Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reading Past the Envy

Sandra Parshall

I’m often surprised at how many other writers believe all bestselling novels are bad books. I know writers who won’t touch a bestselling novel, on the assumption that any book that appeals to the masses must be junk and any writer who has made a long, slow climb to good sales has sold out, cheapened his or her product to make money.

The harshest critics, the most resistant readers, any bestselling author will have are aspiring writers and published writers who feel they aren't as successful as they deserve to be. A writer unsatisfied with his or her own status will take grim satisfaction in tearing down the books of a bestselling author. We can't change the fact that millions of people love that author's work, but we can convince ourselves that all those people are stupid or deluded for loving it.

Envy is the monster that camps out in our souls and gnaws away at us until we’re incapable of taking pure pleasure in anyone else’s work – the kind of pleasure that led us to become writers in the first place. We say the bones of the story are showing (something we would never allow in our own work). We scoff at the author for overusing favorite words (a sin we never commit), as if that habit alone ruined the book. We wail that aspiring writers trying to get published and lesser-known writers struggling to stay published are held to a higher standard while bestsellers can coast and break all the rules and still be assured of success.

I’m as guilty as anyone else of saying and thinking such things. I can do self-torture as well as anybody I know. (Ask my husband. Ask my friends Carol and Cat and Babs. They’re the ones nodding and muttering, “Ain’t that the truth” as they read this.) But in saner moments I try to refocus, look past the obvious flaws and learn from what the popular authors are doing right. Believe me, anyone whose books sell hundreds of thousands of copies is doing something right.

What bestselling writers all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a dynamic fashion. They may not be great stylists, but they are entertaining. This is the one skill that beginning writers -- and many who have been writing for decades without success -- often cannot master. The story doesn't have to be perfect. The characters don't have to be stunningly original. The plot might be over-the-top, outlandish (I think The DaVinci Code fits that description, and so do almost all of James Patterson's novels). But the author has the magical ability to tell a story in a way that will keep readers turning the pages.

Members of a mystery e-list I belong to have lately been arguing over whether Agatha Christie was "weak" in any aspect of writing. Some devoted Christie fans see her books as flawless and any criticism raises their hackles. Personally, I think Christie's books are shallow, with one-dimensional characters and static protagonists. I prefer modern crime writers like Thomas Cook, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, who try to produce complex stories with complex characters, even though they’re not always fully successful. Yet Christie is still read, her books are all still in print throughout the world, films and TV programs are still being made of them, and she is considered the queen of mystery. Obviously, Christie did something right. She entertained readers who wanted to be kept guessing right up to the end. I can learn something from her about constructing a puzzle and weaving in clues and red herrings. I can’t learn anything from focusing on Christie’s flaws and grumbling that she doesn’t deserve her apparently eternal success.

It’s sad but true that the more a writer writes, the more critical a reader she becomes. It’s hard to enjoy a book when part of your mind is trolling for faults to gloat over. It’s hard to banish jealousy from our hearts and accept that not everyone, perhaps not ourselves, can be wildly successful. All we can do is write as well as we know how, without imagining the book bumping the latest Patterson out of the #1 spot on the NY Times bestseller list. We can try to enjoy the writing itself. Isn’t that, after all, the reason we started doing this in the first place?


Sheila Connolly said...

Very perceptive, Sandy. But envy trickles down even to the lowest rungs on the ladder. Did Colleague X get a better review in Obscure Journal than I did? Did she get a review at all? Why did she and not me? My Amazon ranking is ten thousand better than hers!

I don't read a lot of best sellers (too expensive!), but I have to think the common denominator is that they keep the reader turning the pages. I may dislike The DaVinci Code and condemn all the white space and choppy chapters and exclamation marks--but it held people's attention.

And regarding your last point, as a writer it gets harder and harder to find a book that grabs you enough to distract you from analyzing the writer's structure, use of commas, whatever. Thank goodness it still happens now and then--and isn't it wonderful when it does?

Sandra Parshall said...

I can enjoy a book much more if I'm listening to it on CD or tape than if I'm reading it. When I'm listening, I don't put the book down and think about the things that seem wrong to me. I just let the reader carry me along through the story.

Lorraine_Bartlett said...

Here's a new one for you: I'm terribly envious of...ME. My latest book, under a pseudonym, has officially been out one day and already it's sold more than my first book did in a year. It's with a bigger publisher, has a better cover, and it has received a ton of accolades. Is it any better than my first book? I don't think so. But there's no way the sequel to that first book (which comes out in June) can do even half as well as my little paperback original. I'm competing with my alter ego and I'm going to lose.

