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My Problem with Terry Pratchett

Pratchett1I actually have two problems with Terry Pratchett, but they both have to do with the quality of his writing. It’s too good. Now, I’ve never met the man, but he’s clearly brilliant, and I’m sure he’s charming and kind to small animals and all that, but he’s upset my life in ways I am finding difficult to overcome.

Discovering a new author whose work I enjoy used to excite me. When I was young, I would pick up a book based on the front cover or the blurb on the back and, if I really enjoyed it, I’d voraciously consume all of his or her other books I could find. After Pratchett, that seldom happens because now authors have to meet a higher standard. Their books have to be as good as Pratchett’s.

I know it’s not all Sir Terry’s fault. Publishing, after all, is a business, and the big publishers tend to publish books they think will have wide enough appeal to make them some money. The way they predict what will sell is by what has sold well recently, and they therefor produce a great many books that are much the same. I’ve found few new books from traditional publishers that I found entertaining. They tend to have annoying, angst-filled characters, focus on action over plot, and include far more sex and/or violence than needed for their frequently formulaic stories. Even when I find one I enjoy, one that’s original and well-crafted with truly likeable and even admirable characters, my final assessment is normally something like, ‘That wasn’t bad, but it’s no Pratchett.’

So, when I come to the final page of a book now, rather than going to the library or the internet, or one of the few remaining brick and mortar bookstores near me, I find myself going to my bookshelves and thinking, ‘What Discworld book should I reread now?’ When I do pick up a new book, it is, more often than not, nonfiction, assuming in advance that any work of fiction that may catch my eye is not going to be as good as a Discworld novel. So why bother?

That’s my first problem with Pratchett. He’s limiting my exposure to new novelists.

The last Discworld book I re-re-re…reread was Maskerade. It has four interweaving plot threads. One is about how Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg need to find a new third witch because two witches are invariably an argument without a mediator. The second is the story of Agnes Nitt, a large young woman with ‘a great personality’ and a fabulous voice who leaves the country for the big city to be a singer. The third tells the story of Nanny Ogg’s libido-stimulating cookbook and provides a few satirical insights about the publishing industry. And the fourth is a parody of The Phantom of the Opera as well as a satire about opera in general. The characters are charming. The story is intelligent, witty, and insightful. I find myself instantly engaged, and at the end, I feel a kind a bibliophilic fulfillment that is probably similar to how a gastronome feels after an exquisite gourmet meal.

This normally would not present a problem to the gastronome unless he is also a chef and knows without a doubt that he could never prepare dishes like that no matter how hard he tries or how long he lives. That’s the feeling I get from Pratchett because I also write stories, just not as well. I’m not saying they’re bad. I wouldn’t write them if I thought that. I personally think they are quite good, but I could never create something like Maskerade, and the sad fact is Maskerade is not my favorite Discworld novel.

That’s my second problem with Pratchett. He’s giving me one hell of an inferiority complex.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to write like Pratchett. The best authors have a unique voice, and you can often distinguish one of their books without looking at the cover or title page. But there is an intrinsically satisfying feeling of completeness I get from reading a Pratchett work that I would love to be able to achieve in my own novels. Actually, I’d be almost as happy if other authors could as well because even though I now have hardcover editions of all the Discworld novels (about 40 so far) they are bound to wear out eventually.

The Stigma of Self Publishing – Et Tu Writers?

  I went to an Orlando Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group meeting last night. It was our first get together in a few months because our organizer (Sarah Fisk) had to abdicate for job reasons and it took a while to replace her, although she has since moved back to Orlando and rejoined the group.

We held it at the food court of a local mall, an ideal place I thought because it easily accommodated our group without any expectation that we should be quiet or buy anything. Of the seven people at the table that night, one is a traditionally published author (Owl Goingback), one is a self published author (me), and the others are either writing speculative fiction books or have written some and are currently exploring their publication options.

Because we had a new organizer and a few new members, this was more of a chat session than our normal meetings, which focus on review and critique of members’ work. One topic that came up was self publishing. I suppose I was guilty of raising it because when publishing options came up, the implication seemed to be that the preferred option was traditional publishing. I wanted to point out that in the digital age there is another option and that it was my first option rather than a fallback position.

I was surprised that the other members seemed to either not consider this or thought of self publishing as the last, desperate act a writer would take and that books were only self published if they couldn’t meet the exacting standards necessary for traditional publication.

Obviously I don’t believe this to be true but the incredulous stares around the table made it clear just how pervasive this belief is, not just among readers, agents, and publishers, but among writers as well. Unfortunately this is not without cause.

Self publishing has some great advantages. For writers, these include retention of all rights to their work. They control everything from content to distribution. They control the cost of their books and they receive higher royalties as a percentage of sales.

