Tag Archives: cleverness

19th Nervous Breakdown

Perspectives on the Publishing Trade

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 the 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 read 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.   Firstly, 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.)   Secondly, 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.   Thirdly, 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, too flawed or too 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 up 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 its 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

Pictured:  Life: A Memoir by Keith Richards, which is now available in trade paperback, unabridged audiobook, Kindle Edition and Nook Book forms/formats.

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People Are Strange

Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You by T. M. Shine (Crown; $23.00; 294 pages)

“It’s time more readers found out about T. M. Shine…  (He’s) one of the funniest writers I know.”   Dave Barry

If you like Dave Barry or David Sedaris, you will undoubtedly like T. M. Shine.   If you love Lisa Scottoline (“Why My Third Husband Will Be A Dog”; “My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space”), you will very likely love T. M. Shine.   Like Barry and Sedaris, Shine is often clever; but more often he’s simply hilarious like Scottoline.   For example, at one point in Nothing Happens, he wonders why drugs have so many listed negative effects.   He asks why there are “never any good side effects like ‘long term use of this medicine could add six inches to your broad jump or lead to…  improved cornering skills while driving at high speeds.’   Stuff like that.”

This is a semi-autobiographical novel about being suddenly unemployed, and then being unemployed for a long period of time.   Shine was, in real life,  laid off from his steady writing gig.   He decided to write a memoir about his experiences but his publisher wanted a novel instead, so this is a true-to-life story.   (If you want to enjoy yourself, Google Shine to find his sadly funny and sometimes quasi-ranting pink slip website.)

The male protagonist Jeffrey Reiner is let go from his job writing for a South Florida weekly.   He initially rushes to find a new job before his severance pay and unemployment benefits run out.   Then he begins to feel guilty for appreciating his free time before finding out that he has a third less time than he thought to get back into the working world (his high maintenance family is burning through his money stash at warp speed).   He eventually wonders if he’ll be out of work so long that he’ll lose all desire to ever work again.   But this is not the least of his problems…

Reiner’s married to a woman whom he knows he’s lucky to be married to, but once he loses his job the glue that holds their relationship together starts to weaken.   Reiner’s wife has in the past found him to be “steady,” something he no longer is; in fact, he’s dazed and confused.   Ironically, as Reiner becomes less comfortable being around his wife (and vice-versa), he develops a strong relationship with his formerly troublesome children and his physically troubled dog.

Reiner winds up tackling some strange jobs assigned to him by a hustler who is not exactly a well-respected man in the community.   He also develops an interesting relationship with the young woman who lives next door, making Reiner’s wife wonder if this is his attempt to be like old Bill Murray in Lost In Translation.   Oh, and he needs to ensure that everyone in his household uses less energy, something that’s nearly impossible – his teenage kids live like nocturnal raccoons.

Anything more said about the storyline would just subtract rather than add to the reader’s enjoyment.   Let’s just say that the tale ends with our protagonist learning about what’s really important in life, and it may not be a corner office.   This one’s fun!

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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