Thoughts on lists of overrated authors, good writing and reader preferences

I thought I’d share my thoughts as a reader and a writer (not so much as a new publisher) on a recent discussion about the Anis Shivani’s HuffPo piece on overrated authors (originally posted on 8/7).

I had passed the link around and had received some responses. Some thought the list was completely bogus (as all lists ultimately are) and some thought that he was right on target in a couple of instances. However, I didn’t really care so much about the particular author of the article and his likes/dislikes. Rather, my interest in it was that it was one more illustration of the fact that no matter whether you’re a writer (bad or good) or a reader, we all have our own preferences and we all make our own judgments. No book, no writer can appeal/will appeal to everyone. While most can certainly discern good writing from bad writing, and there is certainly a baseline in published works, beyond that, it’s usually about personal preferences.

For instance, I had a discussion recently about Moby Dick. A friend was raving about how Moby Dick is the BEST BOOK EVER and, having just read it for the first time, I had to disagree. While the flashes of genius and passages of stunning prose were there, I had to drag my butt through much of it. And the beginning? Don’t get me started. However, she got me started.

But she wouldn’t be swayed. Moby Dick is, for her, simply the best book in the English language.

While I’ll continue to disagree, I’m happy to rant and rave about Wolf Hall, Catch 22, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Lord of the Rings and A Hundred Years of Solitude until the cows go home and die. For her part, she couldn’t get past the continual use of “he” in Wolf Hall, has never understood what the big deal was about Catch 22, liked The Count of Monte Cristo, (as far as books like that go), and will not ever read The Lord of the Rings–on principle. The only thing we could agree on was the merit of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

As a long-time participant in book groups, I see this get played out monthly in my friend’s living rooms. Someone loves a book and recommends it. The group reads it and next month, someone else comes in with a scowl and an “I-couldn’t-get-past-page-50-this-book-was-so-bad!” comment.

And then there’s the genre v. literary fiction. As a genre fiction kind of gal who hangs out with literary types, I see (feel it?) it all the time. On the interwebs and in the blogosphere, it can even get nasty. Literary fiction is the best, genre fiction stinks–it’s not “real” writing. Or literary fiction is merely a bunch of convoluted sentences about screwed up people by authors who are full of themselves while genre fiction is tight, exciting, character-driven or plot-driven storytelling. The stereotypes go on and on while the fact is that each author writes what he/she is compelled (or paid) to write and each reader reads authors he/she likes. One month it might be Nora Roberts and the next it might be Roberto Bolaño. (I plead guilty.)

In sum, I found the article interesting simply because it’s one more look at how even writers disagree on what is good writing. I wonder how many times the judges are unanimous when picking out long lists/short lists/winners for the Pulitzer or the Booker? Anyone know? I’d wager, it’s probably not very often.

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