Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Does the Publishing Industry Care Too Much About Writing Quality?

I'm reading Fifty Shades of Grey at the moment (oh yes I am), which has been widely derided for its subpar writing quality.

So far I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as I had heard people complain of it, but yeah, it's not, nor do I think it's supposed to be, Shakespeare. (I'll write a full Fifty Shades post when I'm done with it).

I've long held the belief that the publishing industry cares too much about a certain level of writing quality, and I'd include myself in the camp as well.

The publishing industry is full of people who can tell "good" writing from "bad" writing, the definitions of which contain a certain degree of subjectivity but not endless subjectivity. Most people can tell Fitzgerald from fan fiction, and people within the industry can get very granular.

Sure, you need to be a good, or even great, writer for literary fiction, but what about commercial fiction? The list of clunkily written bestsellers is long. I'm unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about "good" writing. They care about stories and settings and characters. Prose? I'm not sure I buy it.

We're about to test this on a massive scale as the books that would never have made it through the publishing process in manuscript form due to subpar prose are out there ready to take off, sell a gajillion copies and prove the industry wrong.

But what do you think? Is the industry too wrapped up in "good" writing? What do you think about the public's appetites? Should the industry still try to maintain the same level of quality of writing even if the public doesn't care?

Art: Heinrich Heine on cover of Die Jugend


Chelsey said...

I don't think the industry cares too much, but I think there's a divide between the industry caring and writers being able to improve. Most writing how-to posts on line have to do with setting, plot, character etc., and not with improving prose. So, for authors that are primarily self-taught (ie internet taught these days) it's very easy to improve these skills and harder to improve others

A.R. Williams said...

Writers are interested in good writing.

The industry is interested in what sells.

Readers are interested in stories that entertain them.

When something attains huge commercial success( Twilight, The Davinci Code, 50 Shades of Grey), it also creates a backlash of people who will say--"This isn't that good."

myimaginaryblog said...

I care. A lot. I've often gone to read a best-selling, well-loved work of literary fictions and thought, "Really? People don't notice the bad writing?"

But I think my degree of picky-ness is rare; my friends seem to devour some of the same these things I consider sub-par. Still, I'm grateful if the so-called gatekeepers can help weed out at least some of the works I would rather avoid

Christine Nichols said...

I do think that authors should have some accountability for quality.

However, I think that the publishing industry would do well to take lessons from other industries. Deliver what the consumer wants at the cost the market will bear.

Or - rest assured, that in this age of electronic delivery, the consumer will find it elsewhere.

Jaimie said...

A. R. Williams - Where's the backlash of people saying Harry Potter isn't good?

Melanie Fowler said...

I think that most people don't know what good writing is. When a story is really good, they don't really notice the words. But I believe that if you want more people to like your novel it needs to be well written and have an awesome story.

abc said...

Ha! I read the first two Fifty Shades books. I wanted to be one with the zeitgeist and see what all the fuss was about--at least that is what I tell myself. And I really don't like to be one of those people that complains about what gets published (cause I'm always happy that people are reading and we all have our interests), but damnit I really got mad at those books. I just wanted there to be some more characterization, I suppose. Is that like complaining that a porno doesn't have enough story? I don't know--I just couldn't care when all Anastasia (shudder at the name) could think was "He's so hot!".

Anyhoo, what were we talking about?

Laurel said...

I think any time one thing is your primary focus, you tend to care about details that a layman won't notice. So, yes, I believe publishing gets a little too wrapped up in the quality of the writing and probably overlooks books that would sell well because the writing doesn't meet professional standards.

I suppose this is because the flawed writing distracts from the story if you are a professional connected with writing. It's harder to enjoy a book with sloppy prose.

The trick is to figure out how much your opinion of the technical skills is coloring your opinion of the story. I wouldn't suggest ignoring something barely literate, but turning down a book for too many adverbs and dialogue tags might be a mistake. Non-writing readers won't care.

Virginia said...

I have to say that before I started writing, I didn't notice how something was written. Now, every time I read a book I notice myself looking at what I have been taught were flaws.
But as we look at what is selling and what readers are talking about, I too begin to wonder at some of the questions you've posed here. Truly I am starting to think that story, flow, and character seem to trump the rest. As long as a reader can become emotional invested in the characters and story line, then it seems to sell. Maybe that is due to what I stated above. Knowing now that as reader prior to writing I had no idea to pay attention to those things. Like head hopping. Drives me crazy when I read books that do this now. Before? Well I didn't really notice it, I just went with it.

Jadi said...

Speaking strictly as a reader, I like a good story, no matter how it's told. (No, I haven't read Fifty Shades OR Harry Potter). However, I do tend to appreciate books more if the writing itself is good. *Those* are the books that make my favorites' list.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Publishers will always let the market determine most of their publishing decisions, and if the market doesn't demand so-called "good" writing, then publishers will stop supplying it. Those houses/imprints that are known for producing quality literary fiction will probably hold out, at least for a while, but we've already seen that publishers aren't willing to allow wildly popular self-published authors to make all the money by themselves.

Fiona said...

"The public" comprises a very large population. Some of them will read horrible writing quite happily; some will not. I think even the most terrible writers who hit it big can still tell a good story. (I can't stomach the writing in Twilight, but the love story spoke to many!)

But John Green, who is a YA author is supposedly an excellent writer and is very popular, so they aren't mutually exclusive.

Suzanne said...

WARNING- totally subjective, unsolicited opinion--while I whole heartedly support the idea that good storytelling with strong, well-rounded characters, great plot and vivid settings are the most important, I don't believe readers can have all those without the work being well written. I love doritos, cupcakes, and coffee, but I'll have an early death if I feed on a steady diet of just that and nothing else. 50 Shades has feeble characters with no redeeming qualities to make us care about or root for them (unbreakable rule #1 in any writing), weak to non-existent plot, poor grammar, and meager 6th-grade-writing-like sentence structure. Disclaimer-I also greatly dislike Jonathan Franzen's work and can't figure out why ppl like him either, so I'm certainly no literary barometer; however 50 Shades, to my personal shock, has me more self-righteous, soap-boxey and whipped up than I normally get.

Whirlochre said...

Whatever the publishing industry thinks (or doesn't think) it's been something of a closed shop for a long time, blessed and cursed all at the same time by its contents — bottles of the best vintage wine covered in the dust of long-dead bugs.

As to what happens when they chase off the wild bat and patch up the window, who knows?

SM said...

I would argue the people buying the clunky bestsellers - anything by Dan Brown is a good example - are simply hungering for strong plots, which are often absent in literary fiction.

If readers could get BOTH a strong, exciting plot AND great prose, they'd probably buy more of that. It happens so rarely these days we just don't have a lot of examples.

Take Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol." I actually read that, because I wanted to understand what on earth was the deal with this guy who sold so many books. It is truly awful - page after page of dry summary, awkward prose, 2 dimensional characters (I'd argue his main character really doesn't exist at all except as a reference point).

But the basic plot premise is exciting. The chapters each end on an exciting note that makes you want to read the next chapter. As self-indulgent, poorly edited, and terribly boring as parts of that book are, the characters actually DO something, and at the end of the next chapter you want to know what they do next.

