Thursday, February 4, 2016

I'm a Book Snob (or What I'm Not Reading)

by Giselle Renarde

A book snob is not a popular thing to be when you write genre fiction.

In fact, there are a lot of things you're not supposed to admit when you're a genre fiction writer. I write erotica but I don't read it. (Don't tell people stuff like that!) I've never read a romance novel. (Don't!) A lot of genre fiction, even the bestselling stuff, is surprisingly poorly written. (Don't say it!)

At the start of my career, I used to wonder why established authors would say inflammatory things. Didn't they care about their reputations?

Ten years into my writing life, I kinda get it. You get tired of saying all the right things. It's boring.

So here I am, saying all the wrong things.

I love literary fiction. I just finished All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and it knocked my socks off. Her writing style is is so unique, and the way she approaches difficult subject matter is spellbinding. This book is written with divinely humorous compassion, but the writing isn't lofty. It's not even particularly pretty. But this is a book that had me laughing and crying simultaneously. I am so in awe of Miriam Toews. I am so in awe of her work.

My girlfriend bought me another book while I was reading All My Puny Sorrows.

We were at my local library, looking at the shelf of books they were selling off, and she spotted a thriller she'd read and enjoyed. It was a #1 bestselling book by a #1 bestselling author. So she bought it for me, and we were both excited to share something. We really don't read the same books. She likes Nora Roberts, Stephen King. I'm into Canadian litfic. We both like autobiographies, but she goes for celebrities and I go for random queer people.

I started the thriller Sweet had enjoyed so much, and from the first page it sparked my editor brain.

That's never a good sign.

I had trouble paying attention to the story because I was too focused on awkward sentence structure and crappy word choices. It reminded me of the first revision I submitted on my first ebook. My editor (bless her heart--my book was certainly a challenge!) told me I needed to vary my sentence structure. There was too much. "She did this. She did that. She did some other thing." So I tried to mix it up like "Doing this, she did that" and what a disaster!

I could feel my editor cursing me under her breath as she wrote, "Pushing down her skirt, she pulled up her top? How can she be pulling up her top and pushing down her skirt simultaneously?" 

That's how I felt reading this bestselling thriller. I couldn't look beyond the messy language use to focus on the story.

There were things I appreciated about it. Chapters were short, which made me feel like a fast reader (which I'm not), and each chapter ended in some moment of "Gasp! What's going to happen next?" I always wanted to know right away, so I'd flip the page and read the start of the next chapter, then get swamped down by my editor brain evaluating the language.

I gave up after 54 pages. Maybe I'll go back, but probably not.  It reminded me of the kind of action/adventury crime show I might put on TV and half watch and half enjoy, but when I sit down to read words, the words themselves matter. The order of those words matters.

Now, I don't want anyone thinking I'm saying thrillers are universally BAD or that my taste in fiction is superior to anyone else's. Everybody's got different tastes. And that's great because it leaves room for authors to find a niche. There is a reader for every writer.

I read literary fiction because I like it. It appeals to me. There are terrible litfic books, just like there are terrible books in every genre. Did I ever blog about The Postmistress? Because that book was awful (not that I finished it). But lots of people liked it, so there you go: tastes differ.

So are there good books and bad books? Or are there just books we like and books we don't like?


  1. So many books are poorly written... genre fiction AND so-called literary fiction. Unfortunately, once you're an author, it's tough to ignore that sort of issue. As you note, it can really kill the fun of reading.

  2. So are there good books and bad books? Or are there just books we like and books we don't like?

    That's an easy one for me, because my personal tastes are so narrow that I've long been accustomed to the reality that the vast majority of books, movies, music, etc. that I objectively (to the extent these things are objective at all) recognize the merit (or probably merit) of are things that I, personally, don't care for or wouldn't enjoy. So the world is full of books that are beautifully executed masterpieces which I would hate reading but people with different or broader tastes would love reading (so I'm not talking about "difficult" books that people force themselves through because they feel they're "supposed to").

    Of course, there is no shortage of bad books. Again, objectivity is far from absolute, but a book whose mechanics or coherence are flawed enough that most attentive readers would feel the author didn't really know what he or she was doing—and that isn't somehow redeemed by some transcendently compelling quality of another kind—is something I'd be comfortable calling a "bad book." There are also various kinds of superficially competent but lazy books—slavishly imitative bandwagon-jumpers, novels that rely cheaply and unconvincingly on preexisting out-of-copyright literary characters or famous people, nonfiction that's smoothly written but weak and sloppy in its narrative of facts and insights—that I might not hesitate to disparage.

  3. P.S. On the flipside—but much, much rarer for me—there can be a book that I think is objectively sort of "bad" but that I enjoy nonetheless. (N.B. I'm not talking about the so-called guilty-pleasure book, which—though I don't think that way or use that term—I believe is usually a book that's well executed by the measure of its goals, so not a "bad" book by my definition.)

