Bestseller or Dud?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I’m not very selective in what I read, meaning that I’ll take a chance on work in most genres. Sci-Fi and paranormal books are not among my favourites, but once I’m out of the starting gate, I rely on the writer to keep me engaged. Even if the story doesn’t begin with a bang, I will continue if I’m interested in the character and the situation that has been thrown at me. The writing style also plays a role in my response to the novel.  If the narrative is dense, I’m likely to put the book aside. However, I have been known to slog through many pages to get to the good parts and trot to the end. 

Which brings me to highly-touted books that take the market by storm. I realize it’s smart marketing to build up a following way before a book is released. I’ve visited many blogs where the writers gush about this or that particular book, having read an advance copy. Other readers, fuelled by an enthusiastic review, spread the word and then there’s a rush on to get the book as soon as it’s available. 

Now, I admit up front that I might be strange, but sometimes I can’t drum up the same level of enthusiasm over novels that have made the bestsellers lists.  I’ll give some examples.  On the shelf behind my writing desk, there are a little over fifty books. Some I’m reading, or intend to read in the near future.  Added to those are good books I have read, the ones that weren’t that good, but that I finished in a snap, and the ones I haven’t completed.

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Among the good ones are Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I’ll tell you up front that literary fiction intimidates me. I think it’s because us humble romance/young adult/contemporary writers feel like literary ants when our work is placed beside something of the calibre of the novel I’ve mentioned above. I’m not sure why I bought the book, other than that I am fascinated with books to do with Chinese & Japanese culture. But having bought it, I devoured it in a short time and the characters have remained with me since I read it more than a year ago. Matter of fact, I’ll read it again as soon as time and my reading list allows.

What made it such a good book? For me, the combination of well-drawn characters, a look at Chinese society in the nineteenth century (Who doesn’t want to understand stuff like foot binding, even if the pain nearly did me in too) and the challenges the two main characters faced as they matured. I can’t find enough good things to say about this book, but I have no doubt that someone else will read the same book and be unable to identify with any of what I’ve said above.

Book Background
For more than a year now, I’ve been on page 348 of A Respectable Trade (Phillipa Gregory). I bought the novel only because of the slavery aspect, which is another fascinating subject for me. Since the book has 479 pages, I’m wondering why I never bothered to finish, having read two-thirds of it.  I suspect the reason might have to do with the fact that I found the main character (Frances Scott) wishy-washy.  The most vivid memory I have of the book is the fact that Frances was pallid and prone to the vapours and then there was the attraction between herself and Mehuru, the slave she was trying to teach English. I’m stubborn though, so at some point I’ll probably try again.

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The Memory Keeper’s daughter is another one I haven’t been able to finish. I had out-of-the-galaxy expectations of this one that I stopped reading at page 104, again more than a year ago.  The most I remember is the storyline. A doctor, the father of twins, asks the nurse who works with him to dispose of one of his newborn twins (the one who has Down Syndrome) in a home. Other than that, everything is fuzzy.

Now, I’m not saying the books I haven’t been able to finish aren’t good. They most likely are, from all the rave reviews I’ve seen, but somehow, they haven’t struck that big of a chord with me. Like A Respectable Trade, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a novel that I will be giving another go at some point – if only to study why they have been such big sellers. Could it be that some books get sold based on the author’s reputation? I know this isn’t the case for the latter above, but perhaps for the former.

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And then there are other books, which may fall into the category of pot boilers. They aren’t of the highest quality and are put out to make money, but of course publishers are in business to make money. There’s one I read in a few hours called Undeniable. It’s classified as contemporary romance and was written by Ingrid Monique. I’ve kept it on the shelf behind me because since I read in 2006, I haven’t been able to figure out why I finished it so fast. The plot is simple and the characters unremarkable, but somehow I couldn’t put it down until I got to the last page.

In my quest to be a better writer, I read as both reader and writer. Some books I study to see what devices work and why they work. Having said that, I haven’t got around to reading Undeniable a second time, but I know that one day I will, if only to find out what makes the book move at the pace it does. It wasn’t romantic suspense, but I figure that the writer was skilled enough to put the story together in such a way that she kept me turning the pages until I had consumed every word. 

I still haven’t worked out in my mind why I’ve been able to read some books in mere hours and others only up to a certain point. On the positive side, could it be writing style? Clever story telling? Compelling characters? And on the other hand, maybe clumsy story telling? Verbiage? Less-than-fascinating characters? Crass tastes on my part? My gnat-like attention span? 

Do you have any answers or thoughts?

32 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I too find myself unable to finish some books that others couldn't put down. For me, I have to be hooked with character and action in the beginning. But that can mean anything to anyone.

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  2. This post certainly rings true for me right now. I've just decided to read the last ten winners of the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker prize to see why they won. Last night I finished "Truth" by Peter Temple, the 2010 winner of the Miles Franklin Award and quite frankly I found it very confusing. It wasn't clear who was talking when or who the characters were but so saying, I couldn't put it down! My lesson from this book was that I have to work more on dialogue.

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  3. This gets me to thinking. Before I get started have you read any Lisa See. I've read a couple of hers, one on Chinese culture. Wonderful story, wonderful characters, kept me interested throughout.

    However, lately I've been reading a few that I can't get through. Too many good books to read without struggling through mediocre reads, often by best selling authors.

    BTW I'm tagging you for a meme which I'll put up tomorrow. Hope you don't mind and will participate.

    Denise<3

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  4. Elizabeth, I too like to meet a character I can care about, one that's in a unique situation.

