The Cons Of Prose
Things like this can make you paranoid.
Let’s be clear; books are published to make money. I’m lucky to have Transworld behind me, a company with integrity and admirable loyalty to their authors. Not everyone is quite so traditional in their outlook.
I was shocked when the ‘sock puppet’ scandal broke (authors leaving nasty reviews on their rivals’ pages under pseudonyms). Then I heard about ratings wreckers. Books that get 100% reader ratings on certain websites garner greater attention, especially for award nominations. All it takes to remove a perfect score is for one troll to leave one hate-filled review.
I looked back over my own reviews. Generally readers seem pleased enough to give me five stars on Amazon – but a one-star troll popped up with a rather hysterical and odd foot-long diatribe against ‘Oranges and Lemons’. I did some checking and found the troll on other sites, doing the exact same thing almost word for word. I started to wonder if they were planting one bad review to destroy a perfect score.
While I always try to learn from readers who have valid, well reasoned criticisms I take no notice of trolls. But what it they have an agenda? Things like this can make you paranoid.
When I started writing in the mid-1980s, the range of books published in any genre fitted a certain standard. It was understood that authors needed a high level of competence to get published at all. With the advent of social media, self-publishing and blogging this has changed.
Are we being misled?
As publishers become more aggressive it’s clear certain writers are published not because they write well but because they fill a marketing niche. Recently I read a historical whodunnit that’s actually a pulp novel misleadingly published as serious fiction, and a psychological mystery that turned out to be a supernatural pulp. Slipping books into a more popular category is a tactic I’ve not seen since I found a paperback of Boswell’s diaries published as if it was a Hammer tie-in.
For the first time I’m finding illiterate books that make Victorian penny dreadfuls look like War and Peace, with more porn and violence. Most come from publishers no-one has ever heard of, but a few have started appearing from respected houses.
Counterbalancing this I’ve read four very fine novels by authors self-publishing through the Amazon programme in cheap-looking print editions. Still, I’m grateful that these four got published at all. They’re all great reads that deserve critical plaudits.
Well, you say, the world is unfair. But here’s the shocking part. On Amazon, the badly researched whodunnit has 2,689 reader ratings and a rave review from the Daily Mail among many others. The last beautifully written self-published thriller I read has just…36 reviews. To put that into perspective, when I last looked ‘Oranges and Lemons’ had only 62 reviews.
Perhaps readers prefer simple stories
As a handful of unscrupulous publishers manipulate ratings, it seems likely that readers are being misled. If you want to be published now you have to impress the marketing board. That means coming up with a TV-type hook, dumbing down the prose and creating a brand and an image.
So today’s questions are; have you ever been misled by a book’s sales pitch? Are books getting dumber? Does it matter if some are?
Certainly language is simplifying. Pick up one of Colin Watson’s popular Flaxborough novels now and the complex sentence structures will completely throw you. If he was starting out today his style would be heavily edited.
We now like our sentences short and our ideas simple. But perhaps there was always a section of the market like this. All thoughts on the subject welcome.