So, about a year has passed since Nights of Villjamur hit the shelves in the UK, and it’s now about to be launched in the US. What a learning curve this year has been. This blog has gone from being a quiet little corner of the interweb, to a gobby mouthpiece with a good-sized audience. I’ve made some interesting observations along the way; so here they are, in a full stream-of-consciousness splurge (well, with paragraphs), and with a little advice for any new kids out there.
You can’t control reader response. Believe me, I wanted to at the start – I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the text, and that kind of carried on to when the novel was on the shelves. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s nothing you can do about it. You cannot control the response of reviews or on forums, but the Internet tricks you into believing you can by letting you be a part of the community. In reality the best you can hope for is that your publicist has a good mailing list (mine has) and that you have a shit-hot book cover (I think mine has).
There is no such thing as a good book or a bad book, only what people say about a book – and this is all outside of our own heads, of course. I’m working on a bizarre theory about book culture and what is perceived as a good book, and it has something to do with having enough of the right kinds of people saying positive things. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that a book is just there, neither good nor bad, just there for interpretation. I don’t for a minute believe my books deserve any more attention/praise than another. (Edit: for clarity, the important thing to note is we’ll never find objective truths in a comments thread.)
It’s better to be talked about then not talked about. Every little discussion of your career, be it in hate or admiration, on forums or on blogs, will keep you afloat. Only when you’re not talked about is your career over. Every time someone moans about one of my blog posts, they send a few hits my way, and some of these new readers stay. (Best thing to kill a book? Silence it.)
Never reveal your age if you’re under thirty. I don’t get it, and in discussion with other youngish authors, this isn’t an uncommon trend – people rarely take you seriously when you’re an author in your twenties. It’s absurd that anyone under that age should have the right to be published. What were you thinking? Because it’s not as though you sacrificed years of your life to get where you are, youngster. Oh hang on.
Being compared to great authors brings out the freaks. In online debate, that is. If some newbie writer DARES to have their work compared to MY favourite author, then I WILL DESTROY THEM, is pretty much the style of response. I like to think upsetting a few people is a good thing, ultimately – it keeps the conversation going, at least, and shows that people care enough to complain, but many readers are hugely territorial over their favourite writers. I actually think a bad thing for me was when The Times made a vague Gene Wolfe comparison due to the dying earth thing – he has a very particular fanbase, and they expect that same dense writing style in any text that dares to receive such a comparison – in the 21st century marketplace, to have a career, that isn’t really possible. I’ve think I’ve disappointed more than a few readers after that.
Do not feed the trolls. Just don’t. Don’t get into flame wars. Don’t get into debates you can’t handle. There are more haters out there than there are of you. Following such debates, Joe Abercrombie once told me, brings only tiredness. He wasn’t wrong.
That said, a little controversy goes a long way. So long as a) you’ve got the chops to back it up and b) you don’t deliberately set out to insult people. Miraculously, internet debate can be a good thing, with pleasant exchanges. That particular exchange brought me several thousand extra hits for the month, and most of them seem to have stuck around.
Blogs are as important as the books, and authors are a brand. Just looking at these web stats, over 80% of searches are for my author name (frequently misspelt…) and only a small percentage are for book titles. That in itself deserves a full blog post. And in meatspace, so many people have complimented me on this blog – possibly as many as have commented on the books. I don’t know if they’ve read the books afterwards and, to be honest, that’s not actually important to me. Blogging is a fun, instantaneous activity. (Though it’s far from the notebook I originally wanted it to be. Maybe it will change in the future.)
You can’t complain about the industry to anyone other than another writer. Who cares about the fortunes of a poor published writer? Never mind that it takes a year to build something but just a few minutes to take it down to Chinatown. You can’t complain about that. And who’s going to understand such moaning? Certainly not people who would love to be poor published writers.
No matter what you do, someone will hate you. They’ll hate you for having a book out, being on the internet, looking like so-and-so, engaging in debate, not engaging in debate, whatever. And Lou Anders once told me that if no one hates your book, you’ve not got big enough distribution.
Loved this. 🙂
Agree with most of this but I think there IS such a thing as a bad book. I’m not talking about someone’s perception of something like Twilight, but something lesser, most likely self-published. Maybe instead, there is no such thing as a “great” book.
And on the last point, do I have to wait until comment #5 to call someone a Nazi?
“Never reveal your age if you’re under thirty.” Really? Please tell me you’ve not been on the receiving end of such silly comments, especially from the industry dudes. Talent is talent and age is almost entirely irrelevant in such matters.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the posts on this blog, and I would agree that they’re important. Although I haven’t yet read Nights of Villjamur it’s definitely on my TBR list thanks to the discussions here.