In contrast, I read a "literary" novel by J. Eugenides recently (The Marriage Plot) and I could have cared less what happened next. I got a third of the way through the book before anything significant happened. Like Brown, Eugenides is self-indulgent, going on for pages about literary theory to the point that I sensed a desire to show off. And the author isn't fond of ending chapters at all, let alone enticing me forward.

Eugenides writes far better prose. Each sentence is carefully crafted, and the rhythmn of his paragraphs is perfect. He plays with deeper themes than dan brown, too. But, even though he's quite successful, he still sells far fewer books than Mr. Brown. What if they got together? (matter-antimatter joke here)

Bottom line: plot, and a progression of significant, noticeable events, is one of the most important elements of fiction. As writers we ignore it at our peril.

Andrea said...

Look at it from this angle: milk before meat. People who don't enjoy reading would seriously struggle with a literary masterpiece. Those same people may read and love a book like Twilight, or a poorly written Indie/traditionally published novel. They have to start somewhere. To me, I don't care when a book goes big that is "bad." It's getting people to read who wouldn't otherwise. And those people, like my sister, sometimes discover a love for reading, and end up searching out other books, gradually refining their taste and growing in their expectations until they're ready for true works of art.

Anonymous said...

I've been hearing about plans to add porn scenes to literary classics (Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Wuthering Heights) because it's thought doing so will get people to read them (as opposed to getting people to read the porn and ignore the rest which is more likely to happen).

In the education system standards have been set where kids practically can't be failed and held back no matter what, it might hurt their self-esteem. Tests and homework can't be to hard and reading lists have to include books like "Twilight" because a book like "Wuthering Heights" might be to hard. Then people stand back and wonder why America's education system is lagging so far behind the rest of the world.

It's because instead of setting a bar and expecting people to rise to meet it we've thrown out the bar and erased standards entirely.

So, no, I do not believe we should allow poorly written books to be published. People say, "I can't", or "I don't wanna", and instead of the response being "well, that's why you need to push yourself and try", the response is "oh, that's okay, we'll make it easier for you, and easier, and easier still". When do we finally stop making it easy and expect people to step up? When do we finally say, "there is a standard for this and you need to meet it"?

People like to complain that the younger generation is lazy, unmotivated and expect everything to be handed to them. How is that a surprise when all they have to do is complain to have things made easy, and watch others succeed with little to no effort? We've already sent the message that subpar is just fine, are we now going to start saying it's extraordinary?

I don't care how well a book does in the mainstream media, it should still be written well. The message should be "work hard and be good at what you do and you'll be rewarded", not "work hard and be good at what you do and watch people who put zero effort in to the same job be rewarded over you". We're teaching those who don't try that they'll be rewarded while simultaneously teaching those who do try that all of their hard work meant nothing.

Matthew MacNish said...

I can only speak from my own experience, but the agents and editors I've submitted to (and been rejected by, ahem) seem to care much more about storytelling than writing. I'm often complimented on my writing, or prose, if you will, and yet still rejected for elements related to story.

I know that's not what you mean, not exactly, but I'm just trying to say that from my experience, story trumps prose. That can obviously be in both good and bad ways. Mostly good though, I think.

Suzanne said...

HERE! HERE! Agree 100%. Please appoint this commenter about the state of our current public education system the Secretary of Education. RIGHT NOW! PLEASE!!!!

Megan Mulry said...

Wow! Such a great post. Yes, this is happening as we sit here. Trad-pub is looking to self-pub and indie-pub saying, "Okay, show us what sells and then we'll print it and distribute it for you." I think readers of fiction, and genre fiction especially, want to feel alive, to feel their heart pound when they read a book--whether it's a romance or a thriller. Sometimes that happens with great prose, sometimes with a rollicking pace, sometimes with unique characters. Only very rarely do I find all three in the same book, nor do I expect to. I'm happy to find one or two of those components done really well to consider it a 'great read.' Also, what many readers consider "good" writing tends to be highly crafted (Ishiguro) and that level of high-polish doesn't necessarily lend itself to a fast pace (Lee Child). I don't necessarily want to feel the need to read a beautiful sentence ten times over when Reacher is about to throw someone off a helicopter or Christian is about to take his shirt off. Thanks so much for a thought-provoking post.

Claude Nougat said...

As always, Nathan, your posts (and questions) are spot on.But this business about a best seller being "badly written" is truly a recurrent gripe and not only on the American scene - it happens in France too (I follow the French literary scene too since French is my mother tongue).

Bottom line, the readers win. They want a good story, a hot sexy one? There you go, 50 Shades and who care how it's written? Certainly not the publishers who are making money from it!

Isaiah Campbell said...

Ah, aesthetics. The same argument that surrounds the works of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, or that befuddles listeners of Charles Ives and Stravinsky, also applies to literature as well. What is the value of art? Is it intrinsic or extrinsic? Who determines it?

Essentially, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beyond that, we don't always seek beauty. Sometimes we seek a thrill, or a laugh, or and nightmare. Literature, like painting or music, is a medium that can be employed to mystify and have us marvel at the wonders man can create. Or it can be employed to distract us, or titillate us.

My personal view is that, whatever the intended purpose of the art is, if it accomplishes that purpose, it has value.

And, since publishers are purposed to print valuable writing, perhaps they need to be more open minded to the possibility that works can be less than excellent from the perspective of beauty, but be highly valuable in accomplishing its goals.

Like 50 Shades does in making us all blush.

ghost writer said...

When it comes to the fickle public one statement to cover everything is very had to come by. What one person looks for in a book will not match what others look for, therefore "good or bad" writing is a very subjective thing. The publishing industry has had a choke hold on what the public sees and reads for a very long time, and that is hard to give up and loosen to the new demands of a changing world and public.
These days many new writers are self publishing. Good or bad for the industry is irrelevant, it's here and happening and will not disappear anytime soon. With that you will see a whole lot of both, writers that think they can and this is the only way to get published; and writers that are pretty good.
As far as Fifty Shades goes, yes I have read the trilogy. The writing in the first book is sometimes hard to follow, however by the third book it is much better. I could list the things I didn't like about the writing but the fact is that I got past the flaws and enjoyed the story and the growth of the characters. The book is not just about the sex, but about two people who challenge each other to change and grow. It is this development that will keep the reader engaged until the end. After all, isn't that why we read books of this sort, to lose ourselves in the lives and world of others. To engage in a dream world that we don't exist in but one that makes us happy to think about. If what you read does this for you, and keeps you wanting to go back to that world, well then, in my opinion, the other has succeeded.

Silke said...

I haven't read all the comments.
I ditched "that book" after 16 pages with a "bleargh" reaction -- because of the writing.
Do the publishers care too much? Some do.
Do the writers care too little?
Clearly, some do!
I think that's the bigger point. The writers who throw just about anything out there, unedited, and hope to make millions.
I believe if the subject matter of 50 Shades had been anything other than bondage -- it wouldn't have been anywhere near as popular.
(Romance novels as slammed as "bodice rippers" but apparently it is perfectly acceptable when the hero gets a kick out of inflicting pain on a woman, because he's rich and "hot". Really?)
Never mind that though. That's not the question here.
I think authors should have to uphold a certain degree of quality, or in years to come we'll end up with books riddled with errors -- and the next generation will be just a little dumber because of it.
Basically, I think readers should demand a better standard.
50 Shades would have been just as popular if it had been written better. Sex sells, after all.

