Monday, August 24, 2009

A Book Club Gone Bad

I have a bit of a dilemma. I'm sort of a member of a science fiction book club. It's a pitiful, limping creature and always has been. Only four or five people show up with any regularity, which would be fine if everyone read the books. They don't. I have gone to meetings where it was revealed that not a single person actually read the book. This is a common enough occurrence that our (for want of a better word) leader has taken to sending out mass emails saying, "The book we're pretending to read this month is ...."

Then too, there's the time that I showed up for a meeting and no one else did, as far as I could determine. I waited for half an hour and wandered throughout the place before giving up and leaving. It turned out later that there had in fact been a meeting, though I never worked out how the others managed to give me the slip. I found the experience disheartening, so much so that I haven't been to a meeting since, though I keep meaning to go. In fact, I have continued to think of myself as a member of the book club. I'm simply a member who hasn't shown up at a meeting in a while. I obtain the assigned books and don't read them, or I read a couple of chapters and lose interest. Because (and here's another problem I have with the book club) the books chosen represent a very particular taste, which I don't happen to share. The themes are either military, online gaming or space opera (a subcategory of military, come to think of it). The field of interest is so narrow that I think I can pinpoint exactly who is making the recommendations. This is not a good thing. A book club should represent as many literary tastes as there are people in the book club. That is, in fact, the advantage and perhaps even the whole point of a book club: the opportunity to experience a range of tastes, and read books you'd never pick up in the normal course of events.

Well, I'm certainly picking up books I'd never touch in the normal course of events, but they're all the same! And I don't like them. And the person who's making the choices is not experiencing anything new.

None of that is good. The lackadaisical nature of the club--not good. Book suggestions coming from only one, or at most two, of the members--not good. Said suggestions being consistently contrary to my personal taste--not good, at least for me. And yet none of those things is the reason why I am now saying to myself that it may be time to throw in the towel and drop out of the club for real. Because on top of all that, it seems that this one person (or at most two people) who is supplying us with all our reading material is not terribly discerning in terms of literary quality.

To put it another way, the latest book is pure cheese.

When I first held it in my hand and looked at its cover art, which consisted of space ships shooting at each other, I groaned and thought, "Not another bloody space opera!" Which was a bit unfair of me, since I hadn't bothered to read the previous one (New Space Opera, in case you're interested). That being the case, I decided to give it a chance. After all, I reminded myself, book clubs are all about being exposed to new reading material, and I am being so exposed, even if certain other people in the group are not. Let me then benefit. Let me open my mind.

So I began to read. The story is certainly action-packed, though convoluted as hell, what with all the faster-than-light travel through multiple dimensions. I read a lot of sentences twice, trying to figure out what was going on. Still, the captain of the ship is a woman, which is nice--it reminds me of Captain Janeway. The concepts are kind of interesting, and it certainly isn't boring. It begins with an enemy attack and hasn't slowed down for a moment. It is, in fact, paced like a short story, which is odd. But what really got my literary spidey-sense tingling was the second sentence of Chapter Three: "Fifty-three sleepless hours might explain her gaunt, hollowed cheeks, but not the ghosts behind her eyes."

Ghosts? Behind her eyes, of all places?

And things did not improve from there. Five pages later, I reached the paragraphs that stopped me in my tracks.

His face was blank for an instant, and then understanding flared.

"Of course." Life returned to his eyes--the blazing life of a man who has accepted the inevitability of something far worse than his own death and then been shown a possible way to avert it after all--and suppressed excitement lent his voice vibrancy as he nodded jerkily. "Of course!"

