It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”
Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.
Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.
And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.
I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.
So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.