Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Not Throw, Exactly, But Gently Toss....

In the far olden days, I almost never ever put a book down once I'd started it. That led to the reading of some incredibly horrible books, at least one of which still affects me today. Anal much?

In more recent years I've given myself permission to stop reading books without them having to actually reach the "throw them across the room" stage. I just started one by a current debut novelist whose book is up for the best first novel Edgar. The writing wasn't horrible, though the story could have been told a bit more smoothly. The problem was that it felt like I've read the same book a hundred times before.

Still, I gave it more time, but ultimately, it never got beyond the feel of something too familiar, like the feeling you'd get if you watched three dozen Tom & Jerry cartoons and then saw another one come on the screen: at some point, you just don't need it anymore.

Maybe there's a twist later in the book that elevates the novel as a whole. Maybe the ending is an absolute masterpiece of contemporary literature. Much more likely, though, and almost a certainty based on the first sixty or seventy pages, is that it's another paint by numbers effort that landed with a big house with a nice marketing budget. Of course, everyone's mileage does vary, but this guy's book is done as far as I'm concerned and if he keeps writing it will likely be many years before I would even consider picking another of his books up.

A few years ago, I read the debut of another author who's gone on to make some sort of successful career, but everyone says he's such a good guy (I've never met him) and I wonder if that colors the appreciation of his work. I actually finished his first book but in it, the main character kept supposing the most likely thing that was going on was x, and so it was. The most likely person to be behind it was y, and so it was. He could most likely be found at z, and-- well, you get the picture. So I've not read another.

Another author who has apparently got a career with momentum had a first book that I managed to get through, despite the cliched, movie-of-the-week improbably fight on an under-construction building climax. Couldn't take him seriously after that. Never read another.

I was thinking about these books and others like them because I've been reading justifications by some readers on an internet list on why they read the same authors over and over again, something that's always frustrated me. Above I've listed three negative experiences but every time I discover someone like Jason Matthews, it always starts with me reading that first book.

Theodore Sturgeon postulated that ninety percent of everything is crap. I certainly won't argue. If we take that as fact, then clearly finding that ten percent that isn't means shoveling aside some of the other ninety percent. Otherwise, where do your new "old" authors come from?

I'll always wonder that if these guys didn't get on with big houses if they'd be anywhere after book one. It may be that the big houses considered these guys safe, and the marketing efforts ensured enough sales to keep them around for multiple books. If any of the above books had been put out by small presses, I have to believe they'd be scrambling amongst the great unwashed, hoping to improve enough to make a bigger splash with their next books.

I'm afraid that the Edgar nominee I talked about above, whose second book is about to come out, will offer us something that not only we've seen before, but probably in his own debut. Which is a shame, I think. How good could this guy be? I'm afraid we'll never have a chance to find out. And if he accomplishes it in his next book, my experience with his first almost guarantees I'll never find out.

Years ago a writer's first book got all the buzz and won the Edgar for best first novel. I was talking to a publisher about it who told me she was really enjoying it. Then I ticked off all the things that we've seen over and over again in other books. And you know what? She told me she thought my instincts were probably right on, but that she was really enjoying his descriptions of his locales. Fine, I said, but is that enough?

His second book was universally panned as a letdown from the promise of his first. He continued to slide from there. He's still publishing but he's a prime example of a writer who started off with a career band but then went on a steady slide to obscurity. At a conference one time he was asked what motivated his series character. Good question, one of which he had a weak and unbelievable answer. I suspect that somewhere in there is the answer to his career.


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