--from The Apocalypse Troll by David Weber

I shouldn't have to explain why this is terrible writing, but the sad fact is that this guy's a bestselling author, so I probably do. Note the melodrama, the pumping up of rhetoric in a flailing attempt to artificially excite the reader. Good writers know better. They know that if the story is exciting, they don't have to do anything extra to wring a response out of the reader. Not this writer. He follows up the flaring understanding with life--blazing life! Hallelujah! Also note that the character's voice is vibrating while he's nodding jerkily. This is quite amusing, as it was explained earlier in the book just how serious a problem conflicting harmonics can be when you're hopping dimensions in order to travel faster than light: "If a ship hit the wall just wrong or with the slightest harmonic in her translation field, she simply disappeared. She went acoherent, spread over a multitude of dimensions and forever unable to reconstitute herself..." I should think similar difficulties await the man who nods jerkily while his voice vibrates. Perhaps his head would explode.

Anyway, that's where I reached my limit. I'm sorry, but I'm not devoting hours of my life to swimming through such Cheez Whiz.

When did this happen? When did it become OK to publicly read and shamelessly tout crappy fiction, even to the point of suggesting it as a book club selection? Is this Stephanie Meyer's fault? Or did it begin earlier, without my noticing? Maybe Dan Brown is to blame? John Grisham? Danielle Steel? Sidney Sheldon? Should we have a line-up? Whodunit?

What ever happened to the good old days when reading crap was a private, guilty pleasure? Maybe they never existed and I only imagined them? Do book clubs read Harlequin Romances these days? Have I asked enough questions by now?

In any case, I realize that I'm beaten. I was going to show up at the next meeting and suggest Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, which Locus selected as one of the best first novels of 2008. But it seems so hopeless. The book is not even a mass-market paperback. It's a trade paperback, and therefore more expensive. I've already been told that price is a concern. On top of that, it contains no gaming, space ships or bombs. Just noncorporeal demons and excellent writing. No one's going to be interested in that. Why bang my head against a wall? With or without harmonics in my translation field?

That's how I feel right now anyway. Perhaps later, as I consider the possibility that I could help these literary innocents discover good writing, my hope will revive, much as hope revived for the crew of the TNS Defender. And when that happens, life will reignite in my eyes--blazing life. My excitement, which I will be suppressing for some unexplained reason, will lend my voice vibrancy and I will nod jerkily. And then my head will explode.


Vivian said...

A postscript: I just remembered that one of the selections was Benjamin Button. So there was an exception to the general rule of military and gaming themes. I didn't read that one either.

Raine Lawliet said...

A book club that doesn't read books. Yeah, that's kind of a tough one.

I don't know who's to blame for these hilariously bad novels being considered works of fine art, but someone needs to burn for it. Or, at the very least, we can try to show people the error of their ways. The paragraph you quoted was just dreadful. Even if the writer hadn't been trying to artificially enhance the drama, "Nodded jerkily" is a really odd thing to say. No one could have made that line compelling. Not to mention it's a pretty funny mental image.

And I'm sorry, but "Of course!" just makes me think of the also hilariously bad Street Fighter movie.

Vivian said...

I KNOW!! Burning is a little harsh, but I understand the sentiment. The really big moneymakers are people who've honed one aspect of their craft: how to get people turning pages--and nothing else. They don't develop characters, they don't write anything with depth or intelligence, and they sell sell sell. It's discouraging. And you know, I can't even picture HOW you nod jerkily. Unless you have some sort of nervous system disorder, I'm not sure it's possible.

I'm thinking I should go to the meeting and say I didn't finish the book because it was so badly written. We're supposed to discuss what we thought of the book, right? Thinking that the book sucked so bad that it wasn't worth finishing is a legitimate opinion worthy of discussion, isn't it?

I will look at your video as soon as I'm on a computer that can handle videos. This computer used to be able to play them, but now it's all stop and start. I'm not sure why. Maybe because the box is bigger these days? I dunno.

Raine Lawliet said...

I honestly don't know how they can get people turning the pages without an interesting plot or characters. If I haven't taken an interest in the characters within the first chapter, it takes a force of will to read any further.

Heh. A nervous system disorder seems the most likely explanation. That or a caffeine high.

