writing, books and reading

To follow on from what I was saying yesterday:

There is an excellent article by critic John Crace on The Guardian page about what makes a good book.

He talks about some interesting stuff, much of which seems obvious, yet is often not realised by readers. For example, not all books by the same author are equally good.

Ever looked at the Amazon reviews of one of those prolific authors who wrote a highly popular and fabulous book in the past and people keep on buying them even though they are now writing mechanical not-so-good, rip-you-off potboilers? There’s one I can think of whose first book- maybe 30 odd years ago – I loved. You can still find it being sold. It has 170+ reviews with an average of 4.5, deservedly so, about as good as it gets. He followed up with some other really good books about the same world.

His latest book, though, has a 2.5 rating. And it’s still on the best seller list. Get with it people; there are stacks of good books out there. If a writer’s latest books don’t treat you, the reader, with respect, then don’t give him your money.

Another point from Crace: hype sells books – it doesn’t mean the book is good.
There’s a classic SF/F book out there at the moment that illustrates this. It had huge amounts of marketing money thrown at it. I have read it. It’s uneven, brilliant in spots, but mostly dull. I suspect it was hyped because a non SF/F editor was impressed with the ideas – an editor who reads very little SF/F and doesn’t have a clue about the quality out there. That’s what it feels like anyway. It has a rating of 3.5, which means that most people didn’t think it deserved the hype. It has been selling pretty well too.

When I think of some of the wonderful SF/F books I’ve read, which fall by the wayside because of a lack of marketing, it breaks my heart…

Crace also says creative writing courses are a waste of time: I can usually sniff out a book that’s been written by a creative writing student within a few pages; there will be no plot to speak of and each sentence will have been polished so many times it will be dead.

Crace again: A good novel should be readable.

And then the clincher: he says some of the best novels are to be found in genre writing. One of the examples he gives is Stieg Larsson. I have just read the first of his 3 books, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I understand it was the second best selling book of 2008 (not sure whether this is just in UK or worldwide in English, or what…) It was a can’t put-it-down whodunnit which I loved.

I didn’t agree with everything Crace said, but interesting nonetheless.



writing, books and reading — 7 Comments

  1. A good novel should be readable. How very true that is. One book I remember finding a difficult read was the classic Lorna Doone. I never did finish it. I often say to the author, when reading, get on with the story. Some people waffle on into such unnecessary prose (is it to show that they can write this stuff?) that the story gets buried.

  2. I think that sometimes book-prize judges are forced to choose the least bad from a selection of mediocre books.

    Instead of promoting mediocrity, wouldn't it be great if they announced the following instead?
    "None of these books is up to the standard of what we consider a good read, therefore no prize will be issued this year".

  3. Sometimes I feel that any book prize is a bit iffy. How can it be otherwise? What we like is so very personal!! Perhaps it would be fairer if a top prize was never given, but rather the judges chose, say 5 top novels, and said, well, we think these are pretty good.

    It's very much comparing apples and oranges and to say one is better than another is tough.

    I think one of the most intriguing things I have found (both by being a writer and reading reviews of my own work, as well as reading reviews of other people's books,) is this: readers can say exactly opposite things about the same story.

    Critic A: So exciting I couldn't put it down.
    Critic B: Dull from beginning to end. Was bored out of my mind.

    Critic C: Characterization was wonderful and believable.
    Critic D: Flat characters who were just plain unbelievable.

    And so on…

  4. "hype sells books"
    This is undeniably true, although I do wonder whether it works for the second and third books by the same author. My late brother-in-law told me to never buy a book whose cover had the author larger than the title. This stood me in good stead for a long time, but these days, I find just about all books have author more important than title.

  5. RobB: that is so funny. We authors look on it as a rite of passage – or we used to. You started out with your name small and the title large, then when you got known, and your name was larger, we puffed up like peacocks in pride…

    Which is exactly what your brother was getting at, of course. And now when I finally have my name writ large, so does everyone else. Sigh.

  6. I still look for an author's name before I look at the title, I always assume a large name means a good writer. Not always the case maybe, but generally I think.

  7. Reading is such a different experience to writing or even reviewing, though. I write, my two best friends don't and there are very few books we can agree on. What I think is tripe, they love. What I love, they hate. With a few exceptions, mainly ones where I'm completely swept up by story and characters that the internal editor doesn't get a say.

    It was the varying views on Twilight a while back that highlighted the gaping chasm between just being able to read and not look at everything critically. My friends loved the books, I nearly dug my eyeballs out in frustration with the first one. And they couldn't understand why I kept harping on about show v tell, repitition, character development etc etc. "Why can't you just read it instead of trying to rewrite it?" they asked me. If I could do that, I'd probably be happier.

    Cheers, Lisa.

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