Business Musings: Taste (or Blaming The Writer)
When I teach craft workshops, one of the things I work on the hardest is teaching writers the difference between taste and “good fiction.” I put “good fiction” in quotes, because there seems to be this belief among most writers and readers that “good fiction” is something quantifiable.
Certain books are “good” because they have elements that professors approve of, or elements that the culture has deemed worthy.
Bad books are ones that either don’t have those elements or don’t seem to make those elements the top priority.
Much of this comes from the bad old days of highly curated fiction. Most of it was curated by privileged white males, many of whom came from East Coast families with money. The book I’ve cited off and on, which has been utterly fascinating for me, Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader, spends its early chapters discussing Gottlieb’s travels through Europe as a young man, doing one of those tours that so many of the American East Coast wealthy of a certain era believed essential to becoming a well-rounded human being.
That curation led to a certain kind of book being “the” book. Usually it dealt with angst or bad marriages or affairs (think John Updike or John Cheever). Even when it was daring, it really wasn’t. Most of Philip Roth’s work looks at the dark side of that world or at things no one in those circles discussed.
That early curation—and the acceptance of it through universities, bookstores, and libraries—led to alternate voices getting shut out. Books written by people of color about the worlds they grew up in, books written by women, or people of the LGBTQ community were at best overlooked, at worst actively discouraged.
And then there was genre fiction. It was a lot more open to diverse voices, but that was because the people in charge of the cull-sure (yes, I intend that) didn’t think genre fiction worthy of their time, so they kept their turned-up noses out of it.
(This attitude still exists. Professor Richard Goldstein, who was editor of The Village Voice, wrote a piece in The Washington Post over the July 4th holiday about how his students turned him on to Marvel movies, which he had—as a matter of course—considered crap. Even his realization op-ed is filled with That Tone. You’ll see if you click through. Oh, and the sad thing? This guy has written about popular culture for four decades. Sigh.)
I’ve written about the detrimental effect of this attitude on writers in The Pursuit of Perfection (which you can get in book form or free in its original posts on this website. I’ve linked to the first of three.).
But it also has detrimental effect on readers. Readers believe—because they’re trained to believe—that all books should aspire to this made-up classification. If a book doesn’t satisfy a reader, then the book is inherently bad.
In fact, readers blame the author. Even if the author has a ton of credentials, readers will say things like “I can’t believe this author has been publishing for years. They seem like an amateur to me.”
The reader is judging on some scale that someone else put in their brain. And they assume that the book must fall somewhere on that scale. If the reader is dissatisfied, the reader blames the writer for being bad at her job, rather than understanding that some things really aren’t to the reader’s taste.
We consumers don’t seem to have that problem in other areas of our lives. We know that some of us prefer jeans and t-shirts to suits and ties. We know that some of us like pink and some like dark blue. We know that some of us love pizza and the rest of the world is wrong. I mean…oops. You get it, though. We’re accepting of differences in taste in a wide variety of things, from clothing to cars to restaurants.
We’re not as accepting in the world of art and entertainment. We often apologize for the things we love. We call them “guilty pleasures,” because we know that someone will judge us on the things we adore. Really, though, we’re talking about pleasures. The things we love are the things we love. Full stop. The end. We love them. They have value to us.
Why do I teach writers about taste first? Because when I’m teaching the workshop, I have a built-in authority. I also have strong opinions. My opinions are just that: opinions. I’m wrong when I’m forced to read fiction in a subgenre or with a storyline that I actively loathe. I’m not fond of clowns, drug stories, carnival stories, or stories about babies (and pets and kids under 12) in jeopardy. I truly loathe stories with protagonists who are deliberately stupid, especially if that stupidity is there only to forward the plot. And I absolutely hate stories that are told with a “mythic” tone, and very little detail—the stuff that pretends at poetry, but actually reads like a bad translation from the ancient Greek.
I make the students in my classes read a variety of books before class, some of which I haven’t read either. We discuss those books. I ask the students on the very first night to pick the book from the list they loved, the book they hated, and the book that surprised them. Often the book they loved and the book that surprised them were one and the same, because that book was in a genre they had dismissed as crap but had never read.
They also get to hear my prejudices. I go last, and sometimes I will state outright that I hated a book 90% of them loved. That puts them on notice: if they write a story like that book, I’m not their audience. Not because what they do is wrong or lacks value, but because that kind of story is not to my taste.
