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.