A recent post at Mysterious Matters has me worried. The blog’s host works in publishing and in this post gave a list of things that, if he sees them in a manuscript he is considering, decrease the likelihood of that manuscript being selected for publication. What has me worried is that most of the statements don’t apply to me. And if everyone in publishing is working from a similar understanding of what readers hate, where do readers like me get our fix?
I’ve copied the list here but for a full explanation please visit Mysterious Matters
1. An ambiguous ending. Lord, do readers hate an unresolved ending. Even when a new series is getting started, each book has to be a complete whole
Not true at all in my case. I honestly don’t mind a lack of resolution or even those endings that can be interpreted differently by different readers. One of the books vying for my best read of this year is Karin Fossum’s THE CALLER and it has a deliciously ambiguous ending.
2. An unhappy ending. Here’s one way in which books and movies are similar. Readers hate an unhappy ending – where the protagonist dies, the guy doesn’t get the girl, where one is left with a bleak feeling upon closing the book.
Again not true for me. I struggle with books that are unrelentingly grim from beginning to end but that is more to do with the fact the book has only a single emotional note. I’d be equally dismissive of terminally happy books but there aren’t a lot of them in crime fiction. I like some ups and downs but I can quite easily deal with a book that ends badly, especially if it is unexpected. Ken Bruen’s THE DRAMATIST is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and it has the unhappiest ending possible. But it was so unexpected…and so right for the story that I couldn’t help but love it.
3. Too much detail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard readers say, “I can’t stand pages and pages of description. And all those historical details – endless details – I just skip over it.” I think many readers perceive too much detail as self-indulgence on the writer’s part.
On this one I’m in sometimes agreement. I nearly went into a coma reading Kate Moreton’s THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN because I just didn’t care about the minutiae she included. And don’t get me started on Elizabeth George’s research-stuffed rambles which have virtually done away with narrative all together. But as the original post does go on to discuss, the best writers get the amount of detail just right. Too little of it is equally un-engaging for me (think Lee Child or James Patterson whose books bore me rigid partly because there really is no detail to help me become immersed in a world of the author’s making).
4. Stupidity. …There’s one area where readers simply can’t stand too much reality, and that has to do with the intelligence of the main characters. Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by stupidity in the real world, readers simply can’t accept stupid main characters, or main characters acting in stupid ways.
Here I am a hundred percent in agreement with the mainstream reading public. I just wrote a review in which I acknowledged one of my problems with the book was the main character’s utter stupidity. I know people in real life who are infinitely more stupid than that character so I suppose I should accept them in fictional life too (to be fair to me though I don’t like spending time with real stupid people so the fact I don’t want to spend time with fictional stupid people is at least consistent).
5. Financial Manipulation by Author or Publisher. The most horrific example of this phenomenon, in recent years, was James Patterson going on national TV to say, “If you don’t read this book, I’ll kill Alex Cross” (or words to that effect).
Unlike Mr Mysterious Matters’ other things readers hate I don’t believe this to be true for the masses (though perversely it is true for me). If the masses had cared about Patterson’s gambit then surely my local book store would have found 30 or 40 other authors to occupy the space once dedicated to the tomes he churns out almost weekly. And the other example provided, where several authors were recently proven to have engaged in the practice of positively reviewing their own books and denigrating the books of other authors at sites such as Amazon, is, I fear, equally irrelevant. Although there was a bit of a furore in the twitterverse (and even a couple of articles in the mainstream media) I suspect this will blow over fairly quickly and most people will keep buying books by Stephen Leather, R J Ellory and the rest. In short I don’t think the majority of readers really notice this stuff. Or if they do they don’t care enough about it to let it change their behaviour.
My point is not to take issue with the list (aside from that last item on it). I’m sure a working editor does know what sells far better than I do. My point however is to say that the reading public, even the crime reading public, is not a single amorphous blob who all think in the same way and it worries me that the industry, increasingly, treats us as if we are.
I was recently caught without a book to read (the backup, second backup and tertiary backup that I never leave the house without all failed me for reasons that are just too tedious to go into) and so I strolled into a bookshop to buy something to read during a long and unexpected stint in a hospital waiting room. In the 20 minutes or so I had to browse I couldn’t find a single thing I wanted to buy in the crime section. To be fair I already own about a dozen of the books I saw which I didn’t want duplicates of but that probably accounted for half a shelf of the 15 shelves of books on offer. Nothing else was worth risking $20-$33 on (the only book cheaper than that was by the aforementioned Mr Patterson).
I suppose all the books that were available had unambiguous, happy endings with not much detail and no stupid characters.
I ended up buying a Sudoku book and a pencil. And wishing that I didn’t always have to plan my reading carefully because the kind of books I like to read are not readily available.