Books For Non-Readers

Reading & Writing

I don’t approve of reviewing terrible books; The William McGonagalls of the world have always been with us, and press space is at such a premium that I usually make sure I’m recommending something good rather than complaining about lousy writing. But over the last few years a pattern has emerged whereby a poorly written book has become a huge worldwide success.

The most obvious starting candidate was ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but even Dan Brown’s adventure had a redeeming quality; A Dickensian determination to keep the reader turning the pages, with short chapters, recaps and simple actions filled with fast-reward puzzles. I didn’t dislike it – in the seventies ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ became a bestseller, for God’s sake – although what was an utterly unoriginal pulp thriller came to assume a bizarre level of importance after the Vatican became the publishers’ stooge by pronouncing sentence upon it.

This season, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ (never a more apt title) was forced into the public consciousness by a PR machine seeing easy cash in selling the Mills & Boon sex-kinks of repackaged fan fiction to suburban non-readers for whom sex with a light on is the height of erotic experimentation.

Then there’s the ubiquitous ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by SJ Watson, a Groundhog Day of vague inept writing that someone dosed with horse tranquilliser could follow without concentrating. Now, I wish Mr Watson well, and am thrilled he has sold her novel to 42 countries, because his editors clearly understand something I’ve failed to grasp; that some people will read a farrago of lazily observed, repetitious cliches and take pleasure in it.

My issue is not with the writers, who after huge amounts of publicity come to believe that, like rock stars, they are interesting. The point here is that bad novels are not chosen by the reading public. Readers are not generally stupid – for a start they want to read, and develop discernment. But publishing is subject to the law of economics and ‘differentiated branding’, so it falls to the editor and his/her professional readers to decide which books will get a big publicity spend thrown at them.

For much of the 20th century, publishing houses were run by those who actively sought out excellence and presented it to the public. Inevitably the industry fell into bad habits, like all others subject to the economics of mass production. Perhaps there’s nothing and no-one to blame except the economy, which we now know doesn’t actually work. The problem is self-perpetuating – if ‘Twilight’ is a hit, why not publish more?

A question, then; if the public buys whatever is the most promoted, when it comes to books why not promote the most excellent? The public will still find ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and that will reach its own market level. Put the money into Hilary Mantel’s astonishing sequel to ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’. Is it such heresy to suggest the promotion of something above the bottom line and the lowest common denominator?

9 comments on “Books For Non-Readers”

  1. J F Norris says:

    I stumbled across the “secret” of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY on someone’s blog just last month while looking for something else. Takes me a while to catch up with pop culture phenoms. The publishing world just caught onto the inanity and popularity of fan fiction? Where were they when all those sex stories about Harry Potter character couplings were popping up all over the internet? Did you see this blog post about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY parodies? Pretty damn funny.

  2. snowy says:

    Entirely off topic but, the radio programme featuring our host was repeated today. So if you can get BBC iPlayer in your location you can listen to it until Sunday the 24th of June.

  3. Amy says:

    Well, let me give my viewpoint as a “non-reader.” I’ll just ignore all of the books on my bookshelves, my Kindle, and the summer reading programs I used to attend in lieu of camp. I read Fifty Shades of Grey when it was a Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe and free online. At one point, the writer had over 80,000 reviews of the story. She signed with a publishing upstart that wanted a sure thing and her story had a built-in audience.

    The people who read her story for free, became fans of hers, bought the published books and spread the word. It became popular by word of mouth. The PR came after it was already a best seller. The publishing deal with Random House came even later. True enough, there are some people who don’t usually read who found Twilight and Fifty Shades entertaining. Nevertheless, I think that’s a testament to the skill of storyteller, if I may give my opinion as one of those who enjoys the lowest common denominator.

    E.L. James may not be technically proficient yet, but I looked forward to her updates when she was posting her story online. I may be the exception that thought her characters were compelling and that the romance was endearing. An experienced editor could have helped her make that story more professional and polished. Economics did play a part in not making sure of that. On the other hand, she already had fans who liked the story the way it was. I don’t know if it would’ve been economically sound to publish a book that targeted a certain market and completely change it. I never bought the published books. I was just a casual reader, not a fan.

    As far as discernment goes, I feel that I am. I know that when I read Paradise, by Toni Morrison, I’m reading on a completely different level than when I’m reading Twilight. Be that as it may, that doesn’t make me enjoy one more than the other. I enjoy them both for different reasons. I guess I’m just common enough to enjoy lazy cliches.

    If Hilary Mantel can bring an audience of dedicated fans with her that will buy what she’s already published and they’ve alread read for free who are willing to tell other people about it, then maybe the PR will come. I’m not sayng an “above the bottom line” writer doesn’t deserve the finanancial risk involved in throwing money behind a book that may not become popular. I’m just suggesting that publishing houses might be risk aversive during hard economic times.

  4. Diogenes says:

    Publishing has weird economics. Normally, a better product costs more; a grand cru wine costs more, a nice house costs more, a better car etc etc.

    But some commodities don’t change in price. A novel by a Nobel-Prize winner like Pamuk or Llosa costs the same as anyone else’s novel. The same is true for movies and CDs/MP3s.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    @Amy, I don’t think you’re a non-reader at all and I liked the analysis. I think you have several good points there and (whispering in your ear) there’s always the possibility of a little green seeping into Admin’s posts, since he has worked hard for over twenty years, produced a considerable body of fine work in several media, and in spite of daily working away has not had a tenth of the publicity that has accrued to the above mentioned book. We all read different things at different times and the funniest I heard was a reading from 50 Shades at an event called ‘Say Whah?! where people read and comment on publications. Books are strange things and we so often care deeply about them.

  6. Amy says:

    @Helen, there were definitely some “Say Whah” moments in the book. I look at fanfic writers like I look at people; some may be a little rough around the edges, but I can see their heart. There’s this one fanfic writer who did an amazing analysis of Dante and Beatrice in his Twilight fanfic. In fact, I’ve learned a great deal about other books, music, poems, paintings, etc, while reading fanfiction. Anyway, he published it and there’s a serious debate on Amazon under the reviews about whether or not it’s ethical to publish fanfic as an original work (not to mention the legality). I have read some technically brilliant work that bores me to tears. I can understand Admin’s frustration. It is his blog. This is the place to get it out. Books are so valuable. 🙂 There are books that have been with me longer than most of my friendships and they feel like family.

  7. Philip Jackson says:

    Just to be pedantic – SJ Watson is a man!

  8. admin says:

    Thanks, Philip – Mea Culpa; that makes it worse, because it makes women appear utterly stupid. Have amended…

  9. admin says:

    Dear Amy –
    I admit I’m mystified by ‘Shades’ and even more so by ‘Sleep’ but as I said in the blog, I realise I’m the one at fault. I can’t see the appeal of ‘Coronation Street’ or many popular TV shows, so I know I’m clearly in the wrong. See new blog entry today.

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