When That Book Is, You Feel, Uh, Not Great

I feel badly about this. A writer I follow elsewhere (and have for some years, and who does not – I am 99 percent sure – read my blog here), has been heavily promoting a new novel (published by a small publisher) on their social media; it seems every other post in recent weeks is a cover or someone’s praise for the book or some reference to the book somehow. I had never read any of the person’s earlier books, and I had come to feel that based on what I was seeing of this newest one in excerpts that it too was not really my thing.

Finally, though, I gave in and – maybe it was the lockdown? – last night I read its Amazon Kindle free sample.

All that the writer shares about the book on social media are trumpet blasts about its ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews, general applause, and overall praise for it. (At its Amazon page I noticed that the book has ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and 1/2 stars out of about ten reviews thus far in total, so clearly some few did not consider it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s; but obviously they still thought it was probably ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s.) I suppose that is to be expected. However, that level of my expectation of its apparent high quality writing and excellent reading did not help my outlook… as I made my way through the sample, thinking….

[From Amazon Kindle sample. Photo by me, January 5, 2021.]

this is ordinary at best. By then, this post began to come to my mind. Three immediate personal reactions about the writing itself:

1) I felt it was “overwritten” often in the style of someone trying to impress readers with their ability to use a thesaurus. Perhaps the author thought that was being arty. To me it was too much unnecessary and even distracting flowery and wordy description of mundane objects like a coat jacket stand, a coffee table, or a garden hedge. It needed gently instead to direct more to the reader’s imagination. I know what a coffee table is, so unless it is truly pertinent to what is about to happen it is going down a side alley to describe it in detail.

2) I did not know who was thinking or speaking, or even if they were a man or a woman, for the opening FIVE – often longish – paragraphs. In a print version, that had to be at least the entire first page. An opening sentence without identifying the speaking/thinking character, such as famously in Pride and Prejudice, is fine and may serve to draw us in. But five paragraphs of thinking and talking, leaving me with no idea who this person is, or these people are, is far too much. (I figured out only after reading the second paragraph twice that it described not a person but a cat running by the first person narrator through the open front door heading outside. There is nothing wrong with cats, but I am not a mind reader; I felt I should not have been in any doubt it was a cat; that needed to be made clear in the paragraph with a dropping in of a “my frisky feline,” or even just a plain “my cat,” or just something clarifying that.) It was not, to my eye, a great start. It led me to recall my first rule as a writer: Do NOT confuse or baffle a reader. A reader should be able easily to identify who is thinking and/or speaking and who is who and what is what.

3) Based on the sample, the entire book is evidently written in the first person, present tense. Yes, I do use the first person in spots to make a point, but those are the exceptions. A detective or mystery story in which we follow the tale through the eyes of the person tasked with solving the crime is one thing; but even the likes of the classic The Big Sleep does NOT use the present tense in doing so:

[The Big Sleep. Photo by me, 2015.]

A short story is one thing, but an entire book of “I pull off my coat,” or “I carry my coffee,” or “I fix my glasses,” or “I open the door,” gets on my reading nerves. There are many (some even great) novels written that way, but it is not a commonplace approach because it has serious potential pitfalls. (Such as by necessity too much reliance on possibly humdrum description of what the first person narrator/character is seeing or experiencing as I noted in “Number 1” above. Here is a conjured up example right now by me: “I toss my coat over the sofa. The sofa was left to me by Grandma in her will. It always reminds me of her homemade cookies because I would sit on it to eat them and now and then I dropped crumbs down the sides of the cushions. I sit down and feel no crumbs…”) I also understand and accept that this “Number 3” in particular is a matter in many respects of my personal taste.

One and two were red flags, and three was a personal turn off. From just those introductory pages I knew the book would not be for me. And I felt awful for feeling that way.

Worst of all, though, I thought, was this. The book has mostly ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ratings. But I felt what I read there was probably ⭐️⭐️ to ⭐️⭐️⭐️ if I am completely honest.

[From an author’s Instagram page. A reviews-begging and “support” request of readers. I despise that.]

