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Which Contains an Atypical Recommendation

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Dec. 4th, 2008 | 10:17 am
mood: busybusy

I've been spectacularly remiss in updating this journal, but lo! It is not forgotten. And I assure you that I've been much better at keeping up with my actual editing work and applications to graduate school. (I've now finished and submitted seven of those. Four more to go.)

It's commonly - and quite rightly - said that writers should be readers. Indeed, writers are often readers simply because they enjoy reading, particularly in the genres in which they write. This is a positive thing for a number of reasons: Seeing what's already been done (and avoiding what's been done to death), understanding genre patterns and tropes, and noting what works and what doesn't. Naturally, it's a good thing to read the best works of one's genre (and the Important Works). However, I have only recently begun to truly appreciate the advantage of occasionally reading a - what you might call a less-than-stellar example of the genre.

I don't seek out bad books on purpose. In this case, I missed a train and found myself with half an hour to wait and a library right across the street. What was I to do? I had already searched this library for the books I knew I wanted to read, and those that I'd checked out were, sadly, back at the cottage. I found another likely-looking young adult fantasy book - rave reviews compared it to Harry Potter, and it had an interesting plot summary. I started reading it and then, because I don't like not finishing books, checked it out.

The book is by no means awful, but has some clear weaknesses, chief among them being lack of tension. (Did I just say that in Professor Robbins' voice?) Despite being very long and having one overarching plot - children attempt fantastic journey to find magical item to defeat villain, while minions of villain pursue them - it becomes episodic because the author seems afraid to put the children in a dangerous or even mildly frightening situation for more than half a chapter before a brand-new named character swoops in to save them. Indeed, though the writing itself does not seem intended for young children, the author seems determined not to scare the audience by allowing the protagonists to be scared, and constantly reassures the reader that the protagonists are confident and unafraid. I would like to say that this unfortunate practice is tantamount to murdering the tension, but “murdering” implies tension.

But note how recognizable the problems are! It's good sometimes to have a clear example of what not to do, especially as this shows you exactly why you don't want to do it. ("This is your reader. This is your reader when you have no tension. Any questions?") The weaknesses of this work bring to mind the ways that other works avoid these problems – for example, the way one likes and sympathizes with characters who act in defiance of their fear instead of being illogically unafraid. The book also drew Becky and me into conversation about episodic novels and when they do and don't work. The novel's faults even made it easier for me to recognize its good points: The overarching plot is clear and classic, with the potential to be a strong one, and many of the characters are original and fun or have interesting basis in mythology.

Certainly I read - and recommend - good books over mediocre ones. I do try to read books popular in my genre even when I hear scathing reviews, because I know the authors must have done something right and would like to try to identify it. (Even if I can't, they sometimes serve as good examples of the phenomenon described above.) I guess what I'd like to say here is that reading good work is important (and fun!), but if you want to write in a genre and you happen to pick up a book from that genre that's not as good as you had hoped, it might be worthwhile to finish it - if that's not too painful - and try to figure out what went wrong, what went right, and how it could have been better.

Of course, as a would-be professor, I suppose this could just be me. We'll see.

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