27 June 2008

How the Hell Did This Get Published?

While I enjoyed writing my first carnival article about the state of American education, and I equally enjoyed writing the follow-up article giving better explanation about how I feel about the state of American education, I decided I'd like to step away from education a little bit since there are things that are a much bigger part of my life that I'd like to address here.

You all know I'm a literista, as apparent from my previous articles. And as passionate as I am about writing and language (linguilitist), I am equally as passionate about literature and reading (literista). And I'm a bit of a snob when I get to Barnes & Noble and it's time for me to pick out a new book to read.

I have always loved reading. Even when I was a kid and was supposed to be cleaning my room, I would clean a little, then spend the next forty-five minutes organizing the books on my bookcase (and then reading them).

When I got to college, I loved my literature courses. My professors generally chose pieces I really enjoyed reading, and even if I didn't enjoy reading the material, I appreciated it within an academic context.

One of my favorite professors once told me "Literature rewards rereading." Her claim was that "books" are not necessarily "literature." James Patterson, for all his readers, is not a writer of literature. Neither is Janet Evanovich. Generally, when you read one of those types of books, you get all you can out of the reading the first time around, and then you move on to other titles (or other authors).

Literature is different.

One of my favorite novels is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read it twice in college and taught it to my junior classes last year. And I intend to read it again in a few years. It's a great book. And one of the wonderful things about Gatsby is that, despite all the dated elements in the story, it has a lasting power that makes it a book you can read more than once. When you reread Gatsby, you find things you didn't notice before, you relate to different things based on your life experiences, and it's just as great a story as it was the first time you picked it up.

That's literature. You're rewarded for having read it more than once.

When I'm in Barnes & Noble I like to wander through the stacks, looking at the different books available, letting my eye wander to whatever author or title it will. Sometimes I find new favorites that way, and sometimes I look at a book and (carefully) cram it back in its spot muttering, "How the hell did that get published?" I'm sure other writers have thought the same thing as they've seen or read about different books.

A book about surviving zombie attacks? Really?

While I greatly dislike that so many books are published with seemingly no respect for the quality of work contained within the brightly-colored cover, I know these books will continue to be published and sold because there is a market for them. There are people who are not avid readers or graduates of English or writers who want to escape into the pages of fiction, but don't enjoy some of the titles I do.

Just as different genres have developed to appeal to different readers' interests, different qualities of work have emerged to appeal to different readers. But come on. Zombie attacks? Really?

I try not to be too judgemental when it comes to reading material because I know how varied people's tastes are. And yet, I can't help but think there should be some sort of standard for what gets published. As a writer, it frustrates me that people stoop to such levels to be published. I understand writers' attempts to appeal to a certain reader base. I understand publisher's attempts to sell books and knowing that, yes, people want to read "fluffy" fiction.

But to step back to my anti-illiteracy stance in American education, does it really help American readership when writers and publishers write to the lowest denominator of reader? In classrooms teachers try to push their students to read at or above their grade levels. Some high schools teach novels that are considered college-level reading, knowing students may not get everything, but at least they'll be forced to stretch their reading a little in an attempt to understand what they're reading.

And yet, when they get out of school and are finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, Romeo & Juliet, and The Jungle, they turn to formulaic fiction and "chick lit" to fill a desire for intellectual advancement, and these new titles fall short. Why push yourself to read more difficult pieces if there's no incentive (grades, homework, etc.)? And the brain is like any muscle: if you don't exercise it, atrophy occurs. And the less readers push themselves, the less they want to push themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, many writers spend years perfecting novels that don't get published. I have writer friends who write and revise and rework and rewrite to meet the high standards of the literature they read, and while their novels get passed over, someone published a book about how to survive a robot uprising. Yep. Robots.

Where have the standards gone? Is our culture so far gone that someone will publish anything? (And if that's the case, why haven't I gotten published?) I suppose it speaks to our readers more than our writers and publishers that this is the case. After all, if there wasn't a market for schlock, it wouldn't be published, right?

What do we do?

I appeal to the readers of the world to help raise the standards of writing. When you visit Barnes & Noble to pick up something to read, choose carefully. Don't immediately pick up a book from the first display you see. Wander the stacks. Look at your options. Think about what you want. Do you really want to spend $25.00 on a book you'll read and then donate to a local rummage sale? Or do you want something with substance, staying power, and something with what it takes to draw you to the book over and over again with that little extra something that makes you feel like you're reading it for the first time?

Help eliminate the need for schlock! Show writers and publishers that fiction and literature can, in fact, be one in the same! And just because it's labeled "Romance" or "Chick lit" or "Crime novel" doesn't mean it can't be literature.

I urge you to read. But I urge you to be discerning in what you read, as well. I urge you to care about what you put into your mind as much as you care about what you put into your mouth. Have respect for yourself when you look for something to read!

And whatever else you do, keep reading!


  1. Ah, yes, The Great Gatsby! A wonderful novel, but I'm sorry, I loved Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence more. I read those both about the same time and thoroughly enjoyed both.

    I just want to add one thing: it's not the subject matter, but the writing, that counts. Zombie attacks and robot uprisings can achieve the status of literature in the right writer's hands. Some of the most incredible books I've read sound ridiculous when you boil their plots down to blurbs.

    "Some short, hairy dude has to destroy a magic ring. And did I mention there's elves?"

