a writer or aspire to be one thinking like that is just not serious. You have to be able to be much more specific about how you are looking at material. You need to have a reason for why you think a book works or does not work, unless you don’t care about learning anything about writing.

Yes I do think you need to know if you like something or not, but you need to know much more than that. You need to know why you like something and that will tell you about the audience you want to approach and what you need to improve in your work.

You need to ask yourself why a book makes a lot of money – which translates into appeals to a large audience, whether you want to appeal to a large audience or not.

You have to learn to read like a writer not a reader. A reader gets lost in a successful book and is unaware of the technique. In a way a book that works puts the reader asleep. A writer needs to be awake while reading. A writer needs to be aware of how the book is affecting her while she is reading. That often means reading a book more than once. Particularly if the book works and “puts you to sleep”.

You have to be able to distinguish between what is effective writing and what you like. You have to understand what appeals to different audiences. And you have to understand what techniques work on most readers.

You have to get out of your own ego and your own head and examine the technique of the writing and judge that somewhat impartially. And technique is made up of many different skills; wordsmithing, character development, plotting, description, dialogue, pacing and others.

If you don’t know what makes a book work how can you write one? If you just want to enjoy and appreciate works you like, be a reader. If you want to be a writer you have to examine all kinds of books and be able to understand why they are or aren’t successful.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Twilight - At the urging of my teenage daughter, and to see what all the fuss was about, I read all four books. Did I like them? No. Did I think they in any way resembled literature? No. Were the books well-crafted? Did the author follow her own established rules in her own fantastical world? No. Did she market a concept that struck a chord, not only with teens and tweens, but with their mothers and grandmothers? Yes.
I view the Harry Potter series in the same, albeit somewhat better written, light. After the first couple books, I was bored to tears.
I won't even go into the never ending saga of Jamie and Claire after Outlander - and Diana Gabaldon can put together a nice sentence - unfortunately it's likely to be about hemorrhoids.
But...these authors and their books have their devoted fans and they are very successful. All I can say is, good for them. Those of us who write - whether we are good writers or marginal writers - wish we could experience the same kind of success.

Nancy said...

Just saw this a day late, after all the other comments were posted, and so I didn't read them. But I do have to say that when I read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" as a teen (an English assignment, no less!) my heart pounded, I was sickened and sweaty and had to stop reading. I BSed my way through any reports and tests on the book. Even then I didn't say the book was terrible; I only wondered how someone could could write such tragic human scenarios. Now much older, I ask myself if the writing is effective, whether or not I like the subject material. Did the material evoke emotion or make me think or hold my attention to the next chapter? An effective writer writes compelling material. That doesn't mean I have to like it.

Rowenna said...

I agree....almost. When it comes to reading to develop your craft, to learn from other writers, to grow and improve? By all means, yes. "Do I like it" doesn't enter the picture, "What works" does. But sometimes you're reading for enjoyment...and then giving yourself permission to quit a truly unpleasant book is something that I think many writers, as people who love words and admire the tenacity it took anyone to get published, find difficult. It took me a long time to learn to say "I am not enjoying this. I am choosing to read it. I can choose to put it down." Writers are readers, too--and sometimes are allowed to read for fun, just as they're allowed to write in journals or pen goofy letters to friends that have no direct correlation to their careers.

Maggie said...

"One should not read trash at the expense of a better book."

Sometimes it's fun to read something that doesn't make you think too much. :)

Even if I also spend time reading serious, good literature, after a long week when I feel like the world at large is heavy enough, I just want to be entertained. I think of books like those of Meyer and Brown as just like watching TV. I don't watch Gossip Girl for intellectual stimulation, I watch it for fun. Same goes for books like this. And these books are perfect for that.

And I'll say it again, no matter how bad you consider the writing of these people to be, they are better than most everyone else. Most people who criticize their writing could not do better, so it's fine to constructively criticize, but realize that compared to the majority of the population, this is NOT bad writing.

ARJules said...

I complete agree.... wait.... what? You like The Bachelor?? Huh? I'm a chick and I don't like The Bachelor. Well. Um. Okay. ;)

POINT BEING! When people ask me, for instance, "Did you like the book 'Twilight'?" My answer is, "It isn't a favorite, and I'll never read it again. But I liked it for what it was." And to be honest, everyone who has asked has understood exactly what I was saying. I wish other people would do the same.

But may I just say, I think it is good to try books you don't think you will like. You might be surprised. As we get older, we change. Our interests change and quite possibly, our reading preferences change. Just as a thought......

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what your point is here - I think many bestsellers are so because of the (lack of) sophistication of the reading masses. "Twilight" is an example brought up so often because A) it's wildly popular and B) It's categorically amateurish. Just because McDonald's is popular doesn't mean the food's good.

Anonymous said...
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Bree D said...

Amen.

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