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Bad Books Versus Genre and Taste

My husband read a bad book. He downloaded it for his kindle, and because it was free, he hadn’t done more than read the description. When he began to read, it became quickly clear to him that it was BAD. He gave it more of a chance than I would have, but he quit at the halfway point. We discussed this book, which shall remain anonymous here, and I’ve been thinking about what makes a book bad or good. I think that there are some absolutes.

What exactly am I talking about? What makes a book all-caps B-A-D? Here are those characteristics I would consider to be unforgivable:

– Blatantly wrong grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

– Excessive use of simile and metaphor, or flowery adjectives and adverbs that don’t even make sense. If the word choice keeps me reading solely for laughs and the book isn’t intended as humor, that is BAD.

– Contradictions in the setting, character motivations, or plot that are so bizarre that they can’t be attributed to secret motives, hidden plots, or other authorial devices.

– Disregard for research in a particular skill or trade, or complete ignorance of the laws of physics or biology when no effort has been made to say that the world in the book is different than ours. I can forgive some mistakes in areas that I am familiar with (fencing, horses, medicine), but if this is a central aspect to the plot or a main character, you’re going to lose me.

Most of the items on this list would be caught by a good editor (if the book was even accepted for publication in the first place). These are problems that I come across mostly in self-published works. The book that my husband read was self-published, although the author had gone to some trouble to make it appear that it was not. This is not to say that self-published always = BAD. The problem with a lot of self-published books is that there is no filter (i.e. agent, editor, copy editor, publisher). Anyone who can type and fiddle with some software can now publish their own book on amazon and other outlets. When I’m offered books to review, many of these are self-published. I try to give them every chance. If the description or blurb interests me, I still won’t take the book on unless I can read a sample of it. I’ll look at Amazon’s preview feature or I’ll check the author’s web page. I reviewed one self-published book some time back, and it was quite good. I have at least two more in my queue to be read.

I have also read (or tried to read) what I would consider a bad book from a major publisher. One in particular from last year comes to mind, but it will also remain anonymous here. I found the word choice to be bizarrely amusing when it should not have been, and the plot was incomprehensible. I’m not sure why – was there a shake-up in the editorial staff? Was it rushed to print? Am I so dense that I just didn’t get it?

Have you ever looked over reviews of one of your favorite books and found that some horrible terrible awful confused person gave it a one star review? Were you even reading the same book? Have you ever picked up a book that everyone loved to find that it was nonsensical drivel? Here is where I think the variety of styles, genres, and the multitude of human personalities and tastes comes in. I picked up a romance novel by a best-selling author a few years ago just to try to read outside my favorite genre of science fiction and fantasy. (One of my favorite science fiction books is largely a romance, so I’m not opposed to this as an element or theme.) I read this best-seller (that was also made into a movie), but despite the appeal to other people, I found the book boring and sappy. I don’t think that makes it a bad book. It simply wasn’t for me.

I’m also not talking about taste as in, “You have good taste. He has bad taste.” I think that all that taste means is that everyone has different preferences. I didn’t pick up George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and expect it to be the same as Harry Potter. Yes, they’re both fantasy, but TOTALLY different. There are readers who love one series and can’t get through the other. For some, GRRM’s writing is too graphic and the characters are too dark. For other readers, Harry Potter is too juvenile and stereotyped. (I love both of these series though.)

Have you read any bad books lately? Are there other factors that you feel may put a book in that BAD category? How about your tastes – have they changed over time? How varied are your tastes as a reader?

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. iulienel
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 15:09:49

    Clare, I agree 100%, here are my thoughts: the first two bullet points should definitely be captured by a good (or even mediocre) editor. The third point I think warrants a rejection or a request for a rewrite. The last point is something that an editor would not be able to fix, unless he/she happens to know that field, but the editor in that case would have to submit the manuscript to a third-party post-edit proofreader. For example, if the book’s plot has something to do with chemistry, you might want to have the final result read by a chemist, or something like that. I think there are absolutes and then there are the subjective reasons. But, if a book fails in the absolute, it should definitely be classified as Bad. In your husband’s case it’s probably why the book was free. Wasn’t one of Don Quijote’s quotes: what’s cheap is bad, or something like that? I think it still stands 🙂

    Best Regards,

    Iulian

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    • Clare
      Jan 30, 2013 @ 16:05:02

      I actually asked an editor from Tor about whether he runs hard science fiction manuscripts by an expert in a related field. His response was something like, “Not usually, but in a few cases.” I think that if you’ve been reading science fiction or fantasy for long enough, you start to have some familiarity with science or swords or somesuch. Enough to at least catch the biggest errors.