Laura (Kramarsky) Curtis said...

I abhor many bestsellers...but admire the writers for being able to write something people like. On the other hand, there are best selling authors whose books I'll snatch up the minute they come out, so I don't think you have to write tripe to appeal to the masses. (John Connolly, for example, may or may not be a best seller, but he's certainly close, and I'll not only get his books in hardcover, I'll get a friend to ship them from the UK if they come out there first, just so I can read them the second they come off the presses.)

Unfortunately, as Sheila mentions, there is more than just "bestsellerdom" in question. I hear resentment from some unpublished authors when someone else gets a contract, an agent, any kind of professional accolade. "How lucky is s/he" rather than "how hard must s/he have worked."

I wonder if this is particularly true within genre. That is, are cozy mystery writers more envious of cozy mystery writers and thriller writers more envious of thriller writers? Do romance writers read romances more critically and sci fi writers find more wrong with sci fi novels?

I am a hyper-critical reader. I freely admit that. But it's not envy that makes me critical, it's fury. I like to buy my books, not take them out of the library, which means that when the grammar, writing, or research is so bad I can't finish the book, I've wasted money. (As yet, the store won't take it back for any of those reasons...wouldn't it be great if they would?)

My grandmother was fond of reading books--particularly non-fiction--and writing in the margins things like "that's not how it happened!" I fear I am becoming more like her as I age.

Darlene Ryan said...

I'm one of the lucky writers who has gotten less critical since being published. If I'm reading a best-seller that seems flawed I find myself trying to figure out why so many readers seems to like the book. I drive my friends crazy asking, "But why did you like it?"

You'd think by now I'd have figured out the secret to best-sellerdom!

Carol said...

Envy is a waste of time and energy. It's also part of the human condition. The trick is to rise above it. Use another writer's success as a lodestar, not a stone on your path.

To quote Joe Konrath, "no writer's success diminishes me" (or words to that effect).

As I remind Sandy -- (on rare occasions :) -- while she's busy envying some other writer, unpublished writers are envying her. Not me, of course. I'm busy rising...rising...

Sandra Parshall said...

Laura, on the subject of envy within genres: Yes, I suppose it's common for one cozy (or thriller) writer to envy the success of another, but I think there's also a lot of cross-genre jealousy. Every single year when the Edgar nominations are announced, we hear cozy writers complain that *their* books will never stand a chance at mystery's premiere award. And I know that some mystery writers resent thriller writers for forming their own organization (International Thriller Writers) and creating their own award. I heard one writer complain that ITW is "dividing" the mystery community. (I thought it was prudent to keep silent and not reveal that I belong to ITW as well as MWA and SinC.) I'm sure some traditional mystery writers resent the overwhelming popularity of thrillers these days (just look at what's on the bestseller lists). So yeah, in every group there are writers envious of those in their own subgenre and/or those in another.

Anonymous said...

I must confess that every time I read a review of someone's book or hear that someone was published I feel a little twinge of envy (I wish that was me!) But then I realize that the people I am envying deserve the reviews and the contgrats since I haven't even finished my first book and have a long way to go before I would even consider myself a good writer. I still have a lot to learn and I know the twinges will continue. I am only human after all.

Anonymous said...

You're right about jealousy eating at the soul of writers. The best thing we can is live by the golden rule.

Reading is as enjoyable to me as writing. Finding new writers and new books that I love is a pleasure.

I do read bestsellers with an eye to learning something from them.
I would like to write a bestseller myself. But for the time being, I'm satisfied writing quality fiction that I can take pride in.

Jacqueline Seewald
Five Star/Gale

Paul Lamb said...

I really think there is something I call the "successful author syndrome." I've often thought I've noticed that after an author becomes successful and a sort of momentum takes hold, many authors don't seem to try as hard. Sloppy plot twists or inconsistent characters or even word choice that they never would have tolerated in their earlier work suddenly just slips in and doesn't get edited out. I think editors are to blame in part as well. If an author is a big seller, why monkey with the success? Honestly, some bestselling writing simply is bad.

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't think "bad" is an objective quality obvious to everyone. What I think is bad may be the height of enthralling entertainment to millions of others. If I read a bestselling book and nearly go crazy with the urge to edit it, rewrite it, then I tell myself I would not have been capable of producing that book, so its popularity has no implications whatever for me. Sometimes that works. Not always. :-)