A lot of people I know read the first book and didn't bother with the next -- even though they'd bought it.
Most of the time I hear "Wish I hadn't given in to the hype."

Yes, there is always a backlash of people saying "It's rubbish."
But in this case, the writing really is juvenile. I wondered if the author is 16 and lacking a decent education.

Danielle said...

"I'm unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about "good" writing. They care about stories and settings and characters. Prose? I'm not sure I buy it."

Here's the thing - stories and settings and characters are part of what comprises good writing. Prose style will determine whether a book is put in the 'literary' or 'commercial' sections but it is arguably subjective and readers often don't care if the story is good. Story structure, characterization, etc. these are things which can not only be objectively assessed, but can be taught and learned, which is why doing them badly (and not improving between projects) is the difference between a "real writer" and a dilettante - however the work is published.

Danielle said...

Of course I'd miss a crucial comma in a post about good writing!
Should read:
"readers often don't care, if the story is good."

Anonymous said...

As a general matter, I'd say no. There'a a huge market for commercial fiction with less than quality writing. Several prominent authors who may fit into that category have already been mentioned in the posts. And the large majority of those books are babies of the publishing industry.

The issue I've encountered is more of a barrier to entry. Like any profession, in publishing there seems to be a desire to keep a clear line between those that get it and those that don't, those that are in and those that are out. This often gets lost in translation. In my opinion, insisting that a writer is not up to par because he/she uses too many adverbs and dialogue tags or, my favorite, uses the word "that" too much (although usually gramatically correct), is simply another way of saying the writer doesn't yet know the rules of the game. It's a shame, because these issues can be easily fixed at the editing stage. Loosen the rules . . . the more people who play, the better the game for everyone.

Julie Daines said...

I think the general public is more interested in a good story more than excellent writing. Bestseller lists prove that over and over again.

Sometimes, I think that's how it should be.

As an author, I pay attention to the writing and if it's bad, I have a hard time loving the book. How sad is that? There is nothing so wonderful as losing yourself in a fantastic story.

The real magic of books is where good writing and good story meet.

Really awful writing, however, is a different story.

Clovia said...

So many times, I've heard my writer friends mourning a favorite book, revisited after they've begun their journey as writers. Books they adored, that changed their lives, that made them want to become writers.

Suddenly, they can't ignore the headhopping, flagrant abuse of -ly, or plot inconsistencies. The book they read until it fell apart is ruined. That's a shame.

You can be an excellent writer, and fall short as a storyteller. You can be a writer other writers tear apart, and still keep the reading public turning pages. We *headdesk* and bitch about how money trumps quality, while the public laps it up. It's the same disease that brings a knowing sneer when someone says "fiction novel," a club most readers care nothing about.

Storytelling wins.

Katheryn Wallis said...

I haven't read 50 Shades yet, but I did read all the comments above, which are fascinating. :)

One thing that might be useful, though, is to step back and actually define "bad writing". 1) Is it a mechanical thing - poor grammar, spelling mistakes, continuity errors? 2) Is it a structural thing - insufficient characterization, lame plot, no action? 3) Is it a matter of somehow crafting sentences that are not just functional, but beautiful - turning them into literature instead of just mainstream? 4) Or is it a matter of message or thematic content - the book isn't about anything, is about something stupid, or sends a bad message to/sets a bad example for readers? I'm seeing each definition used in the above comments to argue different things about different books.

Take the Twilight series, for example. Whatever her faults, Meyer knows her spelling and grammar, so she's not a bad writer by my first definition. I think you could argue my 2nd definition both ways in her case. But she fails according to the 3rd, and especially the 4th definitions: the Twilight books are not literature and, as Stephen King has famously said, are merely about how important it is to have a boyfriend.

I think the "quality of writing" is judged differently by different people because each of us cares more or less about different things that all get subsumed under this label. I don't give a crap about #3, for example. If a story is mechanically sound and has an interesting plot happening to characters I care about, and the story/theme makes me want to live in that world, at least for a while, then it works for me. In fact, I find lofty, artsy writing really distracting.

But #1 is a total dealbreaker for me - if your story is riddled with grammatical errors, I can't finish it no matter how intriguing the premise.

Last point: maybe no one is complaining about Harry Potter because it nails 1, 2, and 4, and does a perfectly serviceable job with 3?

Natan said...

So far I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as I had heard people complain

Really? I had to stop reading it because my face hurt from laughing so hard.

Nathan Bransford said...


It's hokey, but on a sentence-by-sentence level it's far from the worst thing I've read.

Anonymous said...

I read 50 Shades and liked it for what it was. I know a little bit about D/s culture, but I'm not an expert in BDSM lifestyle and I wasn't expecting a literary classic.

I also think the general public fails to realize how much work goes into releasing a book like 50 Shades...or any other book for that matter. It's a long involved process that isn't taken lightly.

Yolanda Renee said...

I hope the money I've spent on editing is appreciated. But this generation of tweets and texting -- language is changing, most can't remember the correct spelling. Which is good for those of us who struggle with grammar. However, I don't want what I write to be judged poorly written because I over used a word or forgot a comma, therefore it will always be important to me. The irritation with the Shades series is that she was an unknown and made it big, real big. But which one of us doesn't want that?

Laraine Herring said...

Another great post, Nathan. Have you read (or read about) Lisa Cron's new book: WIRED FOR STORY? It addresses the neuroscience of stories and why they matter to us at a biological level and how they are evolutionarily essential. She also talks about what techniques authors use that compel readers to dive into their stories at that biological/neurological place. It's a very interesting read. And her take is that good writing matters, but not as much as story to a general reading public.

Kim Batchelor said...

Having finished the first installment of FSoG, I theorize that it was the relationship more than the bondage that attracts people to the story. (Okay, the bondage part is always in the background because there really wasn't that much of it going on in book one.) If readers care about the characters, they over look the questionable writing; e.g., 21 instances of use of the word "hitching" in relation to breath. I believe that the industry should maintain good writing standards so that the writing doesn't detract from the story, if at all possible. There are other bigger problems; i.e., how they determine what's marketable and what's not.

Kat Sheridan said...

I learned to write from reading. I read everything, good, bad, indifferent. And eventually I taught myself what was beautiful (to me) and what was dreck, what resonated and what fell flat. I learned by example. If the day comes when the only examples out there are dreck, and there's no one to say "This is bad and this is why", then expect more of the same. There's lots of self published "good stuff", but when crap rises to the top, as with 50SOG (shuddering!) it's hard to locate the good stuff. It's not just the writing that's bad with that book--it's the unwholesome message sent to ypung women that a creepy stalker abuser is a "good deal" and that "love can make him stop hitting me".

Sara said...

Natan--Remember, Nathan Bransford used to read slush. I'm pretty sure the worst writing he's ever read far, far outstrips anything the rest of us have...

Andrew Leon said...

The "public," on the whole, can't tell "good" writing from "bad." Actually, many of them may have a difficult time with "good" writing, because they don't read at that level. Readers do, but, statistically 50% of people (in the US) will never read another book in their entire life once they are out of school. 50% of the ones that do continue to read will not read more than 1 book in an entire year. Those people don't read "well-written" books so much, because the language is too complex. They want stuff more around the level of "see spot run." Okay, yeah, I'm exaggerating a little but I don't think by as much as I wish I was.