I'd say it's perfectly legitimate. Maybe you'll enlighten someone and they'll start reading better books. One can only hope.

Sometimes the high quality option is on by default. But this video is exactly one second long, so you shouldn't have a problem. It's just Raul Julia overacting, and it's kind of an inside joke. There's a video review series called the Nostalgia Critic, and in his review of the Street Fighter film, where Raul Julia gives a hilariously over-the-top performance as the villain M. Bison, there's a line that goes, "His goal is to - you guessed it - take over the world," followed by the clip of Raul shouting "OF COURSE!" From then on, any time he reviewed a movie where the villain's goal was to take over the world for no real reason, he would use that clip.

Vivian said...

I found the characters to be like a row of paper dolls, so flat and cliched. But then, one of the women at the book group mentioned liking one of the characters, a female corporal I think (I am entirely clueless about military hierarchy). I suspect she liked the cliche of Tough and Powerful Yet Feminine Woman.

I myself have been fooled. My mother once recommended the Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy. I plowed through several chapters quite happily until I came to a scene where the two main characters did something completely stupid, something that no one with a functioning brain would do. But it was something that furthered the "plot". I realized at that moment that the characters were one-dimensional, and lost all interest in reading further. But I hadn't realized up to that point. It's tricky because the character can't be drawn all at once. It happens slowly over many pages as facts are released to you. Plus, you're suspending your disbelief, as a fiction reader. So you have to get to a point where something jolts you so badly that you can't suspend your disbelief anymore, and some people have a higher tolerance than others. Literary discernment comes with practice. I used to read all kinds of crap, but I began to notice how dissatisfied it left me at the end. I also began to pick up on the dishonest little tricks that bad writers use to create characters in the absence of careful observation. And now I mostly avoid bestsellers altogether. Just the fact that a book is best-selling makes it suspect. A terrible comment on the industry, but there it is. So anyway, yeah, taste is not something you're born with.

I did go to the meeting, and enjoyed it. I enthusiastically made fun of the passage. One of the attendees is also a writer, and he agreed that it was terrible. Two of the Weber fans in attendance admitted that he's no "literary genius," as one of them put it, but they find his books entertaining. And I made my recommendations. They were interested in them, but neither was available in large enough quantity in Chapters, and one of the many rules this book club has is that the book has to be available in Chapters. Instead we decided to read a classic SF from the fifties. Chapters had a ton of copies of that one. I'm happy with that, and I hope people will check out Pandemonium on their own because it's such a good book.

Um, are you exaggerating just a wee bit when you say the video is one second long? It sounds interesting and I'll have to remember to check it out when I'm on a more powerful computer. It's not because HQ is on. I've tried that. I don't know what the problem is. James thinks it might be because the box that the video plays in is bigger than it used to be.

Raine Lawliet said...

The Tough and Powerful Yet Feminine Woman trope is pretty worn out. It's better than the Damsel in Distress trope, but people tend to mistake it for actual characterization, and, sadly, it lets some female characters get away with some pretty obnoxious stuff. There's a video game called Koudelka where the title character does very little apart from threatening her allies with violence when she doesn't get her way.