You know, part of why I created Survival By Storytelling Magazine is to prove that young writers (25 and under) are capable of writing great stories (and poetry) as people who are far older. And I think our first issue very much proved that, because everyone who has read it thought it was quite good. It’s just never made sense to me that folks can disregard you because your age, whether as a writer or a person. Even 2-year-olds can teach us things. And if you don’t believe me, then hang out with a 2-year-old. If you don’t learn something, then you’re not paying attention.
And I’d throw a link on here to SBS, but I don’t want to be that annoying guy who links to crap on your blog. So, people can just Google it. It’s the first thing that pops up anyway…
Adrian – someone might think that self-published book is a good one, and get pleasure from it. Who’s to deny them that pleasure? You can invoke Godwin’s Law at any time. 🙂
Sharon – it’s rarely explicitly stated, but it’s certainly something that is there, in the subtext of what’s sometimes said…
Ros – thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the debate.
SMD – Absolutely. I think it’s one of those things where to be respected, you’ve got to earn your stripes, and that comes from defining a long career. It’s just bad juju to come bursting out of the blocks with something that gets people excited. And I think blogging can actually accelerate that process to some extent.
Arrrgh! Relativism. The death of art as a living evovling entity, Mark! There ARE bad books. Adrian, there are great books. And YES an intellgent and informed set of CONSENSUS criteria (and it DOES NOT involve some sort of literary old boys network) can be recognised to ascertain that. And I’m sorry but Blogs are NOT as important as BOOKS! More relativism. I’m off to me cave after all this.
Has it really been a year since you were just a potentially interesting author to an actual interesting one? Time flies! And you’ve taken a lot or teasing and ribbing along the way too (we don’t mean it you know).
If nothing else you’ve put yourself in the shoal or the sharks and been a great devils advocate and sparing partner. And long may you continue. Oh and you’ve wrote another book too… when is that out again? Ah now!
I think it’s always odd being on the inside looking out compared to the outside looking in. It’s always interesting when we see glimpses of what thats like.
And Lou Anders is right – someone out there is the perfect person just ready to hate you and troll about it – thankfully there are usually more people out there willing to be nice to you 😉
Though I do think your hair needs it’s own book deal…
Nick – not necessarily so. Thing is, what you feel makes a good book might not be approved by someone else, and vice versa. And we’re not going to find any truths online! Of course, all we can do is express our connection with the texts in more eloquent ways than others etc. As for blogs – I speak in terms of importance online, of course – I get vastly more hits for the name than the books… Though not empirical in the least, it’s something to think about when you’re out of the cave! 🙂
Gav – yeah, it’s not felt that quick from this end…! It’s been hard graft. And I can’t pretend it’s not been a mental hardship at times – the stress, the worry, the pressure. But it’s all good.
As for the hair – how come my hair is starting to get more of a reputation than me these days?
Your blog entry reads like pretty sound advice to me, very useful.
@Mark. Clarification on blogs. Phew you had me worried there for a moment, Mr.Newton! But I disagree with you about good and bad books. It is an unavoidable if an un-PC fact that there are readers more informed and adept at arriving at a sound view on a good and a bad book. Someone might enjoy a piece of s*** fiction. But sh** is still sh**. You yourself decried the lack of debate about the DGLAs, Mark! But are they actually any good seemed to be the thrust of your observation? Good? by what criteria? I just do not subscribe to this ‘good is what you or I might like’ outlook. An objective judgement can be arrived at but it requires an informed and frankly sophisticated reader (God forbid I should raise the ugly head of ‘Elitism’ a word misappropriated in modern times) to have any chance of doing so. For what they are and aim to be, the early Salvatore books are ‘good’ in their terms. (Please don’t ask me to list them now, no time.) Later ones in the Drizzt series by his own standards, frankly are not. (Even he might admit to it, he wanted to kill Drizzt off, heart no longer in it, but the publishers own him and wouldn’t let him, as i understand it, might be wrong there. But clearly later books are far less entertaining and adept than some of the earlier ones.) Put one of them alongside Martin’s Game of Thrones and as literature, a good book, Martin is operating on a whole other level. Conrad’s Nostromo then some. It is a nonsense to suggest that such distinctions cannot be arrived at. It isn’t all relative. Relativism is the death of art as an elvolving entity. Here’s to being pompous and elitist! Back to the cave now, honest…
Good according to which criteria? Right there is the flaw in your argument – there is no objectively rational criteria for what makes a ‘good’ book or reading experience, so there is no such thing as an objectively good book.