Anonymous said...

Slightly different topic:

I think there's a huge double standard on "good writing." People will complain a lot more about the so-called writing when they didn't enjoy the content or story. Example: Twilight. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Meyer's prose is on par for YA readers.

Meanwhile, I hardly hear complaints about Suzanne Collins' writing. However, her prose is boringly simplistic and she provides the minimum in imagery and sensory detail. Her language is not rich at all. Her main strength, IMO, is her mastery in tight pacing. But mainly, I think people respect her "writing" more because Hunger Games lacks the obvious derisive qualities of glittering vampires.

Beth said...

I didn't think the publishing industry cared enough about writing quality, but I was thinking of books like 50 Shades of Gray. So maybe I'm wrong.

Lucky Mid-Lister said...

I think the quality of writing in books that were Self-Publishing Success Stories, and then become traditionally-published bestsellers, tends to be exceptionally bad.

Haven't read 50 Shades of Grey and don't intend to, but am thinking of several other examples, each of which I started but couldn't finish.

As for caring about the writing too much, I think it's like popular music. I assume the stuff I like to listen to on the radio offends the ears of those folks who can distinguish a quartertone when they hear it.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Screw off to all the people who deride 50 Shades when most of them haven't read it and the others were nauseated and quit after "only sixteen pages."

It's not exactly a tough read. People should at least be able to finish the first book before they make their judgement. People can watch reality shows until their brain is rotted but they are too highbrow to read fifty or a hundred or two hundred pages of 50 Shades. These are the same people who probably read one book a month, maybe.

The thing is, a book gets super popular and then it's hip to revile it.

A.C. Tidwell said...

I think that the publishing industry has a rich history of setting the bar of what is considered posh and what is considered subpar. I also think there is something to be said for writing that qualifies as high quality (tight prose, language, requires something from readers, thought provoking, cerebral) and something that is low quality (uses tropes and not for satire, follows a paint-by-numbers structure, reuses character-types from pop culture or Mary Sue archetypes, poor prose, abundance of dead metaphors, plot heavy). One affects you long after you put it down. The other is easy. So, I actually think that the publishing industry is an excellent buffer against most subpar writing. With mass media, internet, and indie publishing, there is a large amount of mediocre to poor writers out there. The market is oversaturated. But this doesn’t reflect the industry, per se, it reflects our society. In America, in particular, we ask very little from our literature, television or film. Instead we want to be entertained in a non-thought provoking way. This is a symptom of our times and the stress of recession. Art generally falls by the wayside in terms making us thoughtful consumers. We want escapism and safety when we have to worry about unemployment and food. It’s why we’ll read the same type of romance or sci-fi story over and over, knowing exactly how it will end, the only difference being character names and slight alterations in plot. Our reading standards decrease, because, hey we’ve done this before…I know how it ends…and that is one less thing to worry about.
I haven’t read Shades of Gray but I do remember when Twilight came out. I couldn’t simply dismiss it so I had to do research. So after reading the series I asked my students what appealed to them. It turns out it was a romance they’d heard before, written in the same type of wish-fulfillment fantasy that Hollywood makes large profits on. They were never really concerned with the outcome. Instead, the story gathered all the filmmaking and gothic romance tropes together in one place. It was icing. The sweet part without the cake.
I think the publishing industry should keep their standards and perhaps make them even more rigorous. I know that is disappointing to hear but take it with a grain of salt because it’s all relative. Having said that, I think that indie publishing is the place for fanfiction to grow. Everyone wants to be a writer. I’ve seen an explosion in the amount of students queued for my classes. It’s good for the market as a whole as it brings in new readers. I also think that big publishing should be hesitant to jump into that pool completely. For one, it will delegitimize the industry, something that will only be realized in 20 years when they look back at the current trend and say, “Oh right. How could we have thought The Bachelor could win us an Emmy?” But don’t shun it either. Hold writing contests with submission fees and award small publishing prizes for amateur fan fiction writers. Recognize the group and make a profit too. But at the same time, publishers have to realize it’s a temporary niche market. Very few people will quote Shades of Gray in twenty years. Remember to leave room for the other writers who we will be talking about. When our society no longer just wants to sit down and let a low quality book just wash over them, I can only hope we don’t ignore the next Fitzgerald simply because he/she didn’t sell an extraordinary amount of books on Amazon. We just can’t let that dictate greatness. Sorry for the long post.

Sommer Leigh said...

Readers care about great storytelling. They want to be transported by the stories they read.

But isn't it our job as writers (and the publishing industry as a whole) to supply great storytelling that is also well written? Why does it have to be either/or?

I read the 50 Shades trilogy. It's really very awful writing, but clearly it's got a story that people want to read about. But wouldn't it have just hit it out of the park if it could have also been written really well with a plotline that doesn't wander aimlessly?

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Count me in the camp that says good story telling trumps good writing. To me, the single most important thing that makes a book "good" is that the reader cares what happens to the characters. That said, there is a basic level of competence that I feel a story should have and if it doesn't, it makes me flinch to read it.

Diana said...

The difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction is something that I have thought about off and on for several years. I blogged about my realizations last October. To put that in a nutshell: People who prefer reading literary fiction focus on how the story is told eg the prose. People who prefer reading commercial fiction get pulled into the story and don't notice those things that drive the literary peeps crazy. Those are two different ways of reading a book. Neither way is right or wrong. Neither way is better than the other. They are just different.

People who prefer reading literary fiction don't seem to get that same visceral feel that readers of commercial fiction do. When I am reading Harry Potter, I am right there with Harry seeing Diagon Alley for the first time, battling a troll, confronting Voldemort and so on. I do not notice how Rowling is telling me this, because that gets in the way of me experiencing the story. To notice the overuse of adverbs and the words was and were, I have to turn off the reading for enjoyment part of my brain and turn on the analytical part of my brain.

I think this is true for all bestselling novels. They are bestsellers because they pull people into the stories and don't let them go until they get to the end. If you're not one to viscerally enjoy reading a book, then it will be hard to understand why Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. are so popular.

It is not easy and requires a lot of skill to write compelling prose that will pull people in and give them the a great ride.

Mary Mary said...

I think it's all about what sells, and not much else. Those subpar books that have become bestsellers all have one thing in common: they took a daring, and at times out-there idea, and wrote a story around it. There's a big difference between good writing and writing something that will sell.

Renee DeAngelo said...

Everything in the writing world is pretty much subjective. I think a story has to both be well-written and have good development to it. But different elements are more important to some than others. 50 Shades, (Love that you're reading this by the way...can't wait to hear your thoughts)from this writer's point of view, does develop into a great story. Is the writing the best,it's up to the reader to decide now that its published. Judging from the amount of buzz it gets, I would say readers at least are willing to give stories with an interesting plot a chance if it can grab interest and give them a great story. The industry should focus on making the readers happy.

Peter Dudley said...

I'm unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about "good" writing. They care about stories and settings and characters. Prose? I'm not sure I buy it.

I totally agree. Reading really good prose can be tiring and requires undivided attention due to wide vocabulary and subtleties hidden among the words. Today, however, people read while cooking dinner or waiting for the kids to finish soccer practice or standing on the train. Popular fiction gets read at these times because it's easier to consume. Or rather, prose that's easier to consume is more likely to be read at these times. Probably a better way to say it.

