Sunday, September 25, 2011

Content vs. Craft: The Dumbing Down of the Literary World

"The years passed, mankind became stupider at a frightening rate." (Narrator from Idiocracy)
What's a guy of average
intelligence to do
in the dumbed down future?
I have something that has been bugging me lately. I've often wondered if perhaps it's just me, but I don't think so. With many things I read, and most often times conversations in which I happen to get involved, there is a remarkable lack of attention paid to grammar. Now, I know as an English-speaker in the United States that we tend to have a certain pride when it comes to our overall English language. But that's pretty much where our pride stops. Having studied a second language for much of my college career, it didn't take me long to realize that when it comes to grammar, American English speakers, for the most part, couldn't care less. This lack of attention and enthusiasm is reflected in the way literature is being written today. Don't believe me? Well, let's take a look at some recent activity going on in the publishing world.

Let me preface this article by first saying I have nothing against the wonderful industry of e-publishing. I believe the ever-increasing popularity of publishing books in this format is due, largely in part, to the fact that it makes novels more available and easy to access on just about any mobile platform. (Hey, I have a Kindle and I enjoy it!) However, I do take offense with some authors who believe just about anything is publishable and, yeah, anyone should be happy with it and not rip it apart. Those who believe this way, believe the content (i.e. their story, the creative idea behind his/her work, the saturated genre) is fine the way it is, and that the craft (i.e. the wordcraft, the language, the actual plot, the beauty in which one creates the story, the actual prose) isn't all that important. In other words, if the story is dumbed down for the reader, who cares? I care, and so should any serious writer/reader out there.

Why have my hackles been raised? For two reasons:  firstly, celebrity (or celebutante) authors, and secondly, a recent article pertaining to a poorly written e-book series getting snatched up for traditional publication.

The Truth About

by Nicole Richie
Although there are a few who can pull it off (and I'm not talking about autobiographies, I'm talking fiction), for the most part, celebrity authors just don't have what it takes. Ones who make me cringe are those such as Lauren Conrad (according to Lisa Schwarzbaum of -- "Is there anything LC can't do? Well, uh, yes. Write a 'novel.'"), Pamela Anderson (according to, "Pamela Anderson's recent tome is unlikely to toll any bells in the halls of academia,") and Nicole Richie with her "reality fiction" (one commenter at said, "How this was published when real authors are struggling just to get their work read is amazing."). These "authors" lace their plots and storytelling with glitzy, superficial worlds that don't really speak to most readers. These "creations" are mostly "reality fiction," meaning the novel has become a vehicle they use in order to spill the beans about their own lives. These works are wolves in sheep's clothing and rarely do they carry any depth when it comes to crafting a great novel. And rarely do they last more than a few months on book shelves. For some reason, because someone like Snooki has an MTV audience, therefore she must make a great writer (here's an article about her novel A Shore Thing. Classy.). Hmm.

by Amanda Hocking
I think the final straw that broke this camel's back is an article I read in *Entertainment Weekly. Two authors, Minnesota native Amanda Hocking and former insurance salesman John Locke, have been making waves in the self-publishing world. Hocking, who writes supernatural romance, recently signed a $2 million deal with St. Martin's Press, and Locke has moved more than a million downloads with his detective crime series. The quality of the writing is what really hit a nerve. Article writer, Rob Brunner, has this to say about Hocking's writing:
❝Hocking, it's safe to say, is not a stylist. Her work reads like a high school creative-writing assignment, full of typos and misused words and lifeless language. But while wordcraft may not be her thing, Hocking definitely does have something. Despite its faults, the trilogy zips along pleasantly enough, and although the books aren't remotely in the same league as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, they do poke at the same pleasure centers.❞
And as to Locke? This is what Brunner has to say:
❝The latest, Vegas Moon, features characters with forced-funny names like Dr. Phyllis Willis and Fast Eddie Pickles, and a flimsy plot about a lethal computer chip implanted in Creed's brain gets padded out with a weirdly detailed pasta recipe and an impassioned defense of airport baggage handlers.❞
When, as readers, as purchasers of novels, did we start asking for dreck like this to be a proper representation of skill in an industry where almost anything goes nowadays? (After all, Hocking and Locke are at the top of the unrepresented self-published game.) When did we become complacent about shelling out those $3 or less for these e-books? We have a voice, and those of us who enjoy quality literature should use our voices by not throwing away our dollars on junk, because that's about all that some of this "literature" is -- junk. I don't know about you, but I'd rather keep visiting the local library where all my choices are free and I can usually see what I'm getting into.

