Throwing books

I threw a book I was reading on the floor in disgust the other night. This is rare for me. I covet books like Murdoch covets media power. But, like one of those vain, good-looking boyfriends, this one kept promising in one breath and disappointing the next, and I just couldn’t stand it any more.

I won’t mention it by name because I’m not entirely sure it’s flaws were the author’s fault. Suffice to say – it’s a newish release, an American author, first published in the US and now in Australia by a well known publishing house (that shall remain nameless).

It’s a commercial genre, one I don’t usually read, a derivative of the popular vampire/paranormal that is so ‘the thing’ at the moment. I decided to read it because it promised an interesting story, true to the myths, but told from a fresh point of view. And it came well recommended.

So I delved and within a few pages found myself intrigued. It pulled me in, that is until the conclusion of a dramatic and traumatic opening scene, when the character walked away apparently unaffected by their traumatic experience.

At this point I started to ask a few questions, I was sceptical but persisted in good faith.

80 pages in and the character is well established as conservative, proper, straight-laced. I can visualise them clearly, have a sense of who they are and why they are. Yet when they witness a frightening event, they react in a way I wouldn’t have expected. This interests me, as the author has already painted this character in a particular light. I think I have a clear view of them and their response to this situation isn’t in keeping with it.

So I keep reading.

20 pages later we hit the first major turning point – an interaction between the main character and the paranormal creature stalking them. The setting, the circumstance, the atmosphere of the interaction all hit perfect tone. It’s creepy. The way the character finds themselves outside in the middle of the night is believable. Tension is building. I read on hungrily to find out what might happen .

Then the character has an opportunity to escape the eerie place they’re in and seek refuge, but they don’t – and for no clear reason. The character begins to KNOWINGLY behave recklessly, impulsively and in contradiction to their background the author has painstakingly set up.

Now I’m confused. I’ve already suspended a bit of belief and I’m wondering what this book is going to expect of me if I continue with it. I’m questioning the integrity of the character.

I decide to go with it, in hope, and I do. But it doesn’t stop there. The character continues to move away from what is normal behaviour for them and I don’t understand why.

By this time I’m getting annoyed and wondering if the author/publisher is playing games with me. But I persevere.

The final straw comes when the character speaks to their tormentor. This is going to sound petty, so I should mention that this story is set in a time when spoken english was very formal. For the most part the dialogue is believable until the character uses a contemporary American phrase that is completely out of place. It stops me dead, because there is no way that character in that time would use those words in that particular way. No way. I’m thrown out of the story completely and thoroughly disappointed. The character, once alive and vibrant in my minds eye, shatters.

How many people, I wonder, read this book before it went to print? Editors, publishers, copy editors, aside from the writer (who has a number of other books under their belt, none of which I will attempt to read now). How did this minor but glaring detail get missed? Was it rushed? An oversight? Or just plain couldn’t care less, because, hell, this audience doesn’t need quality in their story?

I’m not purporting to be an expert in writing, but I know my reading, and I know when I’m reading something that has been carelessly or poorly edited because I give up on it after one too many details just don’t gel.

If this were my book I’d be furious with my publishing team and myself for allowing a great story and interesting character to be undermined by fundamental and fixable problems in the manuscript. And as a reader I’m furious with both the publishing team and the author for assuming that the audience for this book has a low bar when it comes to the quality of the story telling.

All audiences deserve a well told story. This is the third book I’ve dropped in 12 months because of poor editing. Worthwhile stories are being wasted because they are pushed out too quickly or their obvious flaws not attended to with care.

I get the sense that sometimes commercial fiction audiences are treated with cynicism by the publishing world. These readers are often treated as if they don’t have the time or intelligence to notice a character that has lost integrity or that something in a scene is out of keeping with its setting. These readers are expected to be unaware of or not notice or ignore the fundamentals of written story telling. It’s insulting. A well told story has some basic requirements – consistent character, settings, integrity of plot – no matter whether it’s a Mills & Boon romance, sci-fi fantasy or literary meditation. Crack the fundamentals and the story loses integrity, no matter how good the story is.

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