Just Because You’re Published Don’t Mean You Write Good

There seems to be a war of words in this currently hyped self-publishing boom between the self-published and the traditionally published.  The self-published go on and on about the success of some lucky few and the traditionally published are always noting that the reason people are published is due to the writer’s talent and that publishers are the gatekeepers of good writing.  After all, their standards are very high.

I would say that someone is asleep at the wheel, to use a dead idiom.

I know everyone bashes her, but let us take a careful look at Stephanie Meyer, best selling author of the Twilight series (as if you didn’t know). About plot, Bella and Edward’s relationship is emotionally shallow, the once great vampire mythos of Bram Stoker is reduced to something completely insane (a vegetarian?!), and he glitters in the sun.  As far as Meyer’s prose, read this very well researched article that breaks down the numbers for us.

Some highlights of this article: The plot finally arrives on page 372.  References to Edward’s beauty: 165.  Look at the “number of times” list which is evidence enough that someone was somnambulant while steering.

Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code contains lines like this (actually, these are the first lines in the novel): “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.”

As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out: “Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don’t do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.”

Pullum also holds these other gems to the light:

“On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.”

“Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils”

Finally, there is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  The sentences in this novel flow fairly well and I would say it is not dragged down by terrible phrasing, but really:  It is a cliche broken older guy who makes the big bad corporation “pay what they owe us”, then he sleeps with his sidekick (who is cool and is a hacker and is half his age).  The sadistic elements of the story are over the top and not really necessary, only thrown in for sensationalism and to most readers with salt feel out of place.

What do you think, dear reader?  Have you read a novel lately that was a best seller that was either poorly written or was cliche or generally left you lacking?  Has the publishing industry driven the car off the road and into a ditch?  Sound off.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

7 thoughts on “Just Because You’re Published Don’t Mean You Write Good

  1. Oh my word, yes. Micro by Michael Crichton and Next, also by Crichton, were two of the worst books I’ve read. They were badly edited – the novel structure was a mess, the writing all over the place … it would have benefited from the firm hand of an editor. I just have no idea how the book got out there in this shape. I was mad that I paid money for Next, glad that I got a review copy for Micro.

  2. I’ve spent more time ranting about Twilight than I care to think about. I just can’t help it. I’ve never come across anything so atrocious (it seems I’m lucky) and it burns me up to think that the books are so wildly successful.
    I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out just what the hell it is that’s made these books so popular on the assumption that if I apply this magical formula to something well written, sales could shot through the roof and touch the stars!
    So far I haven’t figured out yet… which, I’ll admit, annoys me even more.

  3. I agree – being published is not actually a certiificate of quality. The reality of publishing, I think, is that yes – the main houses are indeed well aware of what constitutes good writing and style. But they also well aware of what constitutes commercial returns; and they come first. Brown’s stuff was execrable on all counts as far as I was concerned – I had to be trapped on an aircraft to actually read it. That said, all of these books – including Brown’s – have to have SOMETHING in order to be publishable. In Brown’s case, he was a master of structure and of building tension. That was all he did – the research was dreadful – he’d obviously not been to Paris as far as I could tell; and the writing – well, you’ve nailed it. Meyer, I suspect, did it by inverting the usual paradigm of vampires.

    To me, the onus is actually on authors to be good at all points of the writing spectrum. It’s a range of skills, including styling, structure, plot, characterisations and so forth. The good authors, I think (I hope) are going to be quite evident even if their sales and access to the mainstream publishers are somewhat overshadowed by the pop-hacks. Quality will out.

    Matthew Wright

  4. Also appreciated the link the the researched article. I’d heard this book was poor, and this is the most information I’ve bothered to read about it! Wonder how the 1st editor thought this was worth pursuing, and how appalling that s(he) was right…

  5. On one level, de gustibus non est disputandum. Some readers *like* that stuff, or are unable (or unwilling) to discern the difference between it and better written alternatives.

    Let’s avert our eyes from that for now and attempt analysis.

    Picture two overlapping bell curves. One represents the quality of the prose, storytelling skill, and other markers of writing acumen for traditionally published fiction.The other represents the same for self-published work.

    Both curves have rather more on the left-hand side, below the mean, than one would like to see. However,the self-published curve has a long, lingering tail on the left, where the authors do not have the capability to produce a novel-length text that actually resembles a novel (or in some cases a grammatically correct sentence). They simply have not read enough to know what it is they are attempting to create, and have no one to stop them from sharing the result.

    All of the examples above–and I would submit, the vast majority of published fiction–are from works recognizable as novels. Yes, there are serious issues with many currently published, even popular novels. Depressing issues. Hair-tearing issues. Nevertheless, there’s a floor below which they don’t go.

  6. Wow, the title says it all! I have long been annoyed with these types of things. To be fair, there is what I refer to as entertainment value, where a book might not necessarily be well written but is entertaining nonetheless. But there are also books out there that are neither, and I can’t quite figure out how they get published. Excellent post!

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