Every one of us knows exactly what trashy books are, don’t we? Whatever it is we hate to read. This is the flaw behind gatekeepers and the problem with letting someone act as arbiter of universal taste.
There are objective ways to judge things like academic writing. (Yes, it’s been gamed and twisted, but there are still objective ways.) Does the research have good foundation? Does it accord with how the world in general behaves/what we know about the subject and time period? Are the cites in place and are they valid? Neutral gatekeepers who know the subject can be employed in those.
The problem is extending that to fiction and creative non fiction. Why is that a problem? Because fiction (and creative non fiction) writing is done to be enjoyed. The ultimate judgment on whether it’s “good” or no, whether it succeeds or fails is “does it entertain people? Do they want to spend time reading it?”
For that I’d be at a loss to come up with a universal measuring stick. Look – I can’t imagine a worse punishment than being subjected to “The Voice” but my husband watches it for entertainment. You’d have to put needles under my fingernails to get me to voluntarily sit still for Two And A Half Men – but people ENJOY it.
You probably would have to light a fire under my bottom and threaten not to put it out till I read the d*mn thing to get me to read Fifty Shades. Even then, I guarantee I’d skim.
The last issue of a particular popular fiction magazine I read was 10 years ago. I read it and realized I felt vaguely nauseated and needed to drink several bottles of wine to erase the experience from my mind. After that I let my subscription drop. They still exist and are at least treading water, so clearly my tastes are not universal. (Who knew?)
I’m not picking on the commenter who picked on furries and slash – weirdly – truly. Although I have friends who write both (and some furs among my friends too) I will admit the genres attract any number of the semi-literate. This is because – I think – its writership (totally a word. Trust me.) trends young, which means it serves as the training wheel grounds for a lot of folk who go on to write a lot of better stuff. (Which among us would want our early efforts submitted to the cold light of day?)
OTOH though I don’t dedicatedly read either, I have read some now and then because a friend recommends something (not slash but for the longest time all younger boy read/wrote was Harry Potter fanfic, so I’d get recommends), and I have to tell you while the percentage of cr*p might be slightly higher than in other genres (say 95% as opposed to 90%) there are gems in the muck and some of it is very good and of very high quality. And, trust me, as weird as some of it is, there are authors you – or at least me – can get hooked on, because the storytelling art is so GOOD.
However, my commenter’s perception is very common, because when people who are not “into” some genre or subgenre dip into, what they’re likely to meet with first is OMG awful. Law of averages.
For instance, if you don’t read romance go to the store and pick up ten books at random – and these are gatekept (of course it’s a word. Look, yes, I lie for a living, but you’re not paying me. I don’t volunteer-lie) – and you’re likely to walk away swearing off romance forever. OTOH, get a recommendation from a friend who also reads whatever you like, and who likes the same sort of books you do, and you might find a new author.
The reason I’m writing this, though, is that there is another hurdle and one that could make you recoil from a new field of reading – or might mean it’s never your favorite anyway – but is no reason to judge the whole field as unworthy.
This came up – sideways and backwards – in a discussion with a friend about specifically romance (actually I don’t think he was discussing romance. I think I just took off down that side path all by my lonesome self. I do that.) Let’s say we were discussing set pieces in mystery and the fact that stereotypes are used and it’s not very realistic came up. And then I took off into “genre conventions” which led me into romance. (I think I’ve been arguing with myself for the last six messages, because he has a day job and stuff.)
Romance came to my mind because it was the last genre I found. Meaning, I grew up reading historical, mystery literary classics and literary (It’s a genre. No, really. It has conventions of writing like the other genres and it has to fit them to belong there. It’s not a judgment of quality, just of “does it fit this?” “Literary classics” are different because it’s have they stood the test of time or not? But the stuff written now and labeled “literary” is just a genre.) because of dad. I grew up reading science fiction, popular science, popular history and mindboggling philosophical treatises because my brother did. I read Westerns because my sister/cousin (she was raised with us) read them.
She also read romances but Portuguese Romances are different. (Well, were in those days.) They seemed to be patterned on the Fados, so that the perfect romance the guy died in a horrible manner and she mourned him her whole life. Say, Romeo and Juliet if Juliet survived. (Though their both dying was an acceptable HEA [happily ever after, for the non romance initiated].)
I read these, because I read EVERYTHING (though it took me till sixteen to discover children’s books, but that’s a long story) including the paper, any forms anyone brought home, the back of detergent bottles, and instructions for how to repair machines we didn’t own. When my cousins and brother studied for their college entrance exams, I read everything they brought home leading to the conclusion that were it possible and had I known the math [so, beyond the general knowledge] I could have entered engineering at 10.)
But I found the Portuguese style romances very boring. The hero was likely to be a bullfighter, which was weird, because bullfighting isn’t even that prevalent in Portugal except in the South. And you knew he’d die in the end.