It’s like cars – you might think that speed is an objective criteria – I might be more interested in mileage and someone else might be interested in off-road capability. There is no objective criteria against which to measure these cars so there is no way to say which of these three cars is good or bad.
Being one of those under 30, aspiring to be a poor published author types I have taken to heart all of these hints about blogging and being ‘present’ online. I’m still finding my feet but I’m trying. Afterall, how can you become an experienced over 30 author without being an inexperienced under 30 one first?
Strikes me sometimes that some people forget that everyone is young to start with – we try to learn from those who go before us and throw our stuff out there to be bashed and thrown back so that we can BE those respected authors of the future.
*minor rant over*
Right, I will go back into the woodwork now and continue being a twenty-something wanna be making notes at the back of the room 🙂
I’m beginning to suspect that the people who assert so emphatically that no objective criteria can be arrived at for what is a good book probably haven’t a cat in Hell’s chance of ever writing one. Cars? What utter crap. Conrad was a genius. He wrote GREAT books. Ditto Tolstoy. Ditto Dostoyevsky. Etc. Etc. They aren’t good books indeed. They are GREAT books. Imperfections and all. Deal. But no, let’s all hide in that wishy washy relativist world in which no objective criteria can be reached about what is a good book and everyone can all be so bloody easy on themselves and kid themselves that what they are writing is no better or worse that what those authors achieved as novelists because after all there is no such thing as an objective amalgam of criteria for what can be considered a good book. Cars! Palpable nonsense. Right. Done with. Cave. Slams rolls boulder across entrance. Can no longer hear the cars. Bliss.
The argument that there are no good or bad books always suggests to me that a natural progress of this debate is to say that there are no good or bad surgeons: only a spectrum of patients and a range of operations of which some are successful and others less than successful. Everything else of course, is down to opinion.
Just as this is somewhat specious, because obviously, some surgeons are better (i.e. skilled, experienced, dexterous, etc.) than others, so I believe is the claim that there are “no good and bad books.”
Demonstratively, there are, but how does one tell? For I do sympathize that it is not always an easy task. Nor is necessarily about such straightforward measurements as complexity of plot and/or characters, the originality of its central ideas, or the narrative skill with which story is formalized and delivered. For some writers produce very outwardly simple stories, work with familiar tropes, and write lean, linear prose that is as outwardly sparse as it is profoundly evocative.
Authorial intent can further confuse the issue. Some stories are multilayered and can be read at various levels, thus hiding their complexity or originality behind a plainer facade that less penetrating readers may mistake for the real thing. Narrators can be unreliable, authors willfully misleading, and all of it laying pitfalls for the incautious reader.
There is the also the approbation of posterity. I frequently see those who feel that there is no qualitative analysis possible with art, and hence the novel, stating that was is considered great today is merely a collection of antiquated (often throwing in White-Male-and-European into the mix to make their arguments ring with democratic inclusiveness) opinion.
However, this is a poor argument on many levels. A great number of artistic works of genius have been reviled or have withered in obscurity during the original time period of their creation (and sometimes for long after), while others which have been highly popular and greatly lauded during their day, have now been swept away due to their lack of enduring quality and are clearly recognized as lesser works in the canon. So if contemporary opinion and success is not always indicative of “goodness” let alone greatness, what is?
Some site commercial success: but this is mere popularity and voice of markets. John Grisham has sold a lot of books but few if any will I suspect, make the cut to greatness even in the fullness of time’s backward looking appraisal. This may make him a great money maker, but it does not make him a great author in the sense we are discussing as one for the ages.
Before I venture my own thoughts about what makes a novel more or less successful as a work of art (and here, we’re speaking almost exclusively of fiction – non-fiction has its own criteria which are not strictly the same), I’ll venture my thoughts on why this idea that there are no good or bad books (or art) has become so popular.
A large part of this is movement lies in the decline of professional criticism, and critics. Or a better word might be not decline but the drowning out of its voice under a rising tide of amateur opinion. This is not about hoary guardians of literature holding the ivory gates against the encroaching barbarian tribes, but the differences between professional and dilettante, between a rigorous analysis that relies on scholarly care and due diligence vs. the fleeting fickleness of the mob.
The internet has fueled this transformative process greatly. Everyone (well, let’s say everyone within a still very small group – but a much larger one that at likely anytime before in the past) now has a say in the discussion.
