Monday, January 23, 2012

Bad Books & Bad Blood

Author Adrian McKinty recently started a fire on the web with his post explaining why most crime novels are bad.

Why Are Most Crime Novels Bad? Because they are part of a series. And books in a series eventually run of steam. The author runs out of ideas and begins recycling old plots and old concepts and he or she doesn't really care because they know the books will sell. Publishers and bookshops love series because people buy them without thinking. And then read them without thinking. It's very rare that series titles retain quality after say book 5 or 6. They've almost certainly lost credibility by that stage because no character could possibly go through that much and not have a nervous breakdown (although clever authors include the nervous breakdown as part of the plot.)

The post prompted over a hundred comments - and for someone who generally gets two or three, that's pretty impressive - and running commentary on Twitter and other social media sites, with various authors taking exception to his comments.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the crime fiction community, things got heated in a discussion over the recent announcement of Edgar nominations.

Someone on SMFS did the math, and it turns out that only 2/5 of the Best Novel nominations went to female authors. Shocking. Absolutely shocking. Please insert my extremely-shocked-face emoticon here. Only 1/5 of the Best First Novel nominations went to female authors, and in the paperback category, it's also 1/5.


Here's the thing. None of this is news. Ironically, Jay had a great post just the other day about sexism, which had nothing to do with the Edgar Awards, but the first thing that sprang to my mind was the controversy a few years ago over different awards, with charges of sexism being cast against the organizations and the judges.

In fact, my husband Brian can't post a 'best of' list without someone telling him he's anti-woman.

The reason these things become the catalyst for arguments that last hundreds of comments, with points being made for days on end, is because some people are just looking for an excuse to take offense.

I mean, really, we're going to be upset because Adrian thinks that one of the problems in the crime fiction genre is the popularity of series books? The thing is, most of what Adrian said sounds rather familiar, going back to interviews several years ago. What does Dennis Lehane think about series characters and books?

*Dave: Now that you're two books out from the Kenzie and Gennaro series, do
you think you'll ever go back?*

Lehane: If they knock on the door, I will welcome them in with open arms because they bought my first house. That's true, and I'm very touched by how they went out into the world and became, in a bizarre sense, something beyond me. They spread in a way I never could have. So I'd love to bring them back, but I also said that I would never write about them unless they told me to. I won't plug them into a plot. And I do like the idea of leaving the stage on a high note. I think any series is going to run down, and you don't know where the tipping point is. But any series is going to wear out its welcome.

They haven't knocked. I see them, and whenever I picture them they're in some hotel room in the Caribbean, for some reason, and the phone rings. One of them says, "Don't pick it up. It's him." Because I beat the hell out of them. I beat the living shit out of those characters—psychologically, physically, emotionally. I think if they want to stay away, they deserve to stay away. If they knock on the door really hard some day, I will go right to the typewriter because I'd love to go back for one more, but I won't
plug them in and have them take a cruise where the chef gets killed and only Patrick and Angie can solve it. That sort of Hart to Hart shit, I don't want to go near it.

*Dave: It's true about the impact a long-running series can have, not just in literature—the most obvious example would be a television series. People get attached to it. They live with the characters over a significant period of time. But whereas your readers will wait for each new book, then devour it in a few days, you're working with these characters for years, every day.

Lehane: Also, I think TV series are a great example. I have a five-year rule on dramatic TV series: I will put it to anyone to name one dramatic TV show that didn't drop right off the cliff after the fifth year. Hill Street Blues went to shit. Homicide: Life on the Street, which was just about the greatest TV show ever, went to hell. You run out of storylines. Then what you do is you start putting the characters into personal situations. ER —the doctors are stuck in El Salvador. A very special episode of...

I think of The X-Files. I was an X-Files fanatic. Somebody said, "What did you think of the last episode?" I said, "Well, I stopped watching it for two years, and the last episode showed me exactly why I did." She's gonna get pregnant? You run out of things to say.

I wrote five books, and in the fifth book I noticed one of my characters— probably the most popular character I've ever created, Bubba Rogowski— in the fifth book, he started getting cute. Just a little bit. And I felt myself doing it. I knew that people loved him and they wanted to know a little more about him. I look back at him and I just go, He's exactly what I said I'd never make him. It's just hinted at in the fifth book; it's not all the way, but it's there.