    I read one "bad book that I nonetheless enjoyed" last year (and the fact that I finished it says something right there, as I feel no compulsion to finish things that I'm not enjoying and don't expect to turn a corner). This novella wasn't terrible, but the writing was sort of amateurish, the characters and some of the action were unconvincing, and the story didn't really make sense. Nonetheless, there were things about the people and the situations and the writing that happened to be right up my alley, so I got a certain amount of enjoyment out of the book. But, at the objective level, I wouldn't classify this as a book that "transcends" its weaknesses. I think few discriminating readers would find the book compelling or enjoyable; the author just happened to get lucky with this particular reader.

    1. A funny detail that I just remembered is the manner in which I was pointed to this "bad" novella that I sort of enjoyed—which wasn't erotica, by the way, though its titillating (but clumsily executed) sexual dynamics was one of the main things that pushed my buttons and kept me reading. I shouldn't say whose public recommendation it was, but I will tell you it's very intriguing to consider in terms of individual tastes and opinions!

  4. See, I hate those short chapters. When I read a novel, I want to get immersed in it, lost in the story, and I find short chapters to be extremely jarring. Just when I start to get into the story, they break the flow and pull me out.

  5. Ditto, Gisselle and Sally. I too like to immerse myself in a work. I like long books. On Wednesday I'l be posting about "Harlot's Ghost" by Mailer (@ 1300 pages). Momma X calls me a literary snob. She enjoys the likes of Harlan Coben, Lee Child, James Patterson and Michael Connoly. She read the entire "Sookie Stackhouse" vampire series. I'm more drawn to modern classics and Pulitzer Prize winners like Franzen or Donna Tartt. Momma reads for sheer diversion and I for scope.

    But not all literary fiction is for me. I don't want to have a "challenging" book. I tried Richard Ford's "Canada" a year or two back, but it didn't do it for me. Too repetitive. It seemed as if he was trying to say the same thing in different ways from different literary angles, not allowing the story to progress. Or progress so slowly as to be sluggish. Like reading Frank Norris' "The Octopus".

    Reading, at its best, should be easy. If the writing is good, reading should be effortless. I don't set boundaries like short chapters. If the writer is good enough, he/she can pull anything off. Just get something by JP Donleavy and your editorial preconceptions just may have to be revised. Hell, some moderns don't use quote marks. Paul Auster and Cormack McCarthy get away with it just fine. When reading Auster's "Book of Illusions", I was half way through before noticing the lack of quotes.

    But I will say that a Grisham just about makes it for a plane ride back east. First half on the ride out, the rest on the way back.

    1. If anybody is interested in Donleavy, I'd suggest "Shultz" as your first read. His characters can be reprehensible, but the characters in Schultz are not that bad. Works like "The Ginger" Man and "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B." follow awful (but somehow sympathetic) MC's

  6. Now I'm trying to remember which novel I read recently that had pretty much no chapters. Maybe something like 3 scene breaks? And I didn't even notice until I got to the end, but I remember thinking, "Thank you, author, for not interrupting my reading too much."

    Jeremy, I knew you'd have a lot to say. heh. You always answer questions in a way that makes me want to burst out in applause.

  7. Those same two things that made your early editor curse are the ones at the very top of my own editorial "Oh god, noooo," list (although I've certainly never seen them in your writing, Giselle.) But however much clunky writing bothers me, I can't deny that what readers mostly want is a good story that sweeps them along with it, no matter how it's written. Erotica may be somewhat of an exception, in that the reader definitely wants to be swept along, but "story" per se may not have much to do with it. (Sometimes I suspect that what I write and edit isn't erotica at all, since I do get hung up on the need for story and prose style. But so far I get away with it. More or less.)

  8. Yeah, there's a lot of crap out there esp in genre fiction. I become very excited when I find a new-to-me author who pays attention to craft. I'll say more about this in my blog :)

    I am not, in the main, interested in literary fiction. Much of it seems very forced and labored, as if the author is trying to be original and not just telling a story, The form becomes more important than the content.

  9. I definitely think people's taste is their taste! I find that I seem not to be cursed with that writer's-brain-ruins-reading-thing for the most part. I still just read with pleasure. There are things that irritate me in books, but they're the same things that always have.

    I do have to vote for the short chapters side here. I tend to grab small pieces of time to read, and I like to know I can complete a chapter while I do. It's also part of why I like short story collections. But I seem to be a very atypical reader that way.

  10. Interesting reading list, Giselle! I've always wondered if you read in French too, and if you can compare French originals with English translations, and vice versa. (I'll say more about that in my post.) Re chapter length, I think chapters should be like paragraphs: they should cover one topic (which could be large), not go on too long, and finish at a point that feels natural.


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