In the case of Amanda Hocking, as a writer, I would have been excited to hear how oftentimes belittled self-publishing landed her a fantastic deal with St. Martin's (because I truly believe there are some great self-published works out there), but when I continued reading the article I felt disgust more than anything else. I often hear people say, "Why, I should write a book. I'd make soooo much money." I just shake my head. But then a story like this crops up and I think, "Yeah, you should write that book, Mr. I-have-no-idea-how-to-even-do-it. How much worse could your writing possibly be?" After all, if Hocking and Snooki can pull it off, then anybody can pull it off. Right?

In my opinion, anyone who wants to self-publish needs to do the same amount of legwork that one would do if he/she was going the traditional route. Have a critique group and beta readers, know your genre, get all the feedback that's necessary in order to have a finely crafted creation. If you want to be taken seriously, then treat your writing seriously. Then, it would be worth the few extra bucks people would be willing to pay to read something memorable.

What about for you? Are you wasting your dollars on a high caloric diet of literary junk? Do you feel there is an influx of badly crafted work hitting the self-publishing world? Should there be a better way of regulating it now that the so-called gatekeepers (agents) of the industry no longer work as filters? Feel free to point out any grammatical errors in this article!

* The article, "The Hottest Self-Published Books," can be found in the July 29, 2011 issue, #1165.

✿ Also, for an upcoming article I'm looking for anyone who has done work as a ghostwriter. Feel free to e-mail me at!


  1. From what I've seen, there seems to be two types of celebrity writers. Those who have a serious literary inclination and those who just want to make money. Pamela Anderson admits proudly and openly that she hired a ghostwriter to "help" with her novel (inspired in her own life) and that they're good friends now.

    But I've heard of other celebrities who apparently are not bad writers, such as Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge) and I read somewhere that Ethan Hawke has a decent Sci-Fi series. Shirley McLaine has several books, too. But as far as I know, she writes non-fiction (self-help). I don't know whether these books are good or bad, but the reviews aren't awful. Unfortunately, I don't think publishers care much whether celebrities have the writing skills. The minute they hear Madonna, Hillary Duff or Whoopie Goldberg, they start typing the contract.

    Here's a list of celebrity writers:

  2. I read an awful lot. With a kindle, it's just too darn easy to download twenty or so free, inexpensive and one or two regular priced books every few weeks. Unfortunately, the writing is spotty. While some are excellent and should be charging what the top drawer authors are charging, others are so bad that I just can't imagine how even lets them on the page. There's a lot to be said for the editor-at-the-gate. I've been amazed at that the typographical errors, very bad grammar and words used totally out of context. Our only hope is the large group of people that apparently still have standards and just won't go along with the game.

  3. Sister Mary, Mary I am astounded! Do they actually have typos? I haven't touched a kindle edition yet. Is that the author´s fault or the person who transcribes them?

  4. Well, if people are reading least they aren't watching TV?

    It's disappointing to me as a writer, but as a consumer, I say, whatever floats your boat. I wish people had more discerning taste, but that's what makes the world kind of exciting, isn't it? That we are all different?

  5. I agree with Maggie, reading trash is better than not reading at all. I would blame Twitter as the main suspect behind the current lack of writing skills.
    On the subject of celebs turned into writers, let’s not be too hard on them. It´s not their fault that we live in a star-creating society. If there is a garbage demand, there will always be suppliers out there.

  6. I completely agree with you, Sister Mary Mary. I drives me nuts to see poorly-written fiction; I don't know how anyone can get through the first chapter of that stuff. I don't do the free Kindle downloads anymore, because most of them are crap, and free crap is still crap.

    I disagree with the idea that reading trash is better than not reading, or that watching TV is worse than reading. I'd rather have my kid watching quality TV -- thought-provoking, with a real story -- than reading a poorly-written, insipid book. There is nothing inherently superior about getting your story via word. I realize this is a shocking statement for a writer to make, but there you have it. Books are a different storytelling method than plays, movies, or television ... just different. Quality of storytelling is what matters.

    To that end, it's depressing to see people gobbling up any kind of junk when there's so much good stuff out there. Why would anyone waste their precious, limited time on earth with Snooki, whether she's on TV or paper?

  7. Another thought on this: I've never read a story that contains both good content and poor craft. Phillip K. Dick comes close ... but his grammar is at least correct, even if his word-choice is cringe-worthy. Possibly this is because he has a decent editor. Anyway, I think it's a safe generalization that if someone doesn't have the basic mechanics of writing, they aren't going to be a good writer.

  8. (HAD a decent editor, I should say, and it's Philip with one L. Wish I could edit these comments!)

  9. I'll address a couple of statements.

    1) Sister Lorena -- I believe there are a few celebrities out there who have the right skills when it comes to being authors. The ones you stated are probably like you said, good at writing a story (I also hear Steve Martin is a good writer). I don't believe that writing a story (much like Conrad, Anderson, Richie, and Snooki) that so strongly reflects one's everyday life is overly creative work. It's basically a poorly written autobiography where the names have been changed. Whether they used a ghostwriter or not. And, in my personal opinion, is the celebrity really an author if someone else is writing his/her story?