Moving here added another layer. Whoa! Romances where they survive? What will they think of next?
So for the longest time, when I needed to make a joke about a genre, I used Romance. (This works well at sf cons. Yeah, I know.)
A brief attempt to dip into the field at the height of the time-traveling romance made things worse. I mean, time-traveling involves sf, (or fantasy) so you know, they’re putting their toe in my field. The sheer lack of logic drove me insane. No, I’m sorry, the logical response to a 9th century Viking appearing in my shower is for me to squirt shampoo in his eyes then run like hell (or steal his ax and behead him.) It is not to get it on with him, hot and heavy. And, I’m sorry, but just because you studied the linguistics of Scandinavian languages, you will NOT be able to converse fluently with this guy. (And yes, that’s what they said, not that she spoke fluent Norwegian or whatever. It’s possible she might have been able to cobble together a conversation in the second case. I don’t know how evolved Scandinavian languages are – i.e. how much they changed. It’s not my area of expertise. If you spoke decent French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, you stood a chance of understanding a Portuguese or Spaniard of that era. BUT probably not a Frenchman because they have a more ‘evolved’ language – and a ton now dead dialects.) And no, for the love of Heinlein – I don’t care how smitten you are with your medieval knight, you really don’t want to go back and live with him there, and raise your babies in a place where infant mortality is 90%. BUT if you absolutely MUST do it, why would you take back your tape player and your tapes. WHAT do you plan to use for electricity?
So, I dipped my toe into time travel romance, and ran screaming in the other direction, waving my hands and screaming “bad, bad, bad, bad.”
I didn’t read romance again until Dave Freer – whom I owe a huge karmic debt – MADE me read Heyer. In this, he beat my publisher, Toni Weisskopf by six months, though she made me read the ones I’d neglected, and then told me to diagram them. (Do other people’s publishers give them homework? Never mind. I owe her a – huge – karmic debt, as well.)
Georgette Heyer gave me my “entry” into romance. She was one of those writers so masterful and assured that you swallowed the most improbable things and kept on reading, and by the time you were done you were acquainted with the conventions of the field and could branch out into minor writers, and know when something was bad because the writer sucked or because it’s a “field convention.”
And it took me reading some of those minor writers to figure that some things WERE field conventions and you read around them, instead of taking them seriously.
So – four pages in I get to the meat of this: each field has conventions. These are things – usually minor, sometimes huge – that wouldn’t work that way in real life, at any time. Like… oh, you know the minute the guy kisses you that you’re going to love him forever. Like, the suspect in the murder just happens to unwittingly give you the key thing you need at that moment; like, whatever the technology is that just made telepathy possible is not going to affect writing or reading or shopping or… (Look guys, imagine someone writing the computer revolution. Do you see them thinking of writing? Education? News? As the fields first affected? Nope. It would be data or statistics or machine production or…)
These conventions come in to circumvent minor things that would otherwise get in the way of telling the main story – i.e. what the reader is there for. In romance, for instance, the reader wants to know who the leads are so he can follow the progression of the romance. So to have her know he’s the one the first time they kiss (or they look into each other’s eyes. No, really.) saves time and gets the reader where he wants to be.
But a reader looking for a modicum of realism will go “Oh, that’s just wrong.” And not everyone has the authorial voice and humor of a Georgette Heyer to slide it past the readers.
(This, btw, is why you should read in the field you write. Chances are you readers read there too, and if you don’t know the conventions you’ll miscue.)
Does this mean that there isn’t real trash? Well, define trash.
To me 90% of what’s out there is trash – in any field. But I’m not only a power reader, but also a writer. This means that I’m likely to have read the hackneyed plot twist before. AND I’m likely to know how to fake that powerful ending too. So… It’s sort of like a busman’s holiday. Things will annoy me that annoy no other person on Earth. Which means I judge a lot of things harshly. BUT I’ve learned not to share that judgment and not to condemn an entire genre. (Not even mommy porn – NOT my cup of tea, but I’m not going to say someone won’t come along who’ll write it in a way I’ll read it.)
Normally all gatekeepers are doing is imposing their taste on what other people can/should see. And they succeed about as well as I would.
So, don’t judge fields you don’t know anything about. Read fields before you write in them. And don’t judge your stuff too – this is why we have beta readers. You are a writer and see the inside wiring of things. Just because something seems to obvious and belabored to you, it doesn’t mean it won’t delight readers. Get someone else’s opinion or, if that fails, put it out under a pen name. Be prepared for that pen name to become a bestseller before you.
Strive to be the best according to your lights. Let the chips fall where they may.
UPDATE: My — different — post is up on Mad Genius Club: Some Advice to Avoid– Squirrel!