Saturday, 24 September 2011

Guest Article: Sam Strong - Why Do Some Books Disappoint?

When I did a call for contributors, Sam agreed to a guest article. He warned that he might rant. I said that was fine. As it is, there is not a lot of ranting, but a considered analysis of why (for Sam) some books fail while others succeed. If you want to read more from Sam, he has a blog.

Sam, with his fiancee Charlotte, at Eastercon

Quick Summary: I'm a real picky bugger. The following is me attempting to dissect why.

It's not often that I read to be challenged. Sometimes I'll read something that a friend thinks I should read for my own good, but for the most part I read to be entertained. Recently it seems that more and more books are falling flat for me. It's not that they're bad books, but I just don't seem to love them as much as everyone else in the world.

I'm afflicted with a fearful awareness of time. Seconds gush past and before you know it the year is half done. And there are a lot of books out there. I'm not the slowest reader in the world, but I'm certainly not the fastest either. Reading a book is a commitment for me and if the book doesn't deliver I'm going to be disappointed.

1. Expectation

My expectations work in two ways. First, there's the hype. Take Boneshaker or Zoo City as examples. Each was hyped to hell and back and both are good books, but in my opinion not entirely deserving the level of praise shovelled at their feet. Was it the hype that caused this? It certainly didn't help. If you're being hailed as the best thing since chorizo met king prawns then you absolutely need to deliver.

Then there's the way a book is presented. If your cover and blurb promise me a slice of stuffed crust and I bite down to find custard instead of cheese that's just not going to work. No one likes a bait and switch. Of course it's all down to individual interpretation, and UK covers tend to tell you very little about the book unless you have some degree of context in the first place e.g. black cover with girl holding fruit = supernatural romance etc. The presentation is designed for people who are already fans of the genre.

2. Prose

There are so many prose-crimes, from poor editing and broken narratives to sloppy sentence structure and ugly timing. I can live with a lot of these to a degree. I can also live with average action, minimal description and even bloated internal monologues, but if the dialogue sucks then the book tends to take a turn for the dire. Nothing drags me out of a book more than stilted interaction between characters.

3. The ending

Assuming I actually make it to the end of a book (which, to be honest, is way more often than not) then there's the ending. In our chosen genre, this is where series syndrome tends to kick in. Now, I'm more than happy for the author to drop a cliff-hanger so long as they've tied up at least 75% of their sub-plots, but so many books, especially the first in their series tend to just stop mid-flow and assume you'll be happy to wait for the next one. That's just not satisfying. The ideal end to a story for me sees the protagonist move beyond what they want and actually achieve what they need. Much like a bag of Revels, the best books make this a complete surprise.

So why do I read in the first place? The obvious answer for a fan of SF and fantasy (perhaps not so much horror) is escapism. Thinking about that, my immediate response is, "Rubbish! I like my life. Why would I want to escape from it?"

I think it's more complex than that. There's more to escapism than escaping. There are also degrees of escape. Books do allow me a window to different locations, times, situations and, most importantly, different mindsets. So yes, I like my mind, but that doesn't mean I don't need to escape from it in order to experience new things. Despite this, I still think the most powerful form of escapism is that which allows us, for a time, to become someone else. It's a power thing and it comes in many forms; strength, intellect, beauty, friends, family, opportunity, love, hate, contentment, safety. The fantastic worlds just make it easier us to believe it.

The best books are those that wrap themselves around us so completely that we get a hangover when we finish them. A hangover so bad that it actually disrupts the first few chapters of the next book we read. They become such a big part of what we think about that they leave a very real hole in our minds when they leave us. My final judgement of a book is whether it achieves this.

Thanks so much Sam! Why don't you guys drop Sam a comment in appreciation, telling him why some books have disappointed YOU?


  1. Sam: It's funny that you mention Boneshaker in your column, as it was a major disappointment for me when I read it. I couldn't connect with any of the main characters, and that severely affected my reading experience.

    One thing I would like to see in sf/f is more stand-alone novels. Personally, I find that a number of series start off with a bang and then proceed to thread water. For me, there's nothing better than getting a complete, succinct story in one volume. Sadly, it seems that most books need to be marketed as a trilogy or series these days (perhaps they sell better, I'm not entirely sure). I am aware that there are exceptions to the rule, and certain series feature stand-alone tales within that particular universe, but they aren't in the majority.

  2. Sorry for the late reply. I was mid-honeymoon when Amanda posted this!

    I totally agree about the stand alone book thing, but suspect that we're in the minority. Unfortunately, in SF and fantasy, it seems that series are where the most money comes from. At this point in time no publishers are taking risks so more and more series are what we get.

    That said, if you have a look at Angry Robot they appear to have a fair few stand alone novels on their books.

  3. Sam: No problem! Hope you had a great honeymoon!

    Thanks for the reply and the Angry Robot recommendation. I'll definitely check them out in the coming weeks.