    2) Ruth and Sister Stephanie -- I don't ever go for the free downloads (unless it's a classic novel) on Amazon, purely for the reasons you both stated. The work is spotty, laced with typos (yes, Sister Violante, most of these books are poorly written, unless you pay a little more for a known writer's e-book), and for the most part truly uncreative dreck. To me, there is a difference between a trashy novel and a trashy novel that has typos all over the place. Trashy novels can be fun to read, but not ones that look like a middle school student wrote it.

    3) I agree with you Sister Steph when it comes to quality television. I, too, would rather have my child watch something that has a thought-provoking story rather than read a crappy book. Both are forms of entertainment and we, as parents, need to be choosy if we want them learning the right stuff.

    Now, I'll get down off my little soapbox!

  10. I totally agree with what you've said here Mary. I'm reading Amanda Hocking's book right now and there are a lot of misused words. But what wasn't pointed out is the point-by-point plot which is stolen from Twilight.

    1) Female protagonist.
    2) Trolls (Trylle) instead of vampires. They have super powers.
    3) Hot guy in high school stares at her. He's drawn to her hair instead of her blood.
    4) Hot guy stares at her while she is sleeping.
    5) Hot guy drives a black porsche instead of volvo.
    6) Hot guy takes her home to the family after rescuing her. Family is super rich just like Edward's family.
    7) Family member has precognition (exactly like Alice in Twilight).
    8) Trolls are picky eaters just like the vampires in Twilight.
    9) Second love interest is being introduced just like in Twilight.

    It's point-for-point the same plot. It really shamelessly steals from Meyer. I hope that explains the success. I wrote blog post on this phenomenon and why no one seems to care.

  11. To any sister who is interested. This comment is off base with regard to the subject at hand, but I agree with all said. Please, someone, write a blog on distracting material accompanying fiction, particularly novels. Fielding and Dickens could get away with addressing the ' dear reader', but 'asides' can break the readers psychic contact with the characters. I have a hard time resisting this practice, myself.
    But even more distracting to me is annotating, sub-scripting or following the story with ten pages of explanation of how the author researched of the wonderful details of his book. John Irving is particularly guilty of this. His 'Twisted River' has a trailer that is a geography lesson on back country New England, and the 'Cider House Rules addendum tells more than I will ever want to know about the fine points of aborting.
    And another thing, while I am ranting, Multi-page acknowledgments. thanking everyone except the janitor for helping conceive the book, give me the impression that the text, however wonderful was confected by a crowd for my admiration. If it has to be said, please, put it last, in small print. The first Tom Wolfe, Rawlings, and Hemingway were all edited rather severely by the famous editor, Perkins, but we never hear of him in the published books.
    All of the above affects me the same way as a 90 piece orchestra accompanying a pair of lovers in a boat in the middle of the ocean. It spoils the reality for me.
    Are any of your correspondents as sensitive as I am about this?
    You probably don't want to publish this, But I would like to see other opinions. Enough Regis

  12. Hi Regis,
    Unless you use foul language to target one of the Sisterhood members specifically, you will be published. I am fascinated by your comment, because distracting material can be such a personal issue. I am distracted by novels that begin with dialogue, or start in the middle of a car chase and you know nothing about who´s chasing who or why are they doing it. Yet, writers are encouraged to use both gimmicks to start a novel. Until recently, fiction didn’t have an “acknowledgments” section, but as you point out now they do, but is a matter of skipping it.
    I am embarrassed to say it but I did use the “reader, I married him” gadget. I have two excuses though, my novel is written in the first person, and at some point the reader realizes that “Reader” refers to the narrator´s daughter to whom the novel is bestowed.
    By the way, how do you feel about prologues? Are they distracting?

  13. I hadn't thought much about prologues before, but I have written a 3 page one for my present book. My readers have given it a 'thumbs up. It serves several important functions which I won't mention, now. I think a prologue can fit into the flow of a first person story better than with other points of view.
    Are you thinking of a particular example, where you found a prologue distracting, or annoying?

  14. Michael,
    I guess it's good to see that someone has the stomach for attempting to read Hocking's work. Quite honestly, trolls don't come close to anything I would like to read. If it was available for free at the local library, then I would think about giving it a go, but I'm not paying good money for something that will only make me cringe.