Paula B. said...

Silly Nathan. :) If the industry is publishing clunkily written bestsellers, they don't care all that much about writing quality, do they?

Nathan Bransford said...

Paula B.-

Trust me that there is way, way clunkier writing out there that isn't making it through the publisher filter.

Natalie said...

If publishing houses don't continue to put out book that are almost without exception of a better quality -by ANY measure - than self-published or small press books, then there will be absolutely no reason to pay the high prices they set for the books they sell.
If I pay 99 cents (or download for free) a self-pubbed book, I'm much more willing to ignore some typos, grammar issues, etc. (SOME, but not if they are so distracting that I can't read the dang book). But if I pay $20, $25 even $30 for a book, and it is not of an overall quality CONSIDERABLY better than the book I bought for 99 cents, I will absolutely stop spending so much for a book. Period.
I read many self-pubbed & small press books, and never pay more than $2.00 for them. Yet I continue to purchase hard covers by authors I really love or upon recommendation from a trusted friend. But if publishing houses stop producing excellent quality, I will stop buying, no matter who the author is. There are just too many fun, decently written books out there now to pay a high price without big return for that price.
My two cents in answer to your question ;-)

Giacomo Giammatteo said...

Nathan, I guess it all depends upon what you call "good" writing. Who are the judges? I'll be the first to agree that books should be free of errors (typos and misused words) but beyond that, isn't it up to the consumers to decide? Who are authors writing for, if not the consumers? And by the looks of it, the consumers (or at least a large number of them) want books like the ones in question. I haven't read these, so I can't comment on the quality, but it doesn't matter what I think any more than it does what the publishing industry thinks. That would be like Mercedes Benz telling us that Fords and Hyundais stink.

The traditional publishing industry has never been good at judging what regular people want, except when they "lower" their standards to print a gazillion celebrity books. Their successes have been as much luck and percentages than great insight.

They are holding on for now, but watch out when the independents start to figure out how to get noticed. I believe it will force even more changes on an industry already in a state of flux.

Jude said...

I am reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray". It is filled with run on sentences, head hopping,hard to follow sometimes. But at Chapter 8 it gets interesting.

Genevieve Graham said...

There's no such thing as caring too much about writing quality. I recently came across an author's facebook page (ok, ok, I was tempted over by a particularly delicious photo of a hero-type-guy) and she had over 4000 "Likes". Excellent marketing, think I. So I go to Amazon, check out her book ... and it's AWFUL. The same words repeated every other sentence, the scenes and characters as cardboard as a box ... and yet the readers are all "Oh! I can't wait for more!"

I'm confused, disappointed ... I don't even know.

All I know is that if you want to read good books, they need to be well written. PLEASE PUBLISHERS! Get pickier!!!!!

Lisa Cron said...

Great post! But the truth is, it's not just the publishing industry, it's what writers are encouraged to strive for. Writers are taught to learn to "write well" as if what hooks readers is the prose. It's not. Words are the handmaiden of story, not the other way around. When we read, what captivates us isn't the lyrical language, it's the story beneath that gives the prose its real power. Literally, as it turns out. That great feeling you get when you're lost in a good story? It's biological. It's a rush of the neural transmitter dopamine, spurred by your curiosity to know what happens next. Sure, great writing makes a good story even better. No question. But without a story, great writing is about as engaging as a bowl of wax fruit. Which is probably why Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 20 million copies, and many a literary novel sells well under 5000.

Anonymous said...

A good writer pulls you in and you forget that you are reading a story. True masterpieces are easy to follow and almost perfectly written. Clean writing is hard to achieve. And the best writers don't need much help with their editing, plus their story is exciting and you love their characters, or love to hate them. Read something good from three hundred years ago, it never changes and never will. The best writers remember that no matter how good the story, repeated editing is the most important last step.

terri patrick said...

"Does the publishing industry care too much about writing quality?"

I say, no, except when it is an unknown author who lacks a big vision book. The publishing industry has been selling mass market fiction in a variety of genres since "dime novels."

However, the publishing industry prefers to promote their high-writing-quality books even when they make most of their money one dime at a time.

Agents and editors want quality writing because they will spend more time with the text, which is why they are now requesting "up-market-fiction" instead of genre mass market quality. But the publishers and marketing department want a book that sells.

When an author or book sells itself, the publishing industry doesn't care about the quality of the writing and editors are happy not to struggle with the prose when it's already a done deal like 50SoG. It went virtually unedited by the publishers from a fanfick-draft, into the hands of readers.

Anonymous said...

I don't think these are either/or questions.

We've long had both kinds of books on the market: plot-driven books that sell big even if they're unpolished, and books that pay more attention to language and technique. The former often sell big in their day, then fade away. The latter sometimes become classics.

50SoG strikes me as the kind of book that nobody will be reading 20 years from now. Copies will litter the yard sales of tomorrow, just the way yesterday's bestsellers do now. Is anyone still reading Jacqueline Susann? We've seen these kinds of books before: the titillating book that catches on like wildfire.

Readers aren't a monolithic group. People who read voraciously tend to care more about the quality of the prose, because the more you read, the more you see what can be done with words--and what is overdone. Editors read a LOT, which is one reason they're so choosy; they see how the same ideas, the same characters, the same plots, the same cliched phrases, come up over and over. When the slushpile moves directly onto people's e-readers, readers may develop more of a jaded palate, and they may have less tolerance for work that isn't as polished.

I think the future of books will look exactly like the past. A few books will hit it big in their day. Some books will have staying power and last a long time. Most books will sell in smaller quantities to a wide variety of readers. Most writers will struggle to find their audiences.

William Ockham said...

Well, this is weird. I normally disagree with everything Bransford writes, but he is dead-on with this post. At one level, the industry's obsession with a certain type of "quality" is easy to explain. When your print runs are numbered in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, you can't afford the typo or easily spotted goof. On the other hand, the fact that the number good storytellers used to so outnumber the available publishing slots meant that publishers had to come up some criteria for choosing one good story over another. Focusing on the technical skills of the writer was probably the best choice to make.

The world has changed and all you nitpickers need to get over yourselves. We have infinite shelves in the ebookstore and nobody is forcing you to read "50 Shades" or anything else. People will still be repackaging Cinderella and the hero's journey long after you dead. And they probably be violating your personal grammar shibboleths, too.

Kody Wynters said...

Like you mentioned in your blog post, I think that people get somewhat fussy over prose when it's literary fiction, but commercial fiction is another story. I've had friends tell me that when reading commercial fiction, they'll see a lot of "clunky writing," which I guess isn't a good thing when it gets to the point that the prose distracts from the overall story.

I've never picked up a book where the prose annoyed me to the point that I completely stopped reading. If I do put a book down, it's because of the lack of great story telling.

Jesse V Coffey said...

I think the book buying public very much DOES care about quality writing. They just disagree as to what constitutes "quality." I am one of those that loved the Fifty Shades Trilogy -- but I also think it desperately needed a better editor. But then again, some of the quirks that I saw in "Fifty Shades," I've also recently seen in other best sellers by authors higher up on the literary food chain that supposedly know better. Greedy witch that I am -- as a writer AND a reader -- I see no reason why I can't have both, great story AND great writing. There are plenty of other indie writers out there doing it, so I know it can be done. I don't think it's too much to ask.