Now that I think about it, I guess I can only say that I haven't been fooled because my book collection is pretty small. Sad as it is to say, I hated to read back in high school, which I blame partly on bad influence from (now former) friends, and partly because, frankly, most of the books the school made us read were really boring. So I haven't come across a book where a character suddenly does something so idiotic that it disillusions you, but I have read one where the author did. Someone recommended Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series to me, so I checked out the first book from the library. From the beginning, I found it pretty dull, but it was something like sixty billion pages long, so I was willing to wait and see where the story was going. The first sign that it was going the wrong way was when the main character packed his bags and left his entire life behind to help a girl that he had known for about an hour, but that's par for the course in fantasy and I just had to roll with it. Then about a page or two into their journey, they were attacked by a giant something-or-other because I guess the author couldn't think of any other way to make the journey more exciting. Fine, I'm still with him on that. I've never understood why all fantasy novels require random battles, but I'll ignore it. And then seconds after the encounter is over, the girl comes down with a sudden case of demonic possession. Really, have we not had enough "excitement" yet? I have no idea what was going on in that scene; something to do with being taken by the darkness, which, again, is standard fare in fantasy, but this wasn't even a quarter of the way through the book and the girl hadn't been characterized enough for the scene to have any effect. And if that wasn't bad enough, the main character had to do some kind of Vulcan mind meld and melodramatically call her back, which was just embarrassing. After that, I gave up and returned the book. I found out later than the big plot twist is that the main character is the villain's son. Gee, where have I heard that before? And yet Terry Goodkind is a bestselling author.

Glad to hear that the meeting went well. I'm not at all surprised to hear that the "he's no literary genius" excuse was used, but at least admitting that is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they'll realize how much more entertaining a good book is. Speaking of which, I can't seem to find any information on Pandemonium (by which I mean I checked Wikipedia and it didn't have an entry). What is it about? All I've got to read right now is another boring high fantasy book.

I'm not exaggerating. The link I posted is just Raul Julia saying "OF COURSE!" and it's literally one second long. Like I said, it was an inside joke, and I've already explained it so much that it won't be funny. The actual review has some funnier moments, so if you want to check it out when you have access to a computer that can handle it (I'm really not sure why yours can't), here's the link:

He mentions the Mortal Kombat film there, too. If you want to see that review, here's the link:

Vivian said...

And yet TAPYFW has not flagged in popularity. According to Locus magazine, one of the most popular genres today is Urban Fantasy with a "kick-ass" heroine. And this coexists alongside Passive Female Getting Bitten By Sexy Vampire/Werewolf. Make 'em strong or make 'em weak, just don't make them ressemble real women. That's the last thing anybody wants, it seems. Even real women don't want to read about real women. When I read some of my stories at workshops and in writer's groups, I would get feedback from other women like, "I didn't like it that she cried," or "I didn't like it when her hand trembled," because, "I wanted her to be strong." This used to baffle me because I thought I was making the character *human*, which is what you're supposed to do, right? But it's not what women want. Either they're so hungry for images of strength that they want to mainline it up a major artery to the point that there's no room for the character to have any sensitivity or emotions, or they're submissives and they want to swoon to stories about vampire ravishment.

I know I'm a woman, but... sometimes I just don't *get* women.

I'm pleased to say I never read Terry Goodkind. Some sixth sense saved me (say that five times fast, ha ha). But when I was younger and more naive, I got sucked in by Stephen Donaldson and read I am too ashamed to remember how many books in the Thomas Covenant series until I found myself wading through the umpteenth mutant-monster battle, woke up and thought, this stuff is CRAP.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory is an alternate world fantasy about an America where people are randomly possessed by demons. The main character was possessed by one demon for years, but eventually gained control over it... or so he thought. You will never guess the plot twist. It's a great book. Here's the Amazon link.

I don't know either why my computer won't play videos properly. I wish I did, it's several years old, but it's still a Pentium and it used to play videos just fine. I remember when it started to go bad, around book 4 of the Harry Potter series I think.

Raine Lawliet said...

I would think a strong female character is one who is afraid, one whose hand does tremble, but who overcomes that fear. It's discouraging to hear that that's not what people are looking for because I'm planning on writing urban fantasy for NaNo this year with a female protagonist.

I haven't heard of Stephen Donaldson, but I just looked up the Thomas Covenant series. It sounds pretty bad, but I can kind of see how there might have been an interesting story buried in there. Then again, I thought the same thing about Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, so maybe seeing too many bad movies is starting to cause some long-term damage.

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out.

All I can think to suggest is to update Flash, but I think it's supposed to do that automatically.

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