    I'm right there with Violante. Unless you go on a cursing streak, we'll publish you each and every time because, to be honest, I think you're growing on all of the Sisters here. You're quite an informative and opinionated commenter. I'l try and answer a little bit of what you questioned. I think audiences today lack the attention spans to bother with asides and annotating. Most want a story that gets to the point and moves quickly across the page. And I agree with you about the acknowledgements. The only things I find helpful is some of the research material a writer will mention or to see who his/her agent might be. Otherwise, I ignore the acknowledgements. And I like prologues, to answer Violante's question! : )

  15. Regis,
    I don´t mind prologues, but agents do. You see, this is the way it works. Those-who-know say “readers don’t like prologues,” “readers want action galore” and “readers throw away a book if the first chapter/first page is not fascinating enough”. I am the contrary, I love prologues, if the first chapter is a bit boring, I skip it and go on, and too much action in the beginning gives me headaches.

  16. Violante I feel for the literary agents of America. Slightly. With the extinction of many large pub. houses, the open minds of the minor houses, and especially the internet, the profession may suffer the fate of the post office and many newspapers. I intend to publish as an Ebook, I have written the prologue in such a way to (I hope) lure a reader into the first chapter by making it one big "hook". Why do we keep on adding ue to the word? Catalog is good American English. Regis

  17. Violante and Regis, you mentioned stories that start in the middle of the action. This drives me crazy. Particularly in films (it seems that action flicks frequently start with the MC in the middle of solving another case to give us a "sample" of what he does or what is coming.) I don't know if any of you ever watched Inception? Good thing I rented the DVD because I had to watch the beginning like three times to understand what was going on! (and I'll never be sure if I understood the ending, ha ha!) I appreciate the director's confidence in our intelligence to follow his complex plot, but it can also be extremely annoying/frustrating for the audience to be trying to figure out every single detail without a minute's break (especially at the beginning). I think this is one example where the story could have started slower and build momentum without losing its target audience, since it has plenty of action anyway.

  18. Michael, I thought your breakdown was really funny, especially the bit about trolls being picky eaters. I'd suggest that you seem to be bothered by tropes. Tropes aren't the same as plagiarism, and you are "allowed" to steal them. You can even buy books with plot outlines to follow. Two people can follow the same plot structure, with virtually all the same tropes, and end up with two fairly different books. Obviously, neither will be guaranteed success. If one could simply steal Twilight's formula -- and no doubt it's preexisted Twilight itself -- and end up with a bestseller, we'd all do it. Just to have the pocket change to fund our literary habit! :)

    Speaking of tropes: If anyone wants to get pleasurably lost in a website for hours, check this out: It's called "TV tropes" but they do books and movies, too.

    And just for you, Michael:

  19. "But even more distracting to me is annotating, sub-scripting or following the story with ten pages of explanation of how the author researched of the wonderful details of his book." This doesn't bother me because I can just skip it. I noticed, when I was shopping on Amazon recently, that a bunch of books had "P.S." after the title, and I couldn't figure out what that was. Turns out it's books that have LOTS of exactly the type of extras you hate, so don't get those. :)

    I do find footnotes in fiction distracting, but they're not common. I just read "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (very fun, highly recommended) and liked it even though it's got footnotes on virtually every page. You got used to it.

    Prologues are currently unpopular with publishers, but they don't bother me unless they're really out of sync with the book.

  20. Yeah easy money...hahaha.

    First you should spend a minimum of a year of your life (and that's a minimum) writing and editing a novel. Most of the time more than one year.

    Then build a website/blog and build a platform. Then you should network a reading audience.

    Oh and put together your book cover and book trailer.

    Then pimp it to everyone.

    And that's just to get started.

    Then do it about six or seven more times.

    If you work really hard and get really lucky, you might be able to cut back on your hours at your regular job.

    Yeah...writing a book for money...that's a plan.

  21. But self-pubbed books are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it gives people a chance but a curse because people don't polish their work.

  22. Tirzah,
    Easy money is a joke! But you wouldn't believe how many people think writing should be just like riding a bike! I agree with the blessing and curse of self-pubbed books. Serious writers really need to put the blood, sweat, and tears into their work if they want it to be any good. Otherwise, I don't consider a slapped-together piece of work to be serious writing.

  23. Well as a person with that grew up with the label "learning disabled" ,who struggled against the terrors of the grammar gods and their pointless rules: I couldn't be happier with the destruction of the old English snobbery. Yes, democracy has come to publishing.. and we the people are now ruling. Too bad for you.

  24. Interesting, because I don't believe writing, like any trade someone takes on, has anything to do with learning disabilities. It has more to do with crafting a work that will stick in the reader's mind longer than ten seconds after he/she has closed that book. My brother is learning disabled and he graduated with an English degree, which means he read and enjoyed all the literary greats. I have some other very close people in my life with learning issues and they love literature and writing. The whole idea of this article is for people to see, especially those who want to become serious writers, that like any trade, one has to learn the craft. Otherwise, your book that you took all that time to write will only spend a few months on bookshelves no matter what your name may be. And just think about it. How often do you drop Lauren Conrad and Snooki's names in conversation when it comes to the books they've written? I'm gonna guess never.


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