Outwardly, this would appear to be a good thing and it is, in many ways. However, it has caused many to mistake the fact that everyone has equal right to expression their opinion for everyone having an equal faculty for passing critical judgement.
There is nothing wrong of course, with saying that some people enjoy bad books. Badly written, poorly plotted, thinly characterized, derivative, transitory and inconsequential page-turners which shorten the long hours on the train or while away a dull lunch break. Because someone can take enjoyment from a qualitative bad novel however, doesn’t make it good. Just as simply because not everyone will enjoy reading the Brothers Karamazov, equally or at all, makes it a bad one.
The qualities of the work which make it special, noteworthy, and of lasting merit as fiction, literature, and art, exist outside of ourselves and our opinions. This is something that many people today raised on the primacy of universal equality of opinion, a democratized marketplace of ideas, and the liberating power of the self’s autonomy in society, strongly balk against. Surely in a sphere where we have struggled to make everyone equal, to give voice to the previously voiceless and representation where there has been none, this is heresy: to say that some opinions have more weight than others?
But we wouldn’t think this so in many other areas of life. To go back to my example of surgeons, one would hope that a top vascular surgeon with many years of experience under their fingers, would know more and potentially fare better than a student fresh out of their final years of medical school, or to be more in keeping with the argument about good and bad books and the universalness of opinion, a untrained stranger of unknown sobriety and dubious hygiene plucked at random off the street. Which would we want to have operate on us in a moment of crisis?
Books are not so different. While everyone has a right to express their opinion, not all opinion should be equally weighted in the marketplace of ideas. An expert witness called to the stand is summoned because their opinion is more valuable than others. Opinion informed, developed, and backed by specialist knowledge and skill – should be. Saying that good and bad novels are all relative to those who read them, while true to their own experiences when it comes to enjoyment, is not true when it comes to the fundamental, lasting worth of the thing itself. An expert, someone who has trained themselves through study and practice (this may be self-directed by all means) or perhaps who has been granted a naturally keener insight (let’s not use the word intelligence as this is polarizing), forms an opinion or judgement, which is less likely to be overturned in the fullness of time.*
So what then, makes a good or bad book? I would say it’s the success of authorial intent and the less easy to define artistry/craftsmanship that goes into its execution. If a story is intended to be complex, is it? If characters and plot are to be three dimensional and believable, did the author achieve this or not? In the case of world-building, do we recognized a sustainable verisimilitude or internal logic present throughout, or does it come across as fake as the skeletons in a run-down carnival attraction? Is the author a skilled handler of language, weaving prose that carries us and is carried with us, long after the last page is turned? I could go on listing all the elements of a novel which we can qualitatively judge, but these are I believe some prime examples of characteristics which we can observe and judge in any novel and by which form an opinion of its relative level of success as a good novel.
Again, while all of us may and should be encouraged to form our own opinions, I don’t believe all of our opinions need carry the same weight. Ultimately, the expert, critical opinions on such novels, are likely to be the closest to the truth. Just as not all novels are equal, neither are their readers – a notion which how ever unpleasant or unpolitical a statement, doesn’t make it any less true. Milage varies not simply because we are all readers who have differences of opinion, but because we are all readers with varying levels of skill when it comes to picking apart the elements of a novel. To say otherwise I fear, is to undervalue both the art of fiction and the role of a writer in working tirelessly to produce the very best that she or he can. Just as it devalues the role of a reader in applying their own experiences and intellectual rigor to the work in question.
Lazy readers breed lazy authors – or at least they keep them in business and while there is room for both types and everything in between, it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that good, bad, indifferent, and truly great novels have and are being written. Why we want to argue that it is all down to opinion, is a mystery to me. We don’t say that the virtues of every bottle of wine or each meal which we consume, is meaningless outside of our own personal preferences. Why then, should our books be saddled with such a dull fate?
Good books exist and they matter, and ultimately that is to everyone’s benefit.
*Expert opinion, as we’ve noted above, or at least the consensus of such opinion, may be challenged over time. This is both one of its strengths and its weaknesses. In general though, I think we are more cautious about such labels today, praiseworthy or pejorative, when it comes to applying them to great books; and partly as a result it is harder for works to languish in obscurity or to be dismissed out of hand if they do not line up with current tastes in literature.
Eric – monstrous post!
