No Expectations: Perspectives on the Publishing Trade
by Joseph Arellano
A Disturbing Trend
Increasingly, I’ve been bothered by a new trend in fiction that’s not at all positive. This is the creation of the novel that has no plot, no true story line. Such books – which are often actually novellas – revolve around a few days, weeks, months or years of a character’s life. The reader-purchaser is often fooled by front jacket blurbs that promise exciting plot twists, and sometimes mention “crimes,” and indicate that one absolutely must read through to “the last page.” Ah, yes, but when the reader has completed all of 240 or so pages, he/she may find that nothing happened in the space between first page and the last. No crimes have been committed, no major characters killed, no cities threatened, no buildings or homes firebombed, no fictional characters have had their lives transformed.
Why is this happening? I have no idea, but it’s made worse by reviews that actually praise the author for being “clever”! This type of review will go something like this, “Author Betty Robinson really had me fooled this time, thinking that her character was going to commit a heinous crime; the story’s conclusion was a clever one.” Except that the clever conclusion involved an absence of events.
I, for one, would like to see some truth in advertising. First, books that are novellas should be clearly labeled as such, not subtitled “A Novel.” (Recently, even a couple of short story collections have carried the designation of novel.) Second, I’d like to see a Reader Advisory sticker that reads: Warning – Nothing actually happens between the covers of this novel/novella. It’s a book about nothing. Purchase it at your own risk; there will be no refunds. Third, how about requiring the purchaser to sign a waiver of his/her expectations? (“I understand that I’m not going to be satisfied by reading this story.”)
Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it might be a start in making things better.
Plausibility is the Thing
One of the key items that a reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility. Does the tale told in the book ring true? Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, or too flawed or strange? If the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility. The story may have some positive features but if it’s lacking feasibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a great job of putting lipstick on a pig. Great makeup job but it remains a pig.
What does the reviewer do in this situation? Focus on the writing while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around. In other words, offer some hope for the future.
Now here’s the funny thing, as I’ve learned from experience… If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding. Never. Ever. Ever. Nope. The writer’s response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened, and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!” Fine, but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.
In a courtroom, it’s often said that the prosecution has the burden of proof. Well, when it comes to drafting a novel, I think the author has the burden of drafting something that’s plausible.
A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” The same is and should be true for a book reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t. Either way, it’s critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he/she sees it. Play it as it lays.
There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.” But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – it’s either on the written page (“On all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s absent. And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal – your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.
Joseph Arellano has a background in law and communications. He served as a government agency Public Information Officer, and has done pre-publication review and editing work for a publisher based in England. His book critiques have appeared in several publications including San Francisco Book Review. He and his wife live in Elk Grove, California.