Sunday, February 18, 2007

How Does Something Like This Happen?

Usually when I read a book that I don't think is very good, I feel sad. Authors don't set out to write bad books. We all think we've created something wonderful. We're like parents so in love with our children that we can't see their faults. Someone loved that bad book. Someone sent it out into the world hoping it would have a wonderful life, find love, etc. etc.

A very few times I've read a book that was so bad that I became angry. I can't remember why that happened the earlier times, but this past week when I was reading a book that was stunningly awful, I suddenly thought, "Hey, it took more than one person to make a book this bad. An editor and a publisher had a hand in this, too." That's what got me going.

I'm sure many readers are shaking their heads and thinking, "But, Gail, editors don't edit these days." I've been hearing that for quite some time now. Though it hasn't been my experience, personally, I have to admit that some of the books I've read the last couple of years have led me to believe it may be true.

But even if editors aren't editing, they are still acquiring books. They're still reading manuscripts and deciding what to buy. And if other publishing houses are like mine, those editors are passing those manuscripts around to a few other people, possibly the publishers above them, before making an offer.

Which leads me to a question: If editors and their publishers know their house does minimal if any editing before publication, why do they buy manuscripts that require a great deal of work?

Before the book I read this week was purchased by its publisher, a few people read it in manuscript form. No one noticed that on the fourth page a first-person narrator suddenly appeared even though the preceding material appeared to have been written in the third-person, complete with the earlier characters' thoughts? No one noticed that there were quite a few characters who did very little? No one noticed that characters were always pulling conclusions out of thin air? No one noticed that two of the three storylines had antagonists who just sort of disappear? That the third storyline was a pointless cliche?

No one noticed that this pseudo-thriller had no climax?

At least some of these problems are major flaws and not just Gail being a judgmental witch. (I know you're thinking it. I also know you're not thinking "witch.") The book editors I've worked with would certainly have suggested correcting most of them.

But if it's true that there are publishers who don't have their editors do much in the way of editing, what does that mean? Do they accept absolutely anything? Does absolutely anything go?

Of course, that would be a bad situation for readers. But it would be a far, far worse situation for writers.


Kelly said...

Okay, Gail...what's the book?

Gail Gauthier said...

If I can't do a balanced response, I don't use the title. I won't go that negative. I only write about books like this if they initiated some line of thinking on my part or illustrate some point I'm interested in writing about.

It was a children's book, of course.

Lee said...

This is an exasperating post. How can anybody decide if you're right or simply misreading the book unless you name it.

Gail Gauthier said...

The point of the post isn't this one book, so I don't think it's necessary to name it. The point is to discuss editing.

But, yes, I do recognize that some could make an argument that I'm being gutless because I didn't name names, trying to be honest (as I see it) without having the courage to take the consequences of inflicting pain.

If I could have thought of anything positive to say, I would have named the book. If it hadn't inspired the line of thought regarding editing, I wouldn't have responded to the book at all.

Gail Gauthier said...

I also want to be generous. As I've said here before, I believe giving books and authors attention helps them, even when the attention is mixed, rather than gushing kind. The worst thing that can happen to a book is to be ignored.

I also think that a balanced reader response to a book (which is probably more what I do here rather than real reviews) shows respect for the author's professionalism. It indicates that I believe the author is knowledgable about writing and knows what he or she was trying to achieve, regardless of the level of success.

When I can't find anything positive about a book, when I can't do a balanced review, I feel that I can't be generous and can't show respect. I only write about those kinds of books in cases, like this one, when they inspired some other line of thought that I want to work out and talk about. And I don't use the books' titles.

I can think of at least two other times I've done this. In four and a half years, I'm sure there must have been more.

Unknown said...

I understand that you don't want to inflict unnecessary pain, which is admirable and undoubtedly much more generous than I am. Unfortunately, so much that passes for criticism is in itself conventional and cliched that I like to judge for myself. I don't, however, make a distinction between professional and amateur; what matters is the writing.

Gail Gauthier said...

" much that passes for criticism is in itself conventional and cliched..." I think that's true. (Unless, of course, you were talking about me. Then my response is, "What!???")

I also think many reviewers seem to like the conventional and the cliched.

Lee said...

If I were talking about you, I'd say so! And I wouldn't bother reading your blog. We may disagree about a lot of things but that's fine - gives me stuff to think about. And I particularly like the fact that you're not afraid to say what you don't like, and why.

One the things I personally find most difficult is writing away from cliche.