I'm currently reading a book – published by a well-respected and long-established publishing house – that I would class as pretty poorly written. It's not bad, in the sense of misspellings and grammatical errors everywhere, but nor does it shine. The prose is pedestrian, frequently verging on dull. The dialogue attribution is littered with unnecessary adverbs (and while I'm not averse to an adverb or two, you do start to notice them when they're used to modify every single speech verb). One of my favourite phrases so far is 'stared desultorily', which suggests to me that neither the author nor the editor understood the meaning of the word 'desultory' and the appropriateness, or otherwise, of applying it to a word so fixed and determined as 'stare'. And given all this, I can't help wondering: what was it about this book that was good enough to get published when so many others fall by the wayside?
The answer, of course, is the concept. Not even the plot – the initial idea. I've read an awful lot of YA books lately, and a large subset of them had two things in common. First, they each belonged to one of the two most popular teen genres at the moment, dystopian fiction or supernatural romance. And second, though none of them were particularly well written, plotted or executed, they all had an underlying concept that was sufficiently interesting for me to have picked up the book in the first place. Which, overall, makes me sad – all these books with so much potential, and yet it's gone largely unfulfilled.
Obviously publishers are going to chase trends. I get that. If something is popular then any business is going to want to ride the wave of that popularity while they still can. And because trends are fleeting, and publishing is a lengthy process, perhaps a decision has been taken to reduce the amount of time and money spent on editing. But (and this isn't just because it's my profession) I can't help but see that as a mistake. If traditional publishing houses want to survive in the current world of DIY and ebooks then as well as being more agile, they surely also need to maintain their quality. They have to be able to show that they add value. At present, many people still take the view that it's safer to buy a book from a mainstream publisher than it is from a self-publisher, because they know they'll be getting a certain level of polish. But with self-publishers becoming more savvy, that gap is closing. Which means the one thing traditional publishers can't afford is to churn out second-rate books just to cash in on a trend. It's that kind of thing that will start people questioning what they're for.
Having said all that, I suspect there may be another factor at work: namely, that what writers consider to be good writing isn't necessarily the same as what readers consider to be good writing. Unpublished writers have a tendency to gather in groups of like-minded individuals, where they spend their time getting picky over whether a sentence expressed one way is better than a sentence expressed a slightly different way. They swear religiously by rules like don't use too many adverbs and use one POV per scene. Yet most of the books I've read lately seem never to have come within spitting distance of those rules. And if that's the case, who are the rules for? Do most readers even care about the overuse of adverbs? Do we, the writers, have a duty to stick to our definition of good writing notwithstanding? Or are we just concentrating on the picky stuff as an excuse for why we haven't sold a million copies already, not realising that the publishers are right: concept is key? I don't have answers to any of these questions, but at the very least they're worth asking.