    Cassandra, good move. I too ask myself what makes a book successful. Thing is, I get intimidated by the fact that it's won a prize. I have a mental block that says 'highbrow' and that I won't be able understand a thing inside the book. Bad, I know. :)

    Denise, I don't think there's anything worse than a great writer coming to the point where he/she begins to shortchange the reader. I hope that when I hit the big times I'll pay as much attention then as I do now to making my books a good read. Coming over to check out that meme and yes, I've read one book by Lisa See, the one I mentioned in this post.

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  5. Books are so subjective. There are many bestsellers I haven't warmed to! Guess it all comes down to taste.

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  6. Yeah, taste does have a lot to do it.

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  7. I do the same thing, read some books quickly, just can't put 'em down (like The Hunger Games trilogy), and others I just never seem to finish. They just don't hook me enough, I guess.

    Since you love books about Chinese and Japanese culture, I'm willing to bet that The Good Earth is one of your favorites. It's one of my all-time favorites, and Olan will stay with me forever, as will Katniss.

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  8. I agree with you - there are many bestselling books and authors I can't wrap my head around either, and Philippa Gregory's one of them. I also agree that every once in a while we've got to give them a chance, if only to learn from them. At least, what *not* to do :-)

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  9. I'm so sick of bestselling books. That's what we read in book club and I have to tell you, I find most of them either bizarre or just boring. I love some of the new author's or unknowns.

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  10. Lyn, I haven't read that book, but I went and looked it up. Sounds like a great book - Pulitzer Prize and all. :) Gotta put that on my list. Thanks.

    I guess I'm not as weird as I thought. Maybe it's part of the reason why I tend to stick mostly with the authors I know produce good work. Every so often though, I come across an author I haven't read who just blows me away.

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  11. I think a lot depends on my mood and attention span when I pick up a well-buzzed book and find I can't continue...at that time. I read all genres and a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction. What doesn't grab me one day may be the book I can't put down at another time.

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  12. Patricia, what makes sticking to one book hard is when there are others begging to be read.

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  13. I think the hardest thing is to get a book and not be able to finish it for whatever reason. I understand what you mean about some bestseller books. Sometimes the character / writing isnt' any good but you persevere. The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan sounds good, though, will keep an eye out for that one.

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  14. D.U.,
    I too hate not being able to finish a book and will make several attempts to get it all done.

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  15. Sometimes it's just a matter of personality. Some readers and authors just don't click--or the voice doesn't resonate for you. I'm the same way.

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  16. Jo, true. I like a lively narrator or if not, then someone whose issues I can relate to.

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  17. What a great post. I can think of a few books that are best-sellers and don't appeal to me. On the flip-side, I'll devour a book and wonder why it has not received more praise and acclaim. It's fascinating how the same book can affect different readers in different ways.

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  18. I used to be one of those ppl who felt to guilty to stop reading a book just because it was a bad one untill a bookstore owner said to me she would never put herself through all that torture and waste her time when there are so many great books around. One author that has been unputdownable for me is Douglas Kennedy. That man uses the English language so beautifully I fall in love with it everytime. Not only that, his story line is always tight, never has those periodical bits of babble writers seem to sometime use to fill the pages. Of course you must know of my obsession with Neil Gaiman as well.

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  19. Cynthia, true, some books are beautifully written but never get the praise or hype they deserve.

    Wendy, I haven't read anything by Douglas Kennedy. I'll check him out. Haven't read anything by Neil Gaiman yet, but I've heard good things about his writing.

    I think it's my stubbornness that keeps me reading long after I should just call it quits.

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  20. For me, sometimes it's my mood. I just might not be in the mood for that certain type of story or genre or whatever it is. So then I just come back to it later!

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  21. I know about that too Laura. Sometimes for me something quick and light is in order.

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  22. Thanks for sharing this. For me I think it sometimes is a certain genre that I'd put down...but then another book from that genre would turn out to be interesting!

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  23. Great post. I HAVE to finish a book, no matter how bad it is. I keep waiting for some redeeming quality and sometimes there just isn't one. Thanks for sharing!

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  24. I will read books from many genres and I love it. I'm with you though, sometimes some books that people are raving about, I just can't get into.

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  25. Nas, guess in that case it's probably the writer that makes the difference.

    Sylvia, boy do I know what you mean!

    Clarissa, yes, I try hard but sometimes I don't get what the hype is about.

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  26. I have not read JR Tolkiens books as yet. Everytime I get i get one of the shelf someone tells me what a boring writer he is. Has anyone read him that would redeem him. I don't wanna open one and get stuck.....I have three...lol

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  27. Wendy, you and I are in the same boat. I have a couple of his books, but haven't cracked either of them open yet.

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  28. Really you guys? Well, it depends what you like. If you want light hearted fun with some adventure, go for The Hobbit. If you want something brilliant, with funny bits, pathos, adventure, etc etc etc read The Lord of the Rings (I even did a post on this once http://thegirdleofmelian.blogspot.com/2010/12/why-tahereh-should-read-lord-of-rings.html). Then there's his poetry, short stories...

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  30. Deniz,

    Good thing you came along. Haven't read anything by Tolkien though I have a couple of his book. Gonna check out that link. I like light hearted fun and some adventure, so the Hobbit is what I'll try first

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  31. I threw a book my Susan Lewis at the wall the other day. I just couldn't get into a book which has a teacher and a 17 year old boy having a lurid romance and for everyone to know about it and for that to be okay.

    Lie you, Joy, some books aren't for me :)

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