Sunday, February 19, 2012
Why Do I Love a Book: Part I
Am I a cranky pants? As I look over the reviews I've done in the past few months without a doubt the thumbs down far outweigh the thumbs up by a considerable margin. And yet some of the books that I've "yayed" about included a deal-breaker plot issue that written by another author would have won it a world of hate, as they say. So what distinguishes these books from on another?
First, I think that non-fiction has a leg up. The bar for publishing non-fiction seems to have remained fairly static over the years (discounting, of course, the phenomena of celebrity authors, the nadir of which has been reached with the publication of Snookie's Confession of a Guidette). No publisher is clamoring for David McCullough to churn out a book every nine months. Plus, the dynamic between the non-fiction world and the reader is slightly different. The fiction author has the Herculean task of pulling you into their world and keeping you there. The non-fiction author has the slightly less Herculean task of dragging you into another world--the past, the present, the scientific, etc. It's not as personal. I was going to write that it's more clinical, but I've read some non-fiction that is so passionate about its subject that to call this writing clinical would be blasphemous. Taking the real world and making it as interesting as the world of the imagination is damn difficult. There are the limits of the subject itself, no insignificant matter. But just as there are limitations on the subject matter, the subject matter itself can be its own advertizing. Who doesn't find murder fascinating? Well, I do, so already you have me hooked and it's going to take a lot of bad writing to "kill" that initial buy in. Having said that, I do think that based on my reading career of over forty-five years comprising a fair amount of both fiction and non-fiction, that for mainstream publishing the bar for non-fiction remains high.
While the bar for fiction? Sigh, I'm not going to go on and on here as I've done in the past about what I consider the steady decline in the quality of fiction. To me it's obvious and if it's not obvious to you, consider yourself lucky.
I do consider the fiction writer's primary hurdle--where they are obligated to make their world yours--to be one of those mountains coming to Mohamed deals. The inside of my head is a very weird place with lots of baggage that can't help but migrate to the page at some point. Voice is how I tell you that my baggage is brilliant and fascinating and my neuroses let me show them to you. Characterization is what's in my baggage. Sometimes this baggage is composed of nothing but shirts whose buttons have been ripped off or they are all black or in fantastic colors, and there's a bunch of lingerie hidden in the corners. Sometimes I've got nothing but shoes and why is that? Plot is what color is my baggage. A plain brown suitcase could contain a shocking number of very revealing black bras. Or it could have stacks and stacks of maps to various countries with a gun nestling in the middle of them. I use this analogy to point out how varied all these components can be--although I will say that if you ain't got voice you got nothin'--and still have a novel work and work beautifully.
In order to make that baggage interesting enough that a reader has no problem in picking up that baggage and hauling it around for something like three hundred and fifty pages is no easy task. A book doesn't work when the outside of my suitcase is too gaudy or someone wants red lingerie instead of black, or the sight of a gun makes the reader cringe, or my voice is too damn whiny, choppy, cliche, or epithet-ridden to appeal. Then the suitcase is dropped and the journey stops right there. The sound of my baggage hitting the tarmac with a fatal thud makes my author's heart skip a wee beat.
It's the worse sound in the world.
Part II coming!