Joanne eddy said...

I think that historically those who were drawn into the publishing industry were people who had an interest in and love for books and stories. In the world as it is now, I think there is more variation in that and as some have said the balance between an interest in good writing versus in a 'hot commodity' may vary agent to agent and publisher to publisher.
Additionally, there can be an effete snobbery by some of the publishing elite, especially in the area of literary fiction, that repels many readers who run to the ordinary language of a world driven by texts, tweets and shorthand Englsih.

Maybe an appreciation for fine literature, the well turned phrase, the witty aphorism, like an appreciation for fine wine or great cuisine, must be cultivated. As someone who taught high school (twenty years ago) and now teaches at a community college, I find we have dumbed down that cultivation, and watered down our insistence on good writing and grammar skills. It should not be a surprise therefore that many don't write well...and readers don't hold them to that standard.

I admit to disappointment in some self-published and poorly edited fiction, as well as in many of the widely "popular" bestsellers. I find fewer books that take my breath away with the quality of their prose, or keep me up reading until 2 or 3 am on a work night because I simply can't put them down.

Margie said...

I'd like to ditto what A.R. Williams said at the top of the comment pyramid.

As for, Shades, my biggest issue came with the lack of research. I live in the town the book begins in, Vancouver WA and not once have I headed South to Portland to drive North to Seattle (around the fourth page).

I also don't think an elite/rich Seattle family would send their daughter to WSU-Vancouver Campus. She'd go Ivy league and if they wanted her to stay in the NW, she'd go somewhere like Linfield or Lewis and Clark in Oregon.

Catching those gaffes immediately made me a skeptic.

Mary said...

I think publishers care about writing quality as well as commercial appeal, but the latter more than the former. After all, they are running a business, and businesses have to make money. And quality, of course, is subjective. There are people who think Lord of the Rings and/or Harry Potter are badly written, just like there are people who think Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are amazing. It's difficult to predict what will resonate with audiences, but for a book to be as big as, say, Twilight or Harry Potter, it has have some "wow" factor and connect with people in a way that other books don't. And you don't have to write like Tolstoy in order to connect with an audience. It does help if you have quality writing -- and I think quality is something every writer who wants to be published should strive for -- but again, quality is subjective.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't matter.

The average person reading today is looking to be entertained. As long as the writing isn't too bad, it's good enough for the majority of people.

And this is one of the reasons why I think the publishing business is slowing going to implode. It's not selfish enough.

Cab Sav said...

I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey, so after reading Nathan's blog I dropped into the Amazon site and read the front pages. And if that's bad writing then yes, all I care about is story, setting and characters. While the writing didn't sing for me off the page, it wasn't a complete turn-off either. The sentences were put together well enough, there were no major typos or grammatical errors and the POV character had a voice. I didn't get to any of the 'cajoling through gritted teeth' or other weird imagery mentioned in Massie's article, nor did I get to too many of the repetitions (one smirk out of 24, a few red faces) that the Amazon reviewers comment on.

I didn't stop reading the preview because the writing was bad. I stopped because the story didn't interest me and the characters didn't appeal to me.

Reading the comments on Amazon, what most people seemed to dislike about the story were the lack of plot, one-dimensional characters, unrealistic situations, the content matter, the repetition and the poor choice of words. The first four come under 'story, settings and characters' while it's only the last two that come under 'good prose'.
Even so, I think the public does care about good writing. There is a limit to how much story, setting and character can offset bad writing.

Since the onset of eBooks and easy self-publishing I have read, and purchased, a lot of self-published books. I buy them for the story, or the setting, or the characters, seldom for the writing. Some of these stories are brilliant, some are okay and a lot of them are terrible. So much so that nowadays, if I suspect a book has been self-published I am unlikely to buy it. And despite some bestsellers being clunkily written, their quality of writing is still generally better than the majority of self-published books out there.

I think a few Fifty Shades of Grey-type bestsellers will sneak through, but they'll be exceptions, rather than the norm. All the badly written books will do is turn people off reading altogether.

We need publishers to maintain their standards so we have something to read.

Vero said...

I think the publishing industry should definitely care about quality, otherwise they were just content churners.

If they wouldn't filter, and good, bad and horrible writing would be treated equally, no one will benefit. On the contrary. The vast majority of readers are educated by what they read, they learn new words when they read books, learn about the human mind when they read deep POVs and learn about different perspectives on life. Do we want the average reader to have lower expectations? Do we want them to choose books based on price, instead of more meaningful criteria?

Without higher quality writing, there will be no progress of literature. And I personally don't think that's any advantage to anyone.

Damyanti said...

It depends on what part of the publishing industry we're talking about. If it is purely commercial, 'writing' becomes secondary, and plot reigns supreme-- no one can pretend that Dan Brown and Meyer don't exist, or that their books are well- plotted but badly written.

But we need to take care of quality because without a high standard to look up to, all writing would deteriorate.
We need populist fiction to maintain our interest in reading and entertain, and we need great writing to inspire and engage. Very few can do what Shakespeare did-- engage our intellect and emotions and yet entertain, but such writers exist: George Martin, Hilary Mantel, Arthur C. Clarke and so on-- the publishing industry needs to strike a balance between rooting for quality and popularity.

Yamile said...

I was just thinking of this yesterday. I'm reading a YA book by an establish author who has several NYT bestsellers. I'm not impressed with the writing at all. I cringe almost every paragraph.
My 11 year old son, on the other hand, loved it. Part of the reason I'm making myself finish the book is because my son loved it so much i wanted to see what the book was like. He doesn't care about the writing. He cares about the story. What an eye opener for me!

Other Lisa said...

To me, the way the story is told is part of what makes it a good story. But in the words of almost every "pass" letter, "this is a highly subjective business."

I know what I like to read, and I know what I like to write, and that's the best way I have of navigating issues like this. Thankfully there are a lot of different books out there for a lot of different tastes. But in answer to your question: "Does the publishing industry care too much about writing quality?" I really don't think so. There's a huge range of quality in trade-published books. Something for everyone. Plenty of books that I have a hard time reading but that other people love. And that goes for books that are critically raved about as well as ones that are panned.

Vikki ( said...

I am so pleased to hear you say this! :)

It's exactly what I've been saying for a few weeks now, but no one seems to agree with me :(


A.L. said...

My guess would be that most people who buy non-literary fiction are looking for a story. At that point the writing boils down to that quote about proper language skills: if the idea was conveyed, purpose of language is achieved.

Good writing can be awesome, and it can carry a book. But for the most part, I would be surprised if anyone not passionately interested in writing itself cared too much beyond "did the writing interfere with the storytelling?" If the writing doesn't get in the way of the story, than most people won't care. The problem comes when the writing gets in the way. That is when you have a problem.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) the publishing industry is filled with people who are passionate about writing and thus care a great deal about the level of the prose in addition to the level of the storytelling. Sometimes books squeak by and they show the shine a well told story can have even with sub-par writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for a really good story. However, I must admit if I find grammatical errors throughout a book I'm usually left disappointed, no matter how engaging the characters, plot, etc. are. I consider myself an avid reader and as such I expect a book to written to a certain level. Otherwise its a waste of time.

janet said...

