The Top X [Genre] books Every Y Should Read

CRSqSFWVAAA8mALI loved these words so much, I just had to Word Swag them. Batya Ungar-Sargon messaged them to me about my book, UNDER CONTRACT. We met when she took my workshop on consent at the RT Convention and then she asked to use that material for this terrific article she wrote on romance and feminism.

My favorite bit? “Graceful in its fealty to genre.” It’s a distressingly far too widely held opinion that writing romance is easy. The genre is derided for its highly defined tropes and inevitable happy ending. It’s true that romance readers have definite expectations – but that means it’s more difficult to write, not easier. Telling a good story, the story you want to tell, while adhering to the tropes is a delicate dance. Thus, “graceful in its fealty to genre” is one of the best accolades ever.

“Incredibly written” is pretty nice, too.

I want to talk a bit today about the Top X lists. You know the ones I mean. “The Top 100 Best Books of the Century.” “The Top Ten Fantasy Books Every Woman Should Read.” Etc, etc.

They’re proliferating more than ever because of sites like Buzzfeed, Salon and Huffington Post, which thrive on numbered lists of all kinds. Lists get clicks. Numbered lists are one of the favored varieties of Clickbait out there right now.

Writers and readers are constantly encouraged to name their “Top Whatever” lists. Favorite book, favorite author, favorite book boyfriend. For writing guest posts and articles, making lists like this can be a fairly fast and easy way to go.

I, however, think they’re dangerous.

That’s what I said – and I don’t think I’m overstating. This is why.

To me, this is another exercise in the inevitable interview question posed to anyone who’s had a microphone thrust in their face: What book is on your beside table? (A phrasing I love because they’re not actually asking “What are you reading?” and – maybe this is just me – my bedside table is a kind of TBR pile purgatory, where books can languish for years, quietly gathering dust and sneering at my procrastination.) Equally inevitable, the person will respond with A Tale of Two Cities or some such. Seriously, I considered it a drinking game there for a while, how many celebrities, politicians and other interview-friendly folks cited reading A Tale of Two Cities.

Of course, maybe it’s that everyone *starts* the book, because we all feel we SHOULD read it, and then every last one of us ditches it in bedside table purgatory because the damn thing is so stiflingly dull. (Yes, I tried to read it. Stalled on page 121, marked with a 1992 bookmark. It’s back on the bookshelf, though.)

If they don’t say A Tale of Two Cities, then it’s Great Expectations or War and Peace or Moby Dick. Right? Because everyone wants to sound smart. No one is going to say Robin McKinley’s Shadows, which is the book currently languishing on my bedside table, or Molly O’Keefe’s Everything I Left Unsaid, which I’m currently devouring on the Kindle. At any rate, all of this is evidence of the ongoing conflict between what we think we should read and what we actually read.

These lists, then, tend to reinforce the “should read” side of things, which is to say, the surface, social version, rather than the reality. In fact, many of the lists include “should” in the title, creating an onus by their very existence. Worse, because people who compose the lists want to look smart and well-read, they all tend to include the same books. The ones everyone cites as being the ones to cite.

See how this cycle perpetuates?

Maybe saying this is dangerous IS putting it a tad strongly. But I do think it’s counterproductive, continues to elevate the same group of books – which creates homogeneity – and reinforces snobbery.

Read what you want to read!

Liking the Writing, but Not Liking the Story – a Conundrum

BXYkp_ICYAAcNAIThe combination of purple and orange in my Halloween display was serendipitous – I’ve been loving how it looks.

I’ve been reading a book by an author who writes in one of the same genres that I do, a genre I love to read. This is the second book of hers I’ve read – both of which I picked up due to enthusiastic reader responses. I didn’t like the first book, but I thought I’d give this new one a try. They’re unrelated stories. Maybe I just didn’t click with that book?

But this new one isn’t working for me either.

But in a funny way, because – as with the first one I read – I’m finishing it. Regular readers of this blog know I have the 25% rule. I commit to reading 25% of every book I pick up. If I’m not engaged by then, I can bail without guilt. (If I really hate it, I can stop before that. But most books I try to give 25% to hook me.) I have a fairly high percentage of DNFs (Did Not Finish). My reading time is precious and I don’t need to waste it on books I’m not enjoying.

In this case, I’ve kept going. Even though I *knew* by 10% in that I didn’t like the story or characters very much. It’s bizarre to me, because the writing is smooth and polished. I enjoy the author’s voice. I find her interesting in her blog posts and so forth. I’ve met her and find her to be a lovely person. I even like her story premises and get excited to read the book. As I read, however, I get that sinking sensation that I don’t like how she’s telling the story. I never emotionally engage with the characters. There’s far too much angsting and emotional retread for me and I find myself growing impatient with it all. But I still want to know how it ends.

I mentioned this on Twitter and one of my editors chimed in saying this was the most difficult kind of manuscript submission for her to deal with – the polished writing and engaging voice, but a story and characters that fail to grab her.

I realized, during this conversation, that I hear that kind of response from editors and agents all the time. I suppose I always interpreted it as a sort of faux excuse. They’ll say “love the writing, love the voice, but the story didn’t work for me.” And then they’ll add the reminder that this is just their personal opinion and someone else will likely love it.

After all this time, I suddenly get what they’re saying. You can love a writer in every way, except the actual stories they tell. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

I’ve been known to say that I love Ann Patchett’s writing so much that I don’t care what the story is about – I’ll read her regardless. Then, the unthinkable happened – I didn’t like her last book. I didn’t like what happened in the story, particularly something that occurred at the end. So, has that changed things for me? Yes. Now I’ll look at what the story is about. A minor shift perhaps.

There’s been several instances lately where authors of very popular series have ended them in unpopular ways. Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse series is a good example. Just this week, Veronica Roth came under fire for the way her trilogy ended, prompting arguments over what authors owe readers – especially manic fans. I’ve seen numerous fans say they won’t read anything Roth writes again, because they feel they can’t trust her now. I never read the books, but – having heard the spoilers – I think, as a reader, I’d feel the same way.

At the same time, as an author, I respect her right to stay true to her vision and do as she wishes with her story.

I suppose, what this all comes around to, is what we’re “buying” when we commit to reading a book. In that link about Veronica Roth, John Green says, “Basically, I would argue that books are not primarily in the wish fulfillment business.” Yet, I know I do read so I can be transported. I do want my wishes fulfilled. I don’t expect that in life, but I do want it in my entertainment.

In the end, it’s a more or less democratic process, I suppose. We buy what we want to read. I can hope that readers enjoy what I write.

But neither team can control the other.