That has a lot to do with it. Step off the stage. Nobody wanted to see Michael Jordan play with the Wizards. Nobody wanted to see Joe Montana go out with Kansas City. I don't really want to see Emmitt Smith play for whoever the hell he's going to play for next year. I felt that way about these characters. If they want to come back for one more hurrah, and it's the right book, I'm all in favor. But if they just want to stay away, I'm all for it.

Were you satisfied with the finale to X-Files, or do you think it was a let down?*

Sucked beyond suckdom. They should have ended the show when it was great, probably two years before they did. I could say that, however, about most great TV shows--Homicide, Hill Street Blues, ER, even Seinfeld--they should have ended *at least* 2 years before they did. And the same goes for book series. And again, that's why I'm so determined not to write a Patrick and Angie book unless it comes 100% from the heart, because the law of diminishing returns is very much at work in cases like these.

*Drood: What does this tendency to take on danger say about Patrick?s longevity?*

DL: I?ve probably used the warrior model a bit too much when it comes to Patrick, so his longevity prospects aren?t real good if he keeps getting ass-whupped at his current pace. And so, again, that speaks to the problems of keeping a series fresh, because sooner or later you run into questions of believability that are even louder than the ones you start out with when you decide to write a book in which your private eye character engages in actions which few real life private investigators have ever had to deal with. I mean, poor Patrick, his worst enemy isn?t himself or some deranged murderer, it's me.

*Drood: Will you continue the Kenzie/Gennaro series?*

DL: I think Spade and Marlowe remain icons because they didn?t wear out their welcome. Would Chandler be Chandler if he?d written 18 Marlowe books? I don?t know, but I wonder. Maybe Chandler could have sustained the level of quality, but the issue is more whether I can. And I have my doubts about that. The only artsy, metaphysical aspect of my approach to writing is that I can only write about characters when they come knocking on the door and tell me to. Patrick and Angie stopped knocking after Prayers for Rain. If they come knocking again, I?ll open the door and welcome them in with open arms because, well, they paid for my house and I?m exceedingly grateful. But if they don?t, then I?ll be content to let them live happily ever after without my dropping another case-from-hell in their laps. They deserve that.

And I know from your interview with Karen that that was a conscious thing, because two years ago you were saying that maybe it was time to do something else.*

Yes. I was beginning to write Mystic River when I had the interview with Karen. But yeah: I think there's a finite number in any series. You never hear people say: Oh, the 15th is the best. You never hear that. There's a point where a series has to end. I don't think I've reached that point, but I reached a point where it needed a break. And I do think that the number is rapidly approaching: whatever that magic number is, where it's going to be time.

*Do you have plans for a sixth Kenzie book?*

Yeah, they're loose plans. I'm not sure what will be my next book. I haven't decided yet.... I'm at a point now where it might be judicious to take a bit of a break. I've done five books, [and my characters] have been beat up a lot; they've had a lot of big cases. You want to ground these books in as much realism as you can. Because what's inherent in the whole genre is that it's unrealistic: Private eyes don't do that sort of stuff.

Those are quotes pulled from various interviews with Lehane, who clearly has reservations about series characters, and maintaining a series beyond its shelf life.


The thing is, people read for different reasons. Some read for the writing. Some read for the story. Some read for the author.

And some read for the characters, and those readers want their series books. Sometimes, the most daunting thing about reading a book is that I have to learn a new landscape. I have to learn the setting, the characters, the writing style, and I could spend a fair bit of time trying to get into a novel and not like it. I love returning to a strong series, because I know what I'm getting. I am reading it because it's familiar, and comfortable, and because I'm spending time with a character I do care about. So sue me. I like some series books.

That said, I've stopped reading a lot of series. I recently picked up again with a series I'd read before, and read the latest, and felt it was fundamentally flawed. There was a critical action by one of the protagonists that I did not believe was consistent with their character. That's the risk with a series. As someone who's written three books with the same characters, I feel I know a little about the unique challenges of writing more than one book with the same characters, and in addition to the plotting and storytelling and character development, you have to say anchored in what came before, enough for there to be believability and consistency.