It led me to wonder if I have made a serious authoring miscalculation over the years. I do not have a lot of reviews of my novels on Amazon because I do not *push* to have them reviewed on there. (I have never reviewed a book on Amazon in my life, so I do not expect anyone to do so for me.) I also believe an author should NOT ask a reader to do ANYTHING, and particularly not ask them to offer a public opinion on Amazon. Perhaps, though, being “pure” and not a “sales guy” has been a mistake, and I should begin to re-think that stance? Maybe I should turn into a similar online bore and regularly beg everyone to review (and presumably give ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s to) my books, too.

However, I do NOT truly believe any of mine are legitimately ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s. That is not false modesty there, but realism. Yes, I do my very best to write the best books I can, and it is up to readers to judge what they think of those books’ quality overall; but I would never DARE even to HOPE to INFER that my books are anywhere even in the same league as a War and Peace or The Great Gatsby or The Age of Innocence – which DO TRULY RATE ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s.

In fact I believe MOST new books – even by major authors at huge publishers – are ⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars or at most ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. I feel a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ novel is one likely to be read 100 or 200 years from now. I would love to imagine that mine might be, but let’s be brutally honest: MOST books written in the last twenty years or so will NOT be read in “2121” or beyond, so are NOT ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s.

[My Kindle. Photo by me, January 5, 2021.]

I will admit also here that it is pretty discouraging seeing books like that one above getting lots of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s. Yes, we know there are so many ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews now on Amazon owing to “Stars inflation” to the point that ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s now is, frankly, often close to meaningless; probably it more than likely just indicates a writer has LOTS of friends and family who have bought the book and gave it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️s to help out. On the other hand, I take some small consolation in a book that I feel is that “ordinary” drawing so many ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews given I do believe that my books are better. Amazon “Stars inflation” is also why I ALWAYS read the free sample before I buy ANYTHING.

This little episode is also I think an example of a writer’s dilemma when reading another writer’s book. I know how I write and what my “weaknesses” are and I am constantly working to improve. (I will not tell anyone what I think they are, in case you go looking for them. LOL!) I think I know what makes for good writing: it is writing I can read without really much realizing I am reading it; I am just carried along by it. (You might also say it is like a good meal: you know one when you eat it.) Unfortunately, that free sample was definitely NOT that sort of writing to me.

I went at it with I feel an open mind and I believe I am being fair in my reaction to what I read. I have shared examples of similar books by others on here in the past that I have really liked and even often envied for being excellent. But because of what I have written in this post I will NEVER name the book above or its author because I do not want to find myself in an online “World War” with someone who apparently has lots of friends and family out there who could come to my books’ Amazon pages and out of spite decide to give me ⭐️ reviews – an ugliness which does happen occasionally on Amazon.

[Tomorrow The Grace. Photo by my, January 5, 2021.]

Thinking about this now, I wish I had NOT read that sample. Because having done so I will always be a bit irritated whenever I see praise heaped upon that book that its writer of course will be quick to share on social media. Indeed, I will admit, too, that I will probably never see that writer in quite the same light ever again as a writer.

I feel badly about this.

On that downer note, I will try to have a good lockdown day. This seems to be how it will be until March. (Ugh.) Hopefully you have a good day too, wherever you are. 🙂

2 thoughts on “When That Book Is, You Feel, Uh, Not Great

  1. This has happened to me as well. Wish I could say only once, but sadly no. I can’t blame that all on the writers. In some cases, it’s me. I’ve become, not so much critical as picky of late. It just seems that my tastes are changing, and I don’t like as much fiction as I used to. As far as the ⭐⭐ ⭐⭐⭐ ratings are concerned. I think you’re being too hard on yourself, in my humble opinion. While I agree about the elevated status of some classics, I would have to say that there should be another review guideline–ten stars???–for them. After all, how many more War and Peaces are we likely to see in this lifetime? 😁🙏📚 Take care!

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    1. Thanks about the “Stars” issue. But I do try to be realistic. I also do think ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ is not enough; ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ would be far more useful. Although every new book would probably be ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ then too,

      I do try to read some other fiction while I’m writing, but I know I don’t read enough new stuff. And too much I do read that’s new I find a letdown. I wrote this post because that was just one letdown too many especially because I was expecting it to be much better due to all of the author’s fireworks.

      I suppose I just can’t reconcile seeing a writer shooting off fireworks for their own book with a sense of my dislike for such exaggerated self-boosterism. But I can live with that. My real gripe is if someone is going to shoot off fireworks, it would be best if they were at least wildly self-boosting something good.

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