With a surgeon, it’s generally understood the criteria is to save someone’s life. People who do that well = good. People who don’t = bad. The problem comes down to: where’s your criteria for art? Obviously it differs massively between people. Without setting a criteria, you can’t essentially glean what is good or bad – because everyone has their own value – and I think it’s dangerous to apply objectivity to art. It’s what makes the debate problematic, but also what makes reading so pleasurable, no? Of course we can talk of longevity, but that’s something entirely different, and accountable to all sorts of things such as print runs to being taught in schools…
Disclaimer: I apologize for the several obvious typos in the above rant, in my only defense I can but say that I typed it in haste with a bored toddler on my lap.
Also, I was thinking about the phrase “milage may vary” and what an odd comparison this is to use when it comes to a reader’s experience with a book. I’m not convinced that it is a good one.
This is a term taken from automotive technology which applies to the relative fuel economy achieved when the same car is driven over a different course, such as found between driving the vehicle over a long distance, on a major road, at a constant fuel-efficient speed, and one where you’re idling and accelerating in stop-and-go traffic. To keep things simple, we’ll make both cars automatics, and what we’re talking about is a pre-engineered aspect of the machine in question in relation to the course being driven: absolutely nothing about differences between drivers. For most, driving the same car, with the same fuel, over the same course, in similar conditions, milage will not vary, not significantly.
Why this has come to be applied to almost every online review recently as a caveat, is beyond me.
Mood, atmosphere, distractions or our surroundings can all certainly affect how we experience a book. Reading a complex demanding novel in small bits, in a noisy room, or with only half our attention (or screaming children) on the page, will affect our perceptions at the time. Reading something we’re not in the mood for may indeed diminish our pleasure or our appreciation. But this only affects our own transitory experience. It doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the book itself. Just as the road over which the car is driven does not transform the nature of its combustion engine.
A better example might be to compare variations in reader experiences to a bottle of wine (if you must). Each taster will experience the same bottle differently. Each will bring different expectations and abilities with them as well. An experienced taster with a keener palate will be able to potentially say more about the wine’s merits and faults than someone who is less careful/interested/experienced and perhaps is only in search of an enjoyable, mildly alcoholic drink. All of the above regarding mood and ambient factors of course applies as well (as well as aeration and serving temperature), but it doesn’t change the fundamental quality of the wine – or the time and labour and skill with which it has been made.
Some people don’t like red wine – or a particular style or grape. You might not be in the mood for a single malt (just to stiffen the metaphor) or feel like a cold beer (to water it down) – or then again you might. Circumstances change, milage over the same course at the same velocity and with the same fuel mixture does not. While your enjoyment may suffer, or your experience differ, it doesn’t change the item you’re sampling one whit. Not fundamentally, and not in the way the use of the phrase seems to imply.
I know it was a long ramble to wade through, but I did suggest some objective criteria by which we can judge a book. Most importantly I think, we need to weigh up each book by its own particular criteria – which is why authorial intent is so important, as is the skill and the experience (and effort spent) of the reader, as together, these factors will help us answer such questions about the novel as a work of art. Is it good art, is it bad art, is it in fact, art? Hard questions in theory, but more manageable the more specific we get.
Good art is where the art form succeeds, among other things which are admittedly, more ephemeral. To know if a book has been successful, we’re back to trying to understand what the writer is attempting to create. A very interesting subject in and of itself as you’ve previously noted. To even get started on this, we have to I feel, read deeply, widely, and with both joy and attention applied to the printed page.
We’ve obviously moved way beyond what I think you were talking about originally regarding there being no good and bad books (unless I misread you) – I think you meant it more from an author’s perspective than that we can not ever determine at any stage, between the two (or perhaps you do mean this, as you’ve said this or something similar before).
It’s a good subject, as always, worthy of the lively discussion you have on your blog.
Bloody twenty somethings, grumble, mutter…
I agree with most of the above – and thankyou for writing such an interesting blog in the first place!
Re self published novels in relation to good/bad books.
I support self published authors as for some people this is the only way to see a dream come true, achieve an ambition etc – sadly many of the mainstream big publishers do not take a chance on the middle of the road “darn good read” now. The criteria has to be “bestseller potential”.
However, far, far, too many self published authors do not realise the importance of an editor – a full editor that is, not just the copy editor checking punctuation & grammar. Most self published authors are not even aware of the difference between the two edits! Heck, many self published authors are not even aware that their book needs an edit! Most S.P. authors feel their partner/spouse/best friend/ dear old aunt Agatha is all the editor needed.
It’s this lack of editing that can often make the difference between a good book and a bad book. And a talent for writing a readable story in the first place.
I like Eric’s quote “Lazy readers make lazy writers” – I know several of those (readers and writers!)
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts – appreciated.
Good to know hating is all part of the writer’s life.
Thanks for a great post, Mark.