Kudos to you for reading it. I did, too...twice ;) I feel like we need to know why commercial fiction like this is popular from an anthropological perspective. I agree in your assessment of prose vs. commercial, and I also think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to the general reading public caring more about characters and story. While 50 Shades isn't neck deep in story, at least the characters do manage some form of development. Ultimately, I think the bigger question is why is this book, with it's edgy sexual content, popular right now. I think that says more about us as a culture than the writing. What has been missing from women's lives or what have we suppressed or what will this mean for women and relationships in the future. Those are the more interesting topics of convo when it comes to 50 Shades. I'm sick of industry insiders, and this goes far beyond publishing, being sort of elitist about their industry. If someone has a book or characters or story inside them, move the fuck over and let them write it. What difference is it to you?

Catherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catherine said...

I read the first two novels of 50 Shades not out of interest, but out of curiosity to see what the fuss was about. What bothered me the most was the striking similarity to Twilight- the author had to take out most of the Twilight references, but there was just too much resemblance left. What I search in books is the author's creativity. I love to explore in the worlds of imagination. This, however, was built on a story that already existed, mixed in with research from Google. What was left was a bland story much 'colors' or 'depth'.
However there is some originality. Ok, Ana might have the personality of a very naive teen, but her struggle to understand the different world that is presented to her is comprehensible. Once in a while she has a healthy reaction, like at the end of book one.
I think the series could have ended there. Or at least the follow-up should have been completely different and refreshing.
As part of the public (not yet in the publishing business), I agree that we're looking for a good story. It doesn't matter if it's badly written or not. But as a writer, I tend to look into every flaw and detail. The repetition of words drive me crazy and I wouldn't recommend for it to get published. But that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be published- like said before, there are many people that simply enjoy the story, and the publishing industry should take that into account.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

"The industry"? No. I don't think so. "The industry" is and has for some time now been more interested in sales and profit than anything else.

Agents, publishers? Same thing. Critics? They make their living claiming to know the difference between Fitzgerald and Fitzsimmons.

Have you read "The Other Side of Paradise"? It is an excellent example of narcissistic self-discovery, written by a young man not of the "me" generation but its distant predecessor, the "jazz babies."

Maxwell Perkins, it seems, was great at not only knowning what great writing (i.e., "literature") was, but also what might appeal to readers of the time--people of the same basic age writing about themselves and others.

Have you read "Dark Laughter"? You'll see why Hemingway parodied it--in a pretty saucy move at breaking his contract with Sherwood Anderson's publisher, and being free to be wooed by Perkins at Scribner's.

Have you read "Torrents of Spring," Hemingway's parody of "Dark Laughter"? One wonders if it was the only thing he offered Scribner's (instead of also The Sun Also Rises), would he ever be published?

I have not read "Fifty Shades." In fact, my sister-in-law is and loves it.

Have you read any of Patience Worth's stuff? It raised Pearl Curran to literary heights. And it was supposedly written by a dead spirit channeled by Curran. And published.

I think some people are more interested in being seen, or known, for being at the "cutting edge" of "the industry," than good writing. And by good writing, do we mean esoteric literature (as opposed to erotic), which requires a dictionary and a college education to be able to fathom?

Self-publishing eliminates the middle-man aspect of writers getting their writing out to readers. Readers, always, are the unknown factor. And one could argue whatever they read, to them, at least, if not the critics, it must be good, no?


MJRose said...

I think that its the wrong question. Its not about good writing or bad writing when you talk about most books that sell vs those that don't. Its about appealing books/stories versus those that aren't. appealing. Fifty Shades is appealing regardless of the quality of the writing. That last years Man Booker - The Sense of an Ending didn't take off the same way speaks more about its appeal than its quality. I've found since I've been applying the appeal to books its easier to understand what sells and what doesn't and why books bought by publishers that are so well written don't preform the way everyone wishes.

Bryan Russell said...

As the former owner of a bookstore, I find that bestsellers are not driven by people who read a lot, they're driven by people who read very little.

I had a lot of customers like this:

"I love James Patterson! He's the best writer in the world. I read every book of his as soon as it comes out."

"Oh, that's great. Who else do you read?"

"Um... James Patterson?"

I find most casual readers have one or two favorite writers, and if they step outside those it's to try something that everyone is talking about (e.g., Fifty Shades, Harry Potter, Twilight).

And it's perfectly fine that a reader loves James Patterson's stories and only reads him. This is the sort of reader who fuels the careers of the really big names. But it also means that they have no real capability to judge and compare writing quality, as they simply have no experience of other writers.

And bestsellers are driven by the occasional reader who follows the few big names or the books with the huge buzz. The dedicated readers are searching out a variety of great books, and doing so to their heart's content. That hasn't changed, and likely won't. What has changed is that there is a new way for stories to reach readers and achieve buzz. And perhaps it's a way that makes it easier (and cheaper) for the occasional reader to try buzz books. I think it's likely that more and more stories will break out this way, with the digital spread of buzz. And the ones that do this will be successful because they appeal to the occasional reader (and will likely have varying levels of prose quality -- some will appeal to readers who are widely read and care about prose style, and some will not... much like traditional bestsellers now).

Anonymous said...

It's sad, but not difficult, to understand why the Fifty Shades series is so popular. And having accepted the fact that the big publishing houses are now placing money above quality, it's not difficult to understand why Random House made the Fifty Shades author an offer after her book succeeded as self-published fan fiction.

We're living in an era in which women's rights and scientific education are being seriously questioned. The news is filled with discussions of what even constitutes "legitimate rape," with the suggestion that pregnancy rarely occurs if a rape is a real rape. So, no one blinks an eye when a book series about sado-masochism directed at a female virginal main character by an abusive older man becomes a bestseller. It's just part of the times in which we live. And, of course, readers are being told that this book is a real, legitimate book with literary merit, which is like saying porn flicks are on the same level of quality as the best movies made today because they do, after all, make a lot of money and attract a wide audience. Ummmm, really? I may be a lone voice, but I'd like to point out that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Anyone else notice that?

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the email with a paragraph in which all the words have only the first and last letters correct and the middle letters in random order? Almost everyone finds that they can read it. It takes a little extra effort at first, but it becomes surprisingly easy.

I think something similar is in play when people read books. If the story is compelling, they will manage to read through poor writing to find the meaning. This can apply even to "great" writers. I don't completely believe anyone who claims not to have skimmed or skipped the long sections on whaling esoterica in "Moby Dick" in order to get back to the gripping story of Ahab vs. the White Whale.

Elegant writing, on the other hand, can disguise the lack of any story at all. For examples, see most "New Yorker" fiction: beautiful writing, but if you try to describe what it was about two days later, you may find you don't really remember anything about it -- except that it was really good!

Mira said...

I agree with Diana above about the difference between literary vs. commercial. They really are different writing forms.

Commercial writing is immersive, where literary writing is the exact opposite; the reader is watching, and admiring, the writing. An observing mind is necessary to read literary, while the point of reading commercial is to lose the observing mind and escape into the experience.

I don't know if it's been studied, but I wonder if reading commercial vs. literary uses a different part of the brain.

The reason this is important is the question tends to connect the two types of writing, as if they were on a continuum, but I believe literary and commercial fiction are very different art forms, designed to acheive different aims.