No, it's not easy. It's a different challenge than writing a standalone, but a challenge nonetheless.

I don't wholly agree with Adrian, or wholly disagree with him. Well, I disagree about an ideal world being where only first novels are published. I shudder with horror at the thought of that, actually. But that's okay, because I still like Adrian and I'll still read his books, even if he's wrong about this. ;) (WINK WINK, before someone yells at me because they took that too seriously.)

Personally, I think there are so many bad books because the publishing industry produces a lot of crap, both inside and outside the crime fiction genre. Editors don't have the time and budgets to do thorough edits, writers are pushing ahead of themselves to be published without taking the time for revisions and learning to write is less and less of a priority. I'd like to have a nickel for every person who told me they wanted to be a bestselling author, and then refused to do edits on their work while demonstrating they don't know how to use punctuation, never mind spell.

As for sexism and all that crap, what's quality is subjective. I've been a judge for a major award, and it was a waste of my time, truly. In a panel of three judges, not one of my top 10 titles picked in the category made the short list, while many of the titles that did were on the bottom of my picks from the books I was sent.

I don't want to see men, or women, nominated just because of their gender. I want judges to be able to read with blinders to all of that crap, and not think about the publisher/editor/agent/author/gender/subgenre and just find the best books.

And I have to accept that what they consider to be the best may not match my list for the year.

I'd rather authors and writers spend more time dealing with other issues of sexism in their writing. The Guardian had a recent article, crowning the five most pathetic female characters in film. I'm not a bra-burner, and my problem sometimes with the push for equality is that some people take it too far and want more than what the other side has, but when I stop and think about how women are portrayed so often in film and on TV, I have to admit, we have a long way to go.

If all the women in your novel are a) hot b) fuckable c) in to the protag d) all or some of the above... your book has a woman problem. ~ my husband

When people go off on a tirade about sexism in awards, they always talk about how few female authors are nominated.

They never talk about how badly women have been portrayed in the books that made the list.

And it's all those horrible, truly sexist, stereotypical portrayals that make the great female characters stand out that much more.

I do believe Adrian knows I think he's an amazing writer, hugely underrated, and to be honest if I were to take offense at nomination lists my list of issues would have to include questioning why he hasn't received more critical acclaim. So I don't completely agree with him. So what. I don't completely disagree, either. He has a point, and even as I type this blog post I find myself feeling frustrated with a sense of having had parts of this conversation before, with the awareness that the argument over the awards is almost an annual tradition.

I really thought we should consider going Oscar and having Best Male Novel and Best Female Novel so that people would shut the fuck up about it already.

Except then they'd be offended by the inference that women can't compete with men.

Would you like something to really be offended by?

At the end of the day, if people don't want to read Adrian's work because he's not the biggest fan of series books, it's really their loss, because he's pretty fucking brilliant.

What I have to say to all the people taking offense out there, over people who don't like series books and people who don't like the nomination lists for awards, is this: Get over it.

Coming up with a list of exceptions about series doesn't make some of Adrian's points less valid. Coming up with examples of great books be female writers who didn't get nominated this year doesn't make the judges sexist.

For every series that's stayed strong, there are more that have faltered along the way. And for every great novel written by a woman this past year, there are works by men who also didn't see their name on the short list.

For me, I'm going to go back to the manuscript, and whether it's a series book or a standalone I'm going to push myself to make it be the strongest work it can be, to show growth over prior works, and at the end of the day, I want to produce a book I'm proud of. Believe me, not even my agent is as hard to please as I am when it comes to my manuscripts. Real validation comes from the response of readers, and at the end of the day, given a choice between having readers or having award nominations, it's the readers I'll pick every single time.


Thomas Pluck said...

I like some series, I'm not fond of the recent book-a-year mill that publishing has become. The editing has gone downhill.

However, I think a writer's best response is to write the best he or she can. Any success is two edged. The next book, they want "the same, but different."

adrian mckinty said...


Unless he or she is in the poor house there's no excuse for an author churning out a book a year just to keep the publishers happy. Joseph Conrad said that a work of art should justify itself in every line and although this is beyond most of us its my contention that is serves no one's best interests to cynically produce a book that was written purely for the accountants.