As reader reviews have become more prevalent—heck, as reviews have become more prevalent—that awareness of taste flies out the window. Book reviews on Amazon often go on and on about a writer’s lack of ability, even if the writer (especially if the writer) has a huge fan base.
I find it fascinating that readers don’t step back and simply say what they would say about food: My friend bought me a pickle sandwich and even though I loathe pickles and sandwiches, I tried it. Sure enough, this pickle sandwich did not change my mind. I still loathe pickles and sandwiches.
When discussing food, we don’t go on and on about the amateur nature of the chef or question how a chain restaurant came into being. We rightly put the emphasis on our preferences, and then discuss from there.
But in entertainment, that equanimity goes out the window. We blame the director if a movie is “bad,” or we wonder how that famous actor could lower himself to be in a film like that. We call paintings that we don’t understand or whose color scheme we hate “amateurish” or “dull” and wonder why the artist didn’t do something worthy of her skills.
And we judge books on that invisible scale, planted in our head by curators long dead.
I try to teach writers to stop blaming their colleagues for “bad” books. Instead, I make the writers take a step back from the book itself.
Sure, I tell them, the book might not be to your taste. But the book is an international bestseller. What qualities does it have that makes it something other readers love?
And the answer is not “other readers are stupid.” You have to dig deeper than that or you won’t learn.
Sometimes, it’s impossible for you as a reader to see what other readers loved about a book. Your own taste gets in the way. That’s when you quiz your friends about the reasons they loved the book.
And you don’t put them on the defensive. You don’t say, “I hated that novel. Why did you like it?”
Instead, you say something like, “You’ve read all of the Harry Potter books. What do you find most appealing about them?”
Usually you’ll get an unreserved fannish gush. There’s a lot to learn in those gushes, because they’re never about the language or the little turns of phrase. They’re about the world or the story or the way that the book sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. They’re about storytelling and a little bit about the reader themselves.
Anyone who reads my recommended reading list knows I have a huge weakness for hidden prince(ss) stories. I love that trope. I don’t know why. But I gobble up those books every time I find one. As someone who comes to my recommended reading list, you can dismiss those books because I have a fondness for them. Or you might share that fondness. Again, it’s a matter of taste.
Once you, as a writer, realize that reading is all about taste, it frees you up. If you’re foolish enough to read your own reviews, the bad reviews will sting less. The good reviews won’t feel as good, though, because you didn’t achieve perfection. Your writing just meshed with some reader’s taste.
I don’t read my own reviews. No long-time professional writer that I know of does. The reviews are irrelevant to our work.
But I do read reviews on other writers’ work. Not to find out if the book is “good,” but to see if the book achieves something that I want. I never read the reviews of some writers. I would buy the books by my absolute favorites no matter what.
Sometimes, though, I’m on the fence about a book. I use reviews to inform my decision. I never read the five-star reviews. I read the one- and two-star reviews. They will tell me what irritated the reader. Usually it’s because the reader had some weird expectation or the book was priced too high (or too low). Or the reader had a bad experience with the book’s seller.
But every now and then, I see something that gets me off the fence. I mentioned this in last month’s recommended reading list. I used to buy every book Nora Roberts wrote. But, in the past two or three years, it felt like the spark that made a Nora Roberts book special had vanished, as if she were going through the motions.
There are a million reasons that a writer can go stale. She might be writing the same thing over and over to meet fan demand, and literally lose interest. She might be getting tired or ill. She might be burned out, and unwilling to admit it.
Writers are people too, and their lives have an impact on their creativity.
Sometimes, though, that stale feeling has nothing to do with the writer and everything to do with the reader. I binge on subgenres. I binged on Regency romance after the 2016 election for reasons I still can’t fathom, and once I was out of the binge, it took me nearly six months before I could even look at a Regency cover, let alone read another Regency romance. That was all on me.
I was willing to admit that the problem with the Nora Roberts books might have been all me, and my taste.
But, that’s not the case. Turns out, Nora was going through a particularly ugly divorce from her long-time publisher. She was writing, but the enjoyment had left. Here’s how she put it on her blog in March of 2016:
For the past several weeks, I’ve been house hunting–publishing houses, that is. While publishing’s a business, a house is still a home, and moving is stressful, complicated–and for a creature of routine like myself–just fraught….