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  2. hank quense
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 15:17:14

    Bad books are the reason that most books and packagers have a sampling arrangement. Smashwords has sampling. Amazon and Kindle have sampling. Ibooks has sampling. Sampling is the way readers can ferret out the really BAD books that abound. Bookbuzzr is another way a legitimate self-publisher can give samples. I personally stay away from free books. If a book is free and doesn’t have a sampling mechanism, stay away from it.

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    • Clare
      Jan 30, 2013 @ 16:07:26

      Yes, I use the preview/sampling option frequently. Even with books that are released by a major publisher, I like to see if the opening holds my interest.

      In the case of the book my husband read, part of the problem was that it isn’t a free book normally. It sells for $4.99 on Amazon. The only reason it was free for him is that we are Amazon Prime members and it was offered on the lending library.

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  3. lizziewriter
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 16:53:21

    I usually don’t make it all the way through a bad book. You’ve clarified bad versus different very nicely. Sometimes I cut an author some slack– first novel, etc. I won’t name the painful ones, but I’d like to put in plugs for some self pub/small press titles I’ve read in recent years, which may have had issues but which overall I’ve much enjoyed.

    I’m posting from my phone so won’t be able to look up authors/spelling issues, sorry.

    That Darn Squid God (Jerry Pallotta? Or is he the alphabet book guy?)
    Broken City (Carrie Sumrall)
    Love Bites (the unspellable/unpronounceable Ed Cyzewski)

    Keep reading.

    Thanks,

    Lizzie

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  4. Ann Gimpel
    Feb 02, 2013 @ 22:25:02

    There are bad books and there’s “free”. There’s been a proliferation of “free” from desperate, self-published writers who will do anything to get their writing into other’s hands. An unfortunate sequelae of “free” has been an expectation set on the part of the reading public who now feel annoyed when an author actually (gasp, choke) wants money for his or her art. They think everything ought to be free, just like the self published stuff that had no content editor, no line editor, and someone’s best friend as a cover artist. The whole “free” thing annoys me. I’ll bet those “I want it free” folk would be horrified if someone suggested they give away their particular skill for nothing. Yet they want mine, more than want, feel entitled to it.

    That’s a bit of an overstatement on my part. I have read self published books that were great. They were put out by authors who’d previously been published by the Big Six. CE Murphy and Stephanie Rowe come to mind. These writers understand how to build both plot and character, the importance of hiring quality editors for both content and line edits, and how to find a decent cover artist.

    That being said, I’ve also read bad books that have come out of the NY houses. They weren’t bad grammatically because they’d been well edited, but the characters were annoyingly plastic or the plots didn’t hold together.
    I suppose when you get down to it, reading is a matter of taste. I used to tell my psychotherapy patients I wasn’t the right therapist for everyone and we’d spend our first few visits exploring if we could work together. Reading is much the same. Some of us like some things, others of us something different. But if I can’t get through the first couple of pages because of grammatical errors and typos, I won’t read something no matter how good the story is. I don’t think that’s snobbery on my part. It’s a matter of time. Reading is enjoyment for me. If it turns into a struggle, I’d rather spend my time reading something different.

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    • Clare
      Feb 04, 2013 @ 14:16:32

      I agree that when something is free, you have to be a bit wary of that. I mean, in a lot of fields, the adage “you get what you pay for” still applies. I do see some free books as promotions though, and I can see how this has its place. Some authors will offer the first book in a series for free or at a discount when the second book is released. I’m sure their idea is to hook readers with the first volume so that they’ll buy the second one.

      Part of my reluctance to read “bad books” is that even if there are redeeming aspects to the plot or the fantastical world, I have too many books to read and too little time to devote to them. There are so many well-known books and authors on my to-read list, that it’s hard to sacrifice the time I have to read a book of questionable quality. I’m not trying to be snobbish either, but like you say, Ann, reading IS enjoyment. I’ll take an occasional chance on an unknown, but it’s easy to lose me.

