17 November, 2006

Dear Books: What Has Happened?

I think I'm growing tired of reading. I can't find books which excite me anymore.

I just finished Turning Angel by Greg Iles...and by 'finish' I mean that I got about 150 pages in, had a good idea of where it was going and skipped to the end to make sure I was right. I was.

I'm starting to wonder if fiction writing hasn't undergone a shift in the last 10 years, a shift which is only now able to be perceived. So many of the high-earning books in publishing over the last decade have been serialised thrillers or chick lit. I'm a big fan of well-done entries in both categories, with huge props to Susan Isaacs who combines both genres into some of the best reading around. It does seem, however, that in the quest to keep the doors open the bigger publishing houses are relying on a combination of copycat writers and serialists whose works are beginning to show signs of having run their course. Exhibits A and B would be Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman. Two writers who initially captivated and are now turning in weakened versions of their earlier works.

I've bloviated before about the odd policy of fiction reviewers. In speaking to our authors' group in May of 2005, one of the book reviewers for The Scene told us that there was a bit of a gentlemen's agreement with regard to reviewing fiction. Since the business is so hard-pressed for sales, the understanding is that no book should be criticised by a reviewer. While I can understand the idea behind this, I still think it has presented a world of emperor's new fiction. We have stacks of substandard books receiving glowing reviews. Is the reading public fooled? Once or twice maybe, but in the long run I don't think so. In the long run there are people who just quit buying books. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and remainder most of your print run.

And that's where I'm at. I keep being bitten by books that are well-reviewed but only serve to disappoint. And I can't tell you how naked I feel without having something to read. Worse, I can't tell you how broken I feel about not wanting to read.

8 Comments:

At 11:11 AM, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I imagine that publishing houses are far too similar to TV networks for anyone's good. Tremendous financial incentive to reproduce a successful formula ad nauseum, plus an emphasis on homogenized mass-market product over artistic merit and creativity.

In a system where most successful mainstream authors are rewarded for cranking out yearly installments of more of the same and punished if they either take too long to produce the next book or deviate too much from what worked the first time around, where's the incentive to write more than one good book? Does Patricia Cornwell's Ferrari, private helicopter or Lear jet go any slower if her ghost writer puts in a C+ effort and only sells two million copies? Is a reviewer's career advanced if they repeatedly pan books that spend six months at the top of the best seller list?

Sadly, this seems to be the natural outcome of a system in which the creative process takes a back seat to business considerations. That's not to say that only 'starving artists' can produce real art or that mainstream mass-media books don't have a legitimate place. But when breaking the mold or pointing out a book's shortcomings in a review is going to adversely affect everyone's paychecks, it's not surprising that the industry circles the wagons in the name of self-preservation.

Perhaps the better question is why do we keep buying books and rewarding authors who don't seem to respect us enough to bring their A-game? It may take a bit of effort, but I'm all for digging beyond the best seller list and the "staff's picks" shelf at Davis Kidd to find a good read.

 
At 12:44 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Amy said...

have you read "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger? I just finished it yesterday and LOVED it--best fiction I've read in a long time--and, the kind that my college lit prof would be proud of :) the prose was just beautiful.

 
At 12:50 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Southern Girl said...

Let me echo the recommendation of "Peace Like a River." Absolutely lovely story. I checked it out of the library (that's where I get most of my books these days), but it's one I plan to actually buy soon, because I expect I'll be rereading it frequently.

 
At 1:00 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

Anon--Good comments. You make very good points.

SG & Amy--I'd actually read PLAR a couple of years ago and loved it very much. It reminds me a lot of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is about my favourite book of all time. I may go back and re-read that.

My mom's been after me to read the Delany Sisters' book, and so I've gone ahead and started that. I think I just need something besides sex and murder to read. Especially with the holidays getting closer.

 
At 2:06 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Michael said...

I liked Turning Angel a lot when I read it.

If you want a really good book, try Kate Atkinson. I've read Case Histories and just finished her new novel, One Good Turn, last night. Both are definitely worth checking out of the library.

 
At 2:16 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

I think I may have liked Turning Angel more if I'd read it at a different time. It had good parts, but it just seemed to be a little too much wishful thinking on the part of the 40something author. (That all these nubile 17 year olds are clamouring for the DILFs in the neighbourhood)

I knew going into it that I was more in the mood for a Little House On The Prairie type read right now. When you're in the mood for that and you read the sex/drugmurder book it kinda falls flat. So it isn't ENTIRELY the book's fault.

 
At 3:14 PM, November 17, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

You're right about how hard it is to get useful reviews of novels these days. One way around the problem (especially useful for finding young authors you like) is to read anthologies of shorter or mixed-length fiction, then search out the longer fiction by the writers you enjoy. Of course, it's easier to find reliable collections of genre fiction than of mainstream (and it's hard to find a lot of the more obvious collections in the Nashville library system, for reasons that aren't clear to me). But it can be done.

 
At 10:01 PM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Kathy T. said...

Ack... I'm reading Turning Angel right now. I'm about 150 pages into it, but will try to get through to the end.

 

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