Someone above mentioned that reading literary is something that is cultivated, and I agree. People are taught to observe the writing and evaluate it, in just the same way that people are taught art or music appreciation. One place people are taught this appreciation is in higher tier University English departments. Graduates from these departments then go on to be hired as interns and rise up the ranks of the agent and editor professions.

So those hired in the industry most likely have a natural love for literary, and they have training to recognize high quality literary works. When you add to that the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, and other rewards for literary writing, the industry naturally has a slant toward appreciating and promoting literary works.

Commercial, on the other hand, requires no training to enjoy, and so it's naturally much more popular, since anyone can enjoy an immersive experience.

And, since it's more popular, commercial is where the money is.

So sorry for the long comment, but this is interesting. :)

To answer your last question, Nathan: "Should the industry still try to maintain the same level of quality of writing even if the public doesn't care"?, I say yes!

Although I think it's smart for publishers to publish commercial, too, purely for financial health, there are alot of reasons why publishers would be smart to have a sub-division, or specialization (or for smaller publishers, a focus on) for literary.

Some of the reasons are:

a. As publishing democratizes with self-publishing, Publishers need to develop cachet more than ever.

b. They will not be competing for as much market space, the literary market is not in competition with the commercial market, it is a different thing altogether (although some people may like both).

c. Marketing, promotion and networking will be easier in the literary world for the industry, those channels are already in place.

So, some broad generalizations here, but these are my thoughts about an interesting topic.

Bree said...

I am the kind of reader who completely loses herself in a book and tunes out everything else. And when that happens I am not paying attention to grammar or fancy-schmancy prose. I am invested in the story, the characters, and what they are seeing, feeling, and experiencing. So for me "bad writing" is when a story fails to draw me in. I've started some books that had potentially great plots but I was never pulled into the story. It wasn't because there were too many adverbs or too many commas. I care about the story being told well. Having great literary prose is important but for me personally (and I think that is the key- so much of this is personal taste) the story trumps all.

And one more thing on the side, I get bothered when people say things like the author of "Poorly-written-best-seller-lucky-break book" didn't work hard or earn their success. I am by no means the best writer. I'm pretty sure if I ever made it big my books would be some of the ones getting ripped apart. But I WORK at it. I invest in my characters and the world I'm creating. I spend hours reading, researching, studying, practicing, etc. and someday I will take a chance and try to get a book published. Will it? Who knows. Will it have success? Who knows. These authors who have made it, like Stefanie Meyer, could never have predicted their success. They had no idea what was going to happen with this story they poured their heart into. Why are we begrudging them something they had very little control over? They tried something and lo' and behold it took off. Good for them I say.

Elisabeth Zguta said...

Glad you are being open minded. I have not read the book - not sure I even want to, but if the people want it, oh well. It reminds me of what happened after Whethering Heights was published. People were outraged, yet they read it!

Peter Dudley said...

Nathan, do any of your coworkers have analysis software that could analyze the comments on this post versus comments when you were an agent in the biz? Or do you remember a similar discussion from that time?

There seem to be a ton of comments saying that flashy or flowery prose really doesn't matter much, yet I seem to remember a little different slant in the comments when the post referenced Atonement instead of 50 Shades. It would be interesting to see if there is a difference.

Lorelei said...

First of all the bottom line on any thing that an agent takes is MONEY.

If they do not think it will make money for them (and of course the publisher) they are going to reject it even if it is a rather good, well-written book. I've had a lot of rejections, and I know that they are looking for that '"block buster".

Prose doesn't matter a whole lot. And I've seen a lot of 'rules' broken. You know the ones "they" say you shouldn't do and every book I've ever read has broken them. I didn't have a clue until I came across some article on why agents reject you.

Rowling is the biggest example of someone being rejected by every publisher in England, and look where she went with all ther -ly rule breaking.(and she is not a bad example!)

So, for someone (whoever is saying this book is badly written), to say it's written poorly, they should take a look at what is out there... and the fact that readers really don't care that much if someone is breaking the writing rules, or can't write prose.

John Wiswell said...

If so many traditionally published bestsellers have clunky or poor prose, and they all come from the publishing industry, then how can the publishing industry be too preoccupied with quality writing?

Sam Mills said...

Late to the party... I want both. I read a LOT, and even without being trained to write, the more you read the more you can see the difference. Awful writing will ruin an otherwise good premise for me. And on the flip side, literary writing has to be OUT OF THIS WORLD to make up for a lack of story. I mostly read genre fiction, but I still want solid sentences and pacing. And bad dialogue makes me cringe like no other. I can't identify with characters who sound like idiots because they keep repeating each other or baldly stating plot points.

scruffy said...

The mere fact of you asking the question frightens and depresses me.

Donna Russo Morin said...

While I encourage those with a passion for the written word to find whatever vehicle they can to expose their work to the world, I do believe that there has to be some standards. There has to be a lofty goal to which we can all work toward with pride. If the publishing industry and its inner workings is the barometer, than so be it. But as a traditionally published author that also reviews for a service, I cringe with what is being served to the masses (just because it's highly ranked in the FREE category, does not make it good, it just makes it free and easy), I fear greatly that the dumbing down of America is reaching new heights.

heidi said...

"I'm unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about "good" writing."

I couldn't agree more.

I actually wrote a post on this exact subject.

Let me know what you think.

E.B. Black said...

I don't think they are too wrapped up in quality. I think they are too focused on the wrong things. I've heard people complain because a self-published novel had a few grammar or spelling mistakes. Seriously, who cares? If all you could find were a few grammar and spelling mistakes and everything else was great about the novel, then that's an EXCELLENT novel.

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I find that good stories/settings/characters are unbelievably rare. So I will happily take them even when the writing/prose is bad.
Most characters are not as vivid and the stories not as interesting as the ones in the big sellers.
The world is full of books with bad writing and bad stories. And full of books with good or great writing but flat stories and characters that are missing something very important.

Art Rosch said...

Sometimes good writing may even
hinder sales within the industry. Publishers want sales, which is proper. Economic pressure has drained a lot of courage from the industry's decisions. It takes fewer risks, hews to proven formulas and seldom takes the leap of faith needed to encourage original writing. Much of the best new work drains off into the indie business, which is generally a quagmire of futility. At least the industry provided filters, guaranteed a certain level of readability. Nuff said!

Anonymous said...

So I am curious were you able to finish the series?

I thought the writing was terrible and that the story line was incredibly ridiculous, but at the same time I found myself having to know what was going to happen next. HA!

Jaden Terrell said...

Silke said:

"Do the publishers care too much? Some do.
Do the writers care too little?
Clearly, some do!"

This. I agree with this 100%.

Eugenia Parrish said...

I hurt my friend's feelings by commenting that some of her favorite books were "badly written". She lashes back by insisting that most of the classics contain just as much "bad writing" as 50 Shades or DaVinci Code. She considers John Le Carre a "bad writer" because she can't follow his plots or understand his characters. She reads Mark Twain and John Steinbeck but insists that the writing "isn't all that good". On the other hand, many of the books she rhapsodizes about make me cringe to the point of giving up because of the clunky sophomoric writing, while she insists they are "good writers" because lots of people enjoy reading them (i.e. the story captures them). We're talking apples and oranges here. I only hope that we don't end up with only apples or only oranges -- either one would be awful.

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