    "Hey, people having near-death experiences aren't seeing Heaven!"

    "There's this forest that's bigger inside than outside, and people get lost in it with a bunch of myths."

    Ridiculous, right? Except they aren't:

    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

    Passage by Connie Willis

    Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

    Those are three books that definitely repay several readings.

    That said, you know how I weep whenever I go to B&N and see what's become of my beloved SF section. Save great writing! Buy your fluff at yardsales and spend your serious money on seriously good books, people!

  2. Of course I have to point out that Daisy was from Louisville and married Tom at the Seelbach. This is a real hotel and my wife and I stayed there on our weeding night. Fitzgerald was apparently impressed when he was here during WWI.

    As for the Zombie guide, Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, etc)I thought it was hilarious, even if slightly low-brow. I heard him on NPR discussing it completely in character and acting as though zombies were real. The interviewer also played it straight so it was hard to keep from wrecking my car as I laughed hystericaly.

  3. Weeding night? Arggggghhhhh!

    wedding night.

  4. I would not be so quick to attack the lower level reading. Struggling readers need books that they can understand entirely and feel successful with. Teachers and librarians are constantly looking for ways to hook struggling readers, especially with so much competition from television and video games, and low end books can be the solution. If you think about it, the adult world is the same. Struggling adult readers need somewhere to start, and the low end books can be easily mastered. I don't think there is anything wrong with these books, as long as they are the means to reading the higher-level books that you discuss. To put it in other terms, think about a totem pole. The top of the totem pole may be the ultimate goal, but the top wouldn't exist without the bottom to hold it up.

    Also worth noting is that even those of us who read the high-end literature may enjoy a break from thinking. Just like we have other guilty pleasures (reality tv, chocolate, etc), chic lit or the like gives the brain a break when someone doesn't feel like concentrating. I agree that this should not be the main dish in someone's literary diet, but a snack once in a while never hurts.

  5. Well, consider Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud." The problem is not that uninspired drivel gets produced, but rather that it's not so easy to have the cream rise to the top. (In my experience, literary criticism is what you get when people try to talk about an important, interesting and fun subject with a completely broken system for sifting the good ideas from the bad.)

    Refusing to read a book just because the cover says it's about zombies would be like rejecting Sandman because it's a "graphic novel". And that's just daft. You can't tell whether a book will merit re-reading until you've read it once. Sure, there's a place for prudence, and it's always helpful to get recommendations to help find that 10%, but avoiding The Giver because "it's a children's book" and The Golden Compass because "it has talking bears" is a sure way to lead an impoverished life.

    A sensationalist copywriter could ruin Macbeth: "A shock-a-minute tale of witches and warriors which will make your blood run cold!"

  6. Oh, and avoiding stories about troublesome robots means throwing out Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, for starters. That's not a price I'm willing to pay.

  7. I should explain that my frustration is not with subject matter, but with quality of writing. After all, I enjoyed The Giver myself! But there are writers who seem to have no respect for the craft of language within their genres, and that has led to those genres being thought of as "fluff" writing or low-brow or whatever else and "not as good."

    @gwammyg, I'm not at all attacking lower level readers. I've worked with them. My problem comes with the books that, rather than working to help those readers improve, "dumb down" reading so those readers feel more comfortable where they are instead of striving to be better readers. Also, I understand about getting a break from heavy reading, but that comes with subject matter. You shouldn't have to sacrifice quality of writing.

    @blake--I'm not rejecting literature because it's about zombies....I simply used it as an example. I could just as easily have used something by James Patterson or Janet Evanovich or countless other authors. I'm not critiquing the subject matter or genre.

    @ all--This article was meant to discuss writing quality, and I didn't address it enough to get my point across. For that, I apologize.

  8. Actually, I think the robot book sounds cool. Humor and knowledge can be entertaining together.

    When I've read fiction lately, it's mostly been science fiction. There's gold there, though, as there is in any form of "literature". You just have to plow through the other stuff to find it.

  9. I sympathize--10 years in bookstores was enough to nearly turn me off books for good! Well, not really, but god: the relentless parade of best-seller hackery was well-nigh intolerable. Worse still than Patterson or Koontz or Mary Higgins Clark were the "literary" authors with their lofty pretensions: DeLillo, Proulx, McCarthy. Give me a good honest genre writer any day of the week like James Ellroy or Iain M. Banks, or an underrated writer like Eric Kraft.

    But what about something like Oprah's Book Club? I know lots of "book snobs" (I include myself in this) hate that shit--the staff I worked with certainly did when it began in, what, '97?--but she's encouraged people to read Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, for god's sake! Whew. Now that's some muscular workout.

    And yeah, I think you missed your mark by going after Max Brooks' Zombie books. Those are quite savvy, literate and dryly comic horror stories. Imagine Studs Terkel by way of George Romero. Quite clever. Brooks got published because he's got the goods.

  10. "Buy your fluff at yardsales and spend your serious money on seriously good books, people!"

    Oh my, I've bought some great stuff at yard sales. Just because it has a plain cloth cover and was obviously a 50-year-old library book doesn't mean it can't be really good.

    And I must second what Blake Stacey said about Caves Of Steel. Probably my favorite novel ever is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

    But even nonfiction can be great literature. I bought Loren Eisley's Immense Journey... at a yard sale.


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