Monday, June 23, 2014

Bestseller Style

Advertising an author as “bestselling” doesn’t do anything in the way of getting me to buy his or her books. I’m not a snob about it (“if it’s a bestseller the hoi polloi must read it”); there are things about best sellers I generally don’t like. Now that I’ve teed it up, I might as well tell you what they are.

Most bestsellers are not renowned for their inventive use of language. Masses of people must read for the story alone and don’t care about the author’s wordsmithing talents. I can’t remember the last time I stopped while reading a bestseller to say to myself, “Damn. I wish I’d written that.” I may, and often do, admire how the story was crafted, but the craft of the writing isn’t memorable.

Genre fiction is sometimes condemned for adhering to convention; it’s the bestsellers that tar us all with that brush. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery or a thriller, there’s a romantic angle somewhere. Or at least a sexual one. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but too often they’re shoehorned in there like forcing the fiftieth egg down Luke Jackson’s gullet. A favorite is the couple, thrust together early in the book, who can’t resist a frantic coupling when they know their pursuers could kick down the door at any minute.

I prefer fiction of the “keep up or catch up” school. I don’t want to have potentially important events telegraphed to me. Spare me the needless exposition, and I can live without too many definitions. The Wire never did tell us what a PEN register was, but the term’s use in context allowed anyone who was paying attention to figure out it had to do with phones, and could tell who you were talking to. That was all you needed to know to follow the story. I don’t need to know how a my television picks up signals from a cable and forms them into pixels and sound waves I can see and hear in order to enjoy a television program. I’m not saying the author should confuse the reader, but give him some credit.

Last, but maybe most frustrating, there’s explaining things. Not like the previous paragraph, where the author is making sure I don’t miss anything that might confuse me or make me lose the thread and put down the book. I mean explaining things that, for me not to get, I might be too dumb to read the book in the first place. I’ll cite two examples, both from bestselling authors whose books I enjoy and read regularly.

From The Drop, by Michael Connolly. Harry Bosch has just arrived at the scene of an apparent suicide, a man jumping from a seventh-floor balcony:
“We have two scenes,” [Rampone} said. “We’ve got the splat around back here on the side. And then the room the guy was using. That’s the top floor, Room 79.”

It was the routine way of police officers to dehumanize the daily horrors that came with the job. Jumpers were called splats.

Thanks, Mike. You’re in the pantheon, and deservedly so, but I worry about anyone who couldn’t figure what a “splat” was in this context.

There’s this, from one of my heroes (and The Beloved Spouse’s secret lust object) Robert Crais. Early in The Sentry, Joe Pike is seated with a woman at a sidewalk café and notices something across the street:
The man sauntered out from behind the statue and fell in with a group of passing tourists. He wore an unbuttoned pale orange short-sleeved shirt over a white T-shirt, dark jeans, and sunglasses. The shirt and the bald head keyed a memory, and Pike realized the man had passed them before. Pike had not seen him double back, which made Pike suspicious because Pike had outstanding situational awareness, which meant he noticed everything in his environment.

“Meant” and “because” may be the two words I fear most in any fiction narrative. (Dialog is okay. People explain things to each other all the time.) Those two words are the shot across the reader’s bow: “We’re afraid you might be too stupid to understand this advanced concept, so we’re going to explain it to your dumb ass.” Me, personally? I’m insulted.

(“Blepharospasm” is another word that will set me off, for different reasons. I came across it in a Robin Cook bestseller, where he did the opposite of what I deride above, dropping excessive medical terminology on the reader to impress them. In Cook’s books, people don’t bleed to death; they exsanguinate. What’s a blepharospasm, you ask? I had to look it up, too. It’s an eye tic. Swear to God. Here’s a new rule for Bill Maher if he really wants to be helpful: No verb can take longer to say than the action it describes.)

I should make one thing clear: I am not criticizing bestseller authors or their readers, and there’s no sour graping here. God bless them all. First the writers, who deserve every cent they make for having found a way to get and keep people reading. And the readers for their critical role in this symbiotic relationship. If no one wanted to read, there would be no need for writers. Readers always come first. All I’m saying here is why I don’t scour the bestseller lists for my next read. Me, personally.


“But wait!” I hear some cry out. (Don’t worry. I hear people cry out in my head all the time.) “How can you hope to write a bestseller if you don’t read them to learn how they’re put together?” I don’t. Writing a bestseller is the last thing on my mind. (Okay, the next to last. Listening to Ben Stein read The da Vinci Code on an endless loop is the last thing.) The most practical reason why authors should write “the book you want to read” is because you’re going to have to read your book so damn often. I write because I like to tell the stories I tell. If other people like to read them, that’s great. If people are willing to pay to read them, even better. If enough people are willing to pay to read them that I can make an appreciable sum of money from them, that’s like stealing. I don’t begrudge any bestseller or its author, but just because I respect their primacy in the field doesn’t mean I can’t be successful if I never write one.

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