There are two realities: The one we insist upon and the one that actually is.
For writers, the insisted reality is that nothing less than perfection will get us a sniff at publication. Agents, publishers, editors, other writers, and bloggers don’t mind telling us everything we’re doing wrong in our quest, either. Taken in toto, their advice demands that our stories have intriguing, likeable, and flawed (but not too flawed) characters who interact via engaging, authentic dialog and whose arcs roll out in perfect synchronization with an expertly paced, surprising (but not too surprising) plot, within which we have woven the perfect balance of descriptive details and crisp verbs while employing a narrative style that utilizes all five senses, avoids adverbs like bubonic plague, layers in foreshadowing that is not too obvious yet not too obscure, and speaks to the human condition in an original, innovative, and commercially viable way.
The actual reality is that most books fail to meet these demands yet are published all the time. Go to any bookstore, and within 5 minutes you should be able to find at least one novel that is a derivative, bland, and cliché-ridden exercise in tedium, the sole purpose of which seems to be: I dare you to finish this. Within a half hour, you can probably find a dozen more like it.
I say this because I am currently reading a debut novel that is, at its very best, mechanically competent on a sentence level. I’m reading it because it’s set during the early Italian Renaissance, a period that intrigues me, and because someone lent it to me.
None of the characters offers anything close to a personality or motivation, tedious exposition stands in place of a plot, and tension is nonexistent. I’ve invented the following dialog exchange for your amusement, yet I feel it captures the character interplay quite accurately:
“It’s not fair that you are sending me to the monastery. You know that all I long to do is paint and to become a great artists like my father!” said Luigi with a wince.
“You know what is not fair?” replied Super Mario. “It is not fair that you stole that apple from the street vendor, forcing me to give 3 florins to the jailer to secure your release! It is not fair that your mother died of consumption those five years ago and left you in my care, for, prior to that, I had no worries in the world. Oh, what else can I do with you, Luigi? It’s a monk’s life for you, I’m afraid.”
This followed by a three pages of exposition detailing the hitching of the cart, the ride into town, the condition of the roads, the oppressive atmosphere at the monastery, and so on.
To end up in a bookstore, this manuscript had to interest an agent then be pitched and sold to a publisher, edited, printed, and distributed, despite the writing being objectively poor.
As would-be professional novelists (presuming no best-selling authors currently read this blog), we show good form by not whining in public about our struggles to find success, not trashing our contemporaries by name, and taking our lumps from experts with humility. But you know as well as I do that lots of awful books get published and sometimes—admit it—you think, “Geez. I would have written that so much better.”
Which leads me to this question: When you browse a novel that forces you to stifle your gag reflex over its dreadfulness, do you end up feeling bitter or motivated?