There were changes in the house I worked with, lived in, was part of for more than twenty years, and with those changes I no longer felt at home there. Home, for me, is the center, the core, personally and professionally, so I need to feel comfortable and in place. I need to fit and feel connected.
How damning is that? She was one of the top sellers at Penguin Random House. The subtext here is that they treated her like shit, so she left. Seriously. How awful.
I read that post in 2016, and felt a spark of encouragement about her fiction. Because she wrote this:
…once you work through the fraught, there are new possibilities, a fresh page, a new start….(I) find myself, a creature of routine, not only okay with the changes, but delighted by them.
Oh, I thought. She’s happy with her writing again. Which meant that about two years later, I needed to pick up one of her books (because it would take two years for traditional publishing to get a new book out).
I forgot that, kinda sorta. It was in the back of my mind, though. And one afternoon this spring, I read the reviews of her latest book, Shelter in Place. You know, those one- and two-star reviews, most of which were furious with her for writing something that challenged their expectations. The romance wasn’t romancy. The crime was violent. The book was not at all “a Nora Roberts” book.
I read the blurb and it said nothing about romance. Shelter in Place explored the aftermath (years later) of a mass shooting, in a thriller style. It was a departure, which it seemed Penguin Random House did not want her to do. Nora Unfettered! I had to try the book.
And I loved it. I see why others didn’t, especially if they were settling in for a romance. But I was happy again as a reader. This book reminded me of early Nora, the one who showed me how big books could be written, and how romances could explode out of their boundaries. I may not read all of her books in the future, but I will read the ones that catch me, now that she feels unfettered and no longer fraught.
This evening, as I was trying to find that Nora blog post, I found this in a professional review of the book: “Roberts writes in a way that can be best described as merely adequately readable prose.” The reviewer had been expecting a typical Nora book, and this ain’t it.
So clearly, the writing did not meet some unseen bar. Because—you know—that scale.
I saw nothing wrong with Nora’s prose. In fact, I had to stop midway through because she used a technique that I had never seen before. I envy that technique. I will steal that technique. It was amazing and high level and astonishing. (And I only saw it because I had been interrupted in my reading, had dropped my bookmark, and had to find my way back into the story. Otherwise, I never would have noticed. I was lost in that book when I read it.)
That blaming of the writer, and that emphasis on the words is reflexive. It’s what we were taught in school.
However, this craft we call “writing” isn’t about words. It’s about telling stories. And there is no secret scale that makes one story better than another.
It’s all about taste.
So it’s time, writers, to stop blaming your colleagues when one of their books doesn’t satisfy you. Maybe the book isn’t to your taste. Maybe you don’t like that sort of story. Maybe the writer didn’t tell the story the way you would have told the story.
All valuable ways of looking at fiction. But you as a writer have to stop using that invisible scale inculcated in us when we were children—in a different world, one run by a handful of people who had a stranglehold on publishing. That scale does not exist. It never existed. There is no perfect novel. Nor is there—from a writer of Nora’s caliber—“merely adequately readable prose.”
If you start admitting that a book isn’t to your taste, you free yourself up to read—and write—things that take risks. You can write books that don’t belong on that imaginary scale. You can drop the chains that force you to struggle with that scale, and start writing things that interest you.
You can find the freedom to write what you love. But only if you stop blaming other writers.
It’s all taste, folks. And your taste is as valid as mine. It’s just different. And that’s okay.
As I wrote those last words, the jazz station I love started playing the classic Star Trek theme song in a jazz style. At first, I resisted. That’s a TV theme song. But this jazz piece was so inventive and fun that I fell in love.
If the John Stetch Trio had listened to what pundits say—that you can’t reimagine TV theme songs as great jazz—then they wouldn’t have put this lovely and fun piece of music out, and I wouldn’t have been delighted.
It is precisely that attitude that I’m talking about in this blog post.
Anyway…thanks for listening to my riff on an old theme. I believe strongly in writers learning the difference between following some strictures that have no meaning and their own personal taste. I come back to this now and then, when I feel this topic needs reiteration.
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“Business Musings: Taste…or Blaming The Writer,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / marzolino.