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  5. Holly Ingraham
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 10:29:59

    World’s worst speccy novel published, ever: ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’ by Bram Stoker. No climax. No pacing. Father is hyper-competent Mary Sue for whom nothing really goes wrong. AND the cat mummy that is found crumbled to dust in the last chapter was actually destroyed in a furnace a few chapters back.

    World’s second worst speccy novel published, ever: ‘Looking Backwards’ by Bellamy, which I refuse to even classify as a novel. It has no plot. It’s a modern dialog.

    Other than the English being correct, I have read only a couple of free novels worse than these. In fact, the worst I ever read wasn’t free. I read the sample, recovered from my faint of horror, went to take it off my Kindle — and the bus hit a couple of potholes, making me *¡¡pay money!!* for the godawful thing and probably deluding the poor writer into thinking she had something there better than what you scrape off the bottom of your shoe. I mean, a stranger actually bought a copy!

    That one couldn’t control POV or tense, besides it *really* being Me and My Friends in Funny Clothes. (Excuse me, I’m getting reminiscent shudders at the memory of it.) With Australian TV English from someone who obviously never got better than a C in English.

    Beat those if you can.

    That being said, Clare, I think you’ve got this one sussed. It’s like obviously a ton of people love the work of Mercedes Lackey, and I can’t get past page three. Every one I’ve tried, her characters or how she presents them make me want to flee. In this case, I do what I want. But she’s doing something right for other people.

    How many Twi-hards are there? When those books were first out, being a bit of a vamp-o-phile, I checked them out. They failed the flip-through and read at random test. Gah. But wouldn’t we all love the sales numbers and merchandising income she has?

    Baen began their Free Library to give away ebooks, as they believed that if people liked them they would want tree copies. So you can’t say free = bad. You can’t even say self-published = bad. I’ve read some really good ones by people never other-published, much better than, say, ‘Green Rider’ or ‘Luck in the Shadows,’ which were like the last treebook novels I bought, and didn’t finish either one. Major publishers, those. LitS was particularly bad for being self-contradictory, nearly down there with Stoker, so it read like it might have been line-edited, but not high-level edited at all. And that was a first novel, so you can’t say she was a Big Name and so editors just left her alone. It was a BAD book, and the editors were blithe to publish it. GR just specialized in random events, silly in a bad way, with lots of deus ex machina and a protag too stupid to stay away from giant spider webs. Then we were supposed to be astonished when a giant spider showed up. I left then.

    So I don’t consider something being a big seller or from a big publisher to be a filter any more, except of language quality. So I reads my samples and I takes my chances, and at least I don’t have to find somewhere to put the ebooks.

    Let me get my Kindle and pull a few good freebies:
    ”Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy’ by Leslie Langtry; soccer mom as hereditary assassin. Pretty funny. The sequels, though, merely being about some of the men in the family, were just tough-guy romances. Meh.
    ‘Wearing the Cape’ by Marion G. Harmon. Super-hero fiction, and I need to buy #2. This brings in the kind of realism I might, from cape-groupies to the law. Who knew there was such a genre?
    ‘Three Moons Over Sedona’ by Sherry Hartzler. Women’s fiction, or a triple romance. Not drippy at all, and I normally hate domestic drama.
    ‘Indian Maidens Bust Loose’ by Vidya Samson, “A hilarious romantic comedy set in India” and it is. But then, I watch Bollywood musicals.
    ‘The Department of Magic’ by Rod Kierkegaard Jr. Lunatic urban fantasy, but it actually all hangs together while still being funny, like ‘Ghostbusters’ does.
    ‘A Diamond in My Pocket’ by Lorena Angell. YA adventure about secret superhumans. It worked for me by letting my brain slip back to being 14.
    ‘H10N1’ by M. R. Cornelius. Apocalyptic fic, named for the virus killing everyone off. It started off really strong, very plausible, though the ending may have been a trifle weak.

    Mind you, I have a few hundred to read. So much so that I haven’t picked up anything new in months. Jeez, I’m trying to finish ‘The Compassionate Cobra’ to crit.

    Have my tastes changed? You know it. I usually can’t read Asimov any more. Much too primitive a writer. If his characters aren’t cardboard or contradictory, it’s a happy accident. That was a lot of paperbacks to liquidate. Heinlein now seems to have interesting ideas, but it’s flat. Norton is starting to seem too mannered, because her style is distinctive and I’ve just read too many of her books too many times.

    Good blog!

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