Some of the reviews and DNFs posted for the Halloween Bingo got me to thinking this morning about what it is that makes a poorly written book become popular. The following isn't a finished work -- I'm still thinking about it -- but I wanted to throw out some ideas for general discussion.
Therefore, be warned: This may ramble. A lot.
Thinking back to the novels I can remember as class assignments in school:
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Maybe there were more, but those are the three I remember most clearly. Great Expectations bored me so horribly that I never did finish it. I loathed The Old Man and the Sea, and my English teacher Ms. Cobb made it even worse. The following year, Miss Leonhard's adoration for Thomas Hardy turned me off The Return of the Native to the point that I read it but absorbed almost nothing.
Years later, I read more of Dickens -- and more about him -- but never did read Great Expectations. My feelings about Hemingway never changed: that forced reading of "Life's a bitch and then you die" as a teenager created a permanent disgust. Eventually I reread The Return of the Native and marveled that we were even allowed to read about lust and adultery, etc. I even wondered if Miss Leonhard -- who traveled to England each year with her two equally unmarried English teacher sisters so they could refresh their collections of heather and gorse and furze from "Egdon Heath" -- understood what the story was about.
The analysis we got of The Old Man was almost entirely cloaked in symbolism. What did this mean? What did that mean? I remember there was something about lions, though I don't remember what they "meant." I remember that we discussed "themes," but I never really understood that either.
The Return of the Native was all about Egdon Heath. Or at least that's the way Miss Leonhard taught it. It wasn't about the people and their motivations. It wasn't about good and evil, or desire and frustration, or how the story was constructed. It wasn't about logic or turning points or black moments. It was about . . . Egdon Heath.
It wasn't about how the writer communicated his message -- we only read male writers in those days -- or even what his message was. We learned about the text, and sometimes about the history in the text, and that was it.
We certainly didn't learn story structure. Or how to create a believable, consistent, three-dimensional character. Or how to avoid plot holes. Or how to tie up ALL the loose ends.
And I don't think that as writers, we necessarily learn all that by osmosis.
Moonlight Reader made the comment on my review of The Haunting of Ashburn House
that the author might be very young and not have any experience of how adult life -- especially home ownership -- actually works. I tend to agree, and that was another factor in these ruminations on the teaching of reading, bolstered by Jennifer's BOO-ooo-OOKs' reading of another book by the same author. If in fact we do come out of high school (or the local equivalent) without an understanding of how stories are constructed, does that affect how we read as well as how we write?
At the same time that I was reading Great Expectations and The Old Man and the Sea, I was also writing my first novel. It had a plot. It had a beginning and a middle and an end. But it didn't have a real structure. It was just . . . there. Over the next half dozen years I did a lot more writing, but didn't complete another novel until eight years after the first. The plot of the second book had a much more solid structure.
By then -- the mid 1970s -- I was also reading about writing. I had found a little paperback with the title Constructing Your Novel or something like that, and it helped me to understand how plot functioned. This was not something I had ever learned in school!
More than any other, Larry Block's book Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print turned on all the light bulbs in my brain. The many articles I read in Writer's Digest and The Writer filled in details of how to take that framework of plot and make it into a novel. How to make characters come alive. How to weave description in with the narrative and action. How to show rather than tell.
The more I read about writing, the more I learned about reading.
But what happens if a reader never learns that? What happens if they don't understand that plots have to have internal logic? What happens if they don't understand that characters have to behave consistent with their own personality?
Is that how we get "best sellers" that make us roll our eyes and wonder if the author has ever been in the real world?
Somewhere in my files is an article from The Writer magazine that features brief articles/interviews -- no more than a paragraph or two -- with a bunch of authors who had their first books published that year -- early 1970s. I don't know who all of them were or whether they went on to fame and fortune, except for one: Stephen King. I need to dig out that article to see how it compares to his memoir On Writing, of which I bought the Kindle edition and have read about 75%. I know, from the memoir, that he had mentors, and that he had people who early on saw that he had some spark of talent.
But I've never read any of his books. I simply don't do horror. I just don't. Someone lent me Misery because they thought I'd find it amusing; I skimmed enough of it to know it was definitely NOT amusing!
Many years ago, not long after I had sold my first historical romance novel, I was in a critique group with several other romance writers. I was in my mid 30s at the time, married with a house and a mortgage and a couple of kids. All the others in the group were younger, some single, some married but with no kids. None of them, in other words, had very much "life" experience. I could see that lack in their writing, and after all, this was a critique group; we were not reviewing already-published-and-in-front-of-the-public books. We all tried to share our various types of expertise -- one of us was a nurse, another was a legal secretary -- but for some reason or other, knowledge of how to construct a plot and how to create believable characters didn't seem to have any value. Yet that's what we were supposed to be doing!
Let me give an example.
In one of the books, set in the years immediately preceding the U.S. entry into World War I, the female main character is established as having strong anti-war, anti-German sympathies. Her father, who has political aspirations, encourages her to have a romantic relationship with a German diplomat. She doesn't resist. The German is older than her father and a very unpleasant, pro-war person, but she doesn't protest. He takes her to the theater and spends money on her, buys her gifts, and offers to give her father funds for his political campaign. He hires thugs to beat up her anti-war friends, and one of them is almost killed. She never says a word to her father about not wanting any more to do with this dude. She likes his gifts, enjoys going to the theatre, doesn't even remove his hand from her knee.
When I confronted the writer about this, and about how she was making her character seem like a hypocrite who would sell out her friends and her principles for theatre tickets and a pearl-encrusted locket, she didn't get it. "She's just a character in a book, not a personal friend or even real person," was the gist of her defense. "You don't have to like her. She's just doing what she has to do to make the story move."
I don't know if she ever finished writing the book, and I can only say that I've never seen anything published that remotely resembles the story.
Digital self publishing altered not only the way books are put in front of the reading public but also the way they are read. Readers who have never learned how the stories they read are crafted never learn how to distinguish the bad from the good. They read with the assumption that the writers know what they're doing. They read with no basis to question the quality of the writing, the structure of the story, the consistency of the characters.
Does this explain a book like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in which the main character's actions make absolutely no sense whatsoever? Or A Discovery of Witches in which the main character is described as both all-powerful but weak and spineless? Or The Haunting of Ashburn House in which the plot never develops with any sense of logic or rationality? Traditionally published with big commercial publishers or self-published with Kindle Direct Publishing -- there's something about the two that doesn't seem to make any difference.
I don't know. I do know that there are still books being published that DO make sense.
I'm just not sure if that matters to anyone at all any more.