Tour’s Books Blog

September 21, 2010

Good Book or Bad?

Filed under: Editorial,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 6:40 pm
Tags: ,

How we determine if a book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a very subjective thing.  Even professional reviewers will differ widely and books I found dull have won awards.  But like Oscars, book awards don’t always go to an author’s best work, or even the best book, just the one with the most votes.

Everyone has ‘hot buttons’ and strong preferences.  I can remember my mother, a teacher, laughing about a college English class where anything about a dog got a good grade from a certain professor.  Hey, preferences are not exactly new.  Literature majors look down their noses at those of us who like entertainment rather than deep and meaningful ‘literature’.   I’d rather have a classroom full of kids who love Harry Potter than ones that want nothing except video games and texting friends.

Think about this.  If you’re 30 years old, you’ve always known PC’s.  If you’re 20 years old, www has always been part of your life.  Those born 10 years ago had free blogging.  Now you can watch movies on your cell phone.  In one generation, the way the entire world communicates has irrevocably changed.  Google is a verb.  Facebook is linked to everything.  We’re inundated by information – often incomplete and sometimes completely erroneous, all so 24/7 news stations can ‘be first’.  The entire entertainment industry is struggling to deal with a 5 year cycle in changing technology.   Remember $15,000 plasma TV’s that burned out in a year?   Everyone thought it would be YEARS before they became semi-affordable.  Then LCD’s flat screens came along and in under a decade they were in most homes – and hotels have been busy retrofitting their rooms with 32 to 46 inch screens.

Through all this, the publishing industry has been locked in a bizarre battle to remain relevant.  A handful of wildly successful authors have carried entire publishing houses, but ebooks finally broke the last stronghold this year when Kindle ebooks outsold hardcovers on new releases.  How long before those of us – and I am admittedly in this group – who prefer print books to ebooks are left paying super premium prices to get a print books?

Obviously, I read ebooks.  I prefer print and buy the vast majority of my books as print – a ratio of better than 50:1.  But being print or ebook does not make a book good or bad.  I’ve read some excellent ebooks that never made it to print and some awful print books that should be wrapping dead fish.  Authors that gain immense popularity sell well regardless of quality.  Dan Brown is an excellent example.  The DaVinci Code wasn’t as good as Angels and Demons as a book – and in all fairness, Dan Brown isn’t a great writer – but The DaVinci Code struck a chord and it’s been selling well all over the world for many years.  The plot isn’t all that original, the characters are flat and two dimensional, but the idea of this conspiracy just rang a chord with people and all the books shortcomings mattered not at all.

I have to admire J.K. Rowling’s evolution as a writer through the Harry Potter series.  You can watch her style grow and improve as Harry grows and changes from a child to a young man with a huge burden to bear.  Clive Cusslar struck gold with Dirk Pitt, though that is a character that never transitioned well into the movies.  Robert Ludlum, the venerable thriller writer created book after book of amazingly intricate plots and forgettable characters until he wrote The Bourne Identity.  Ludlum never repeated any character.  It was one of the few things he was determined to do.  Fans and his publisher pushed him into writing a sequel and finally a third book.  Now, the character will forever look like Matt Damon as other authors carry on various series after his death in 2001.  I read every book Ludlum wrote, but not those published after his death.  I tried twice and neither was any good.  Eric van Lustbader, an established author of fantasy (Sunset Warrior)  and thrillers novels (the Nichloas Linnear series) now writes a continuation of the Bourne series – not that I’ve ever read one.  Of all his thrillers, that’s one that people most connected with.

Today’s authors struggle with popular characters.  Fans love them and don’t want them to change.  Publishers want what sells.  Authors do what they get paid for.  A handful take chances.  Robert Crais felt he’d taken PI character Elvis Cole, first seen in The Monkey’s Raincoat, as far as he could and started different characters before coming back years later and writing a very different kind of Elvis Cole book in L.A. Requiem.

Character growth and aging is something many authors struggle with.  Technology changes dramatically.  From cell phones to GPS to Facebook to satellite imaging to Google maps with both aerial and street views – what PI’s and spies did in 1990 and what they do today is just so different.  But how do you keep a recurring character from becoming a caricature?  That’s the big problem and few do it well over a long stretch.  Crais is not the prolific writer that Robert B Parker is or even Martha Grimes.  Maybe Ludlum and j.K. Rowling have it right, kill off characters, and wrap the ongoing story up before the audience gets bored.  To bad Robert Jordan didn’t write shorter books, or wrap his story sooner.  Now they’ll be finished by a different author – and judging by the reception of the first post-death book, not a successful transition.  I gave up around Book 7 of the Wheel of Time.  I think a lot of folks did, but hardcore fans are very upset.

When complaining about characters, remember, even Shakespeare wrote his plays to satisfy his patrons.  That’s what we, today’s reading public are, patrons who buy books.  We speak our likes and dislikes and discontent with our wallets instead of movie or event attendance.  When sales start falling, it’s a pretty clear signal something is going wrong.  I just wish writers and publishers paid more heed and stopped milking series to the last dime. It’s insulting to us ‘patrons of the arts’.  heheheheheheheheheheheh

Despite all this, say what you will about writers, most need to make a living, though some just seem driven by greed and fame.  Your average writer isn’t rich, they make a living and work damn hard doing it.   Yes, I and other reviewers carp and complain when what gets churned out isn’t worth the effort, but overall, I probably like more than I dislike and every so often, I find a gem.  I guess it’s like anything, even football, sometimes it has you glued to your seat and other times, you fall asleep, but most of the time, its good enough to at least keep you interested.  So grab a book, an ebook reader, hey – a magazine and READ!

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