Stolen with affection from the late George Carlin: There are no bad words, only bad thoughts.
And paraphrased to: There are no bad stories, only badly written stories.
I've already written here that I'm not going to include book reviews per se -- this blog is about my personal writing journey, and while that journey may include side trips into the writing of other authors, it's still my journey. But as I've also already written about what I perceive as the bad writing that's out there, I thought I'd explore that a little more, and for a specific reason.
After reading several other blogs here and here about and/or containing negative reviews of books, I began thinking about my own attitude toward books that, well, that don't work for me.
Am I too harsh? Do I expect too much?
When I wrote my analysis of self-pubbed e-books and their review history on Amazon, I did not remember that I had in fact already downloaded one of the books. It had been offered free and I downloaded it figuring at least I wasn't out any cash. Since writing that post, I've acquired a couple more of the titles analyzed as well as a few others that somewhat fit my original criteria. My intention now is to begin reading them to see what my personal opinion is of them. Not in terms of individual reviews, but in terms of the overall quality. Maybe something will strike me as needing a comment targeted to one or more authors or books, but at the present moment, not having read any of them, I'm reserving that right.
I also posted on one of the above linked blogs that I think it's almost impossible in this age of instant mass communication between authors and readers, amongst readers, and so on, to separate the writer from the writing. Any writer -- and I have to include myself -- is pressured by the marketplace to put more and more and more of herself out there in the public eye, via website and blog and tweet and face.
And that means, at least in my opinion, that the author has to be prepared for negative reaction.
Because after all, what's the alternative? That reviewers give 5 stars or hearts or roses or whatever to everything so they don't hurt the authors' feelings? Or worse, so they don't tick off the books' or the authors' legion of fans?
Is every author and every book entitled to a glowing, non-critical reaction? Is every fan entitled to unqualified confirmation of the rightness and correctness and moral goodness of her fandom? Why does the entitlement not flow the other direction? Why are readers not entitled to a good read? Where is the guarantee offered to readers that they will never be disappointed, never get a wallbanger, never go WTF?
If I read a novel that's set in a location I'm familiar with, do I not have a right to point out that the author got the details wrong? Is the response "It's a novel! It's not a geography book!" a legitimate defense?
Or is it more that some fans have become so invested in their fandom that they can no more separate themselves from the world they've entered than can the author who has created (or, in cases, stolen) it? And does that stubborn loyalty to the book and its creator in the face of rational arguments to the contrary alter the reality? Does denying that a book is poorly written or that the ending makes no sense or the geography is all wrong make everything all okay? What if it isn't okay to readers who have not entered the world of the fangirls? Is every reader now required to enjoy, like, and rave about every book she/he reads?
But all of that is from a reader's perspective and I want to look at the problems from a writer's perspective.
Many years ago, a critique partner of mine had written a romance novel in which the entire development of the plot hinged on a series of highly improbable events over which the characters had absolutely no control and for which they provided no contingency plan had any one of the details gone awry. Imagine designing a flow chart for a complex process that never has a "no" alternative. So the story went something like this:
The period is the American Civil War, so 1860s, and the setting is Washington, DC. The hero is the leader of a spy network operating directly under Secretary of War Stanton's direction. One of the hero's accomplices has broken into a high-level politician's home and stolen a map that details locations where military supplies that have been diverted from the Union Army are stored. The politician is a secret Southern sympathizer and he intends to deliver this map to General Lee via a Confederate spy.
The hero has to obtain the map from his accomplice, make a slightly altered "duplicate," then have the accomplice return the duplicate to the politician's home.
The day after the map has been stolen, the hero and accomplice meet in a previously designated location, where they have every reason to believe they are secure from anyone seeing them together. The accomplice, who obviously doesn't have access to email or even a telephone, informs the hero that the break-in has been successful and he now has the map. They then go on to formulate a plan to transfer the map from its current hiding place to the hero's possession.
The plan is complicated. They determine that the best way is for both of them to enter a highly publicized steeplechase that will take place the following week-end. Although most of the course will be lined with spectators who have paid to watch the fastest horses and best riders, one section of the course will be hidden from all eyes as it winds through a wooded area. The hero and his accomplice will contrive to be first and second in the race at that point, well ahead of the third place horse and rider. The accomplice will hand off the map when no one is looking and then he will contrive to have his horse stumble. Another accomplice will arrive with what appears to be an "ambulance," and take the accomplice away to the hospital, except he will instead be whisked out of the city until the duplicate map has been made and it's time to put it back.
Now, I know what you're thinking. If the hero and accomplice arranged to meet in a tavern where no one would see them, why not just hand off the map then? That's what I thought, too. And I asked the writer why that couldn't happen. She got angry. When I pointed out that the whole steeplechase thing was way too complicated and contained far more risks than quietly swapping the map in a tavern, that there was no way they could guarantee they'd both be in the lead at the precise moment they needed to be and that no other horse would be near them and that absolutely not one single spectator would be in the woods . . . she got angrier. All of this complexity -- none of which made any sense when there were easier, less risky alternatives -- was necessary solely so the heroine could accidentally see the transfer and thus suspect the hero of being a spy for the Confederacy. (Yes, she would be in the woods where no one could possibly be expected to be. . . .)
I suggested the heroine could be in the tavern and see the transfer. Oh, no, the now-furious writer told me, that would be too easy and not dramatic enough.
Well, enough of the argument. Suffice to say we disagreed, she loved her book, and she never sold it. The point I'm trying to make, however, is that as a reader who was also a writer, I didn't buy the logic of the story. I had a problem with it and I felt I had a right to say so. Inherent in that right was my right to say "I don't like this book at all and here's why."
Suddenly, however, or maybe not so suddenly authors and their fans seem to think they have a right to defend their opinions but no one else does. I don't understand that. So I'm going to read a few of these books and see what happens.