Incidentally Brian was kind enough to blog the Lehane quote at about comment 140. I suspect money is what broke Dennis which is a crying shame.

Incidentally the last time I did a post that only got 2 comments was probably back in 2008.

Jay Stringer said...

I don't really think we can generalise in the manner that these conversations tend to do (he says, generalising.)

I hope that I always put thoughts of my art over financial considerations, and I work full time to avoid mixing the two. But I also think we get into dangerous territory if we start deciding why other writers have or haven't written a book.

We can all name series that have gone on too long, but I don't really want to put any assumptions into the authors motivations. We all try things, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Get up and try again.

And to be honest, for the kind of rarefied money Lehane probably commands for film rights and book advances, I think he could earn nicely with or without another Kenzie book. I mean, he's had Eastwood and Scorcese filming his words, and neither of those films were from his series. So if I do have to decide why he did it, i'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I want to write the best books I can, and I want to read the best books I can. I would shudder at the suggestion that only first novels should be published, because surely that works counter to developing a voice, a craft and writing the best books we can?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, the book-a-year pressure is a big part of the reason for the lack of quality. Marketing considerations over quality are another reason. I didn't even want to open that can of worms, because I didn't feel I could do it justice...

And there are always exceptions. Always. There always is someone who can make the schedule work and still maintain their quality level, but with writing, we aren't cookie cutters and we all work in our own ways.

Adrian, it must be your spicy posts that generate so much discussion! Things are pretty quiet over here. I don't know what happened with Lehane - I just think it's crazy that some people were talking on Twitter about not reading you because of your post about series books. The thing is, you've written series books yourself.

I think, as authors, no matter what we're writing, we owe it to everyone involved to try to put out the best book, and if you're just phoning it in - be it with a series or with a standalone - readers are going to know. And that should be the standard by which we're measured, imho.

Thanks for dropping by!

And yes, Jay, it's dangerous to start assuming we know why anyone's written a book. Wasn't it Agatha Christie who churned out a few weaker offerings to finish off an oppressive contract so she could switch publishers? Simple reality for me on why I won't be doing another Nolan, Hart & Tain book, at least for now. By contract, I'd have to offer it to the publisher who published the first three. And they owe a lot of people money, so I'd be writing a book I couldn't sell elsewhere that I wouldn't get paid for. Yes, that's financial. But pragmatic. I can put it aside and if things change in time, perhaps return to it, same way I now can with my debut novel. :)

adrian mckinty said...


Thank God I'm not on twitter. People don't need an excuse not to read my books, they've done very well not reading them without an additional motivation.

I've written two trilogies and I think thats about as far as I'm capable of taking a character and keeping it real and interesting. I'm very skeptical of the notion that book 11 will be as fresh and interesting as book 1 or 2. And I think its a very good thing if an author has a good look in the mirror and asks him or herself "Why the hell am I writing book #11 about these people?"

Maybe the public is conservative and lazy or maybe its the publishers who have created this public.

I do think that the Wal Mart lowest common denominator approach will be a disaster for publishing in the long run. Eventually the public will tire of the poorly written tripe that has been cynically served up to them by 6th Avenue. They wont buy independent voices or from small presses, no, they'll just stop reading all together. And I won't blame them.

Gigistar said...

Guess what? I reckon now I'm gonna read Adrian McKinty just BECAUSE OF his post. No, kidding, you were already on the TBR list; I'm just moving you upwards where you can see the light. :-)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Adrian, I think that might be truer now than of some of the authors who've been published for three decades or more. Huge Rankin fan, and I would definitely say book 11 is better than book 1. That may have something to do with the time and expectations of the genre and how they've changed, and also his growth as a writer. I think he hits his stride around book 5 in the Rebus series. I was going to put that in the post, but everyone knows my opinion there, so I decided not to.

Same if you look at Val McDermid, although she's never written a series as long as Rankin's. However, her strongest books probably have been her standalone books.

Gigistar, Adrian's books are always high reading priority here at Spinetingler HQ. Even daughter's been reading his YA when she can snag the Kindle.