Tag Archives: frustrating conclusion

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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Don’t Dream It’s Over

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press; $15.00; 281 pages)

Perhaps the sub-title of The Imperfectionists should have been Related Tales of Dark Humor and Irony.   This is the fictional story of a second-rate international newspaper based in Rome, a poor cousin to the International Herald-Tribune.   It has never had any more than 25,000 subscribers and readers, and it has no website.   It is, therefore, doomed.

The Imperfectionists is not actually a novel but rather a grouping of eleven short stories concerning the wild and wooly characters who work at the rag before it enters its death spiral.   One copy editor is smart enough to depart early…  She finds an apparent life raft in the International Finance Department at the Milan Office of Lehman Brothers.   Welcome to the Titanic!

This may give you a bit of insight into author Rachman’s wicked sense of humor.   Rachman could likely write about anything – even a crew of sanitation workers – and make it sound interesting and engaging.

“You can’t dread what you can’t experience.”

The reporters and allied staff members at the nearly defunct paper truly dread – like they fear their own deaths – its inevitable closing, but they take some comfort in the fact that their pink slips mean they won’t actually experience the lights being turned off for the final time.

One of the opaque characters is a copy editor who simply pretends to hate her job because she loves it too much.   “I get to stay…” she thinks as she avoids a round of lay-offs, while grousing that she wishes they had let her go.   Then there’s the veteran war reporter who is completely nuts but quite successful (like the one my wife and I had drinks with once).   These gruff and nicked guys are far more interested in telling their literal war stories than in observing anyone’s reaction to them…  They’re a bit like wild animals whose press badge serves as their “If lost, return to —” tag.

The paper in question is owned by Oliver Ott, a man who inherited the paper and who is – quite naturally – completely clueless as to its operations.

“The paper – that daily report on the idocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment.   Now it was gone.”

Arthur Gopal, the often-pitied obituary writer, survives to find a plum job as a top reporter in Manhattan, while the publication he so carefully wrote for expires (“Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands…”) without the benefit of a beautifully written send-off.   Such is life.

The Imperfectionists would be virtually perfect but for an abrupt, flawed and somewhat frustrating ending.   Be forewarned.   Still, this is well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Lyon Books in Chico, California.

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