For readers, self publishing means that there are more books in more subgenres than ever before. Books don’t need to fall into mainstream categories or follow whatever may be popular in their genre at the time in order to be published. A publisher’s impression of profitability does not enter into the equation. Self published books, especially ebooks, are almost always much cheaper than traditionally published books as well so readers have greater selection at lower cost. What could be better?

Well, there is the quality issue. The problem with anyone being able to publish is that anyone is able to publish anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to be coherent or readable or, in the case of nonfiction, even accurate. Now I won’t say this is an exclusive problem with self publishing because we have all seen traditionally published books that had these same flaws but if a major publisher’s logo was on the cover, a reader could be assured that it had at least gone through some editing process.

With self published books, there is no such guarantee and books can be released before they are ready. Some people, dishonest, scummy, and disreputable people who should be publicly flogged, tarred, feathered, and sent to their rooms without supper, have been known to scam this new openness by plagiarizing the work of others or intentionally throwing out dozens or even hundreds of short, poor quality books. There is currently no way to prevent this and it helps perpetuate the myth that all self published books are bad. I have seen other self published authors claim that readers can still tell quality books from reader reviews on sites such as Amazon. These certainly help and I don’t discount them but reviews and ‘likes’ are not necessarily a guarantee of quality either. Just as anyone can publish a book, anyone can write a review and writers can swap positive reviews and ‘likes’ with other authors as part of their promotion efforts, often with honest intent simply to help their peers.

There are a few disadvantages to self publishing for writers as well. They have to cover all of the up front costs themselves including editing, cover design, and formatting. Self published books are difficult to get into brick and mortar bookstores and the authors have to do all of their own marketing and promotion, which can be extremely difficult without the resources of an agent or traditional publisher to support them. Writers need to be willing to take on these challenges before they decide to self publish but their biggest hurdle may be the continuing stigma hovering over self published books.

I think there may be a fairly simple solution to this although it means readers will need to do a little research themselves. But since they are receiving the benefit of more options and lower costs, I don’t think this is asking too much. Actually my suggestion would apply to any author whose work you have not read before.

Before you decide to buy a book by an author unknown to you, read the sample pages first. If it still looks good, go to the author’s website. All legitimate self published authors should have one. There is probably even a link to it on the author’s page on Amazon or whatever online retailer sells their book. Look at the content. Keep in mind that self published authors may not be expert at web design but if the layout is logical and the content is good, chances are their books will be as well. If the book description looks like the type of book you would enjoy and the author’s website suggests that he or she is a competent writer, there is a good chance you’ve found something that will appeal to you. I know this is more work for readers but I think this inconvenience may be outweighed by the benefits readers receive in price and selection.

As always, if you have thoughts on this subject you would like to share, please leave a comment.

Related Posts:

My Self Publishing Adventure

On Silence & My Urban Garden

  Today I deviate from my normal blog posts on writing and reading. This is a great time of the year where I live because it’s quiet, relatively anyway. In our modern world I’m not sure it’s ever really quiet. There is always the occasional plane or siren but the constant noise that I’ve learned to consciously ignore is gone. The weather in Florida is close to ideal now, which means the air conditioning and fans are off.

There are other sounds, the tick and chime of my antique mantle clock, the sound of the wind outside my open window, a chattering squirrel or calling bird, but these are intermittent, peaceful sounds that do more to accent the silence than interrupt it. So I’m taking the week off to enjoy it. I will probably still do a little writing and, of course, reading but the writing and especially the self promotion have become to feel like a job of late, and a thankless one at that, so I’m cutting back on them for a little while.

Today I planted a garden, although a rather odd one. I was given a couple of planters that are suspended off the ground. I planted them with tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, lettuce, and herbs. This is about the extent of my agricultural expertise and I am far from certain I won’t manage to kill these poor defenseless plants. That’s them on the left, hanging there, trusting my nonexistent gardening abilities to keep then alive long enough to produce tasty and nutritious things to eat.

I have no idea if I will succeed in this endeavor. Like with all things, the risk of failure is there but it was an enjoyable experience and not terribly expensive. I’ll let you know how they’re doing in about a month or so. The oranges on the tree in my backyard should be almost ripe by then too. (The tree survives because it needs no care at all and the fruit makes the best juice I’ve ever had.)

Now though I think I’ll lay by my open window and read for a while.

Why are good books so hard to find?

   This post is mainly a call for help but I hope it will also provide others ways of looking at fiction that may help them better define the types of books that would appeal to them.

I love to read but even with the exponential expansion of available fiction, I still have a hard time finding new books that really appeal to me. My tastes are apparently somewhat outside the norm.

I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a call for help on Twitter. This is what I said:

I’m looking for a good 99¢ indie ebook novel similar in tone and mood with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Any suggestions?

I sent a few other Tweets in the same vein over the next few hours. Eventually a kindly Tweeter responded with a recommendation for a book by an indie writer that he was offering for free on Smashwords. It was a promotion to gain readers for the other books in the series. Great! Maybe there was a whole series of new books I would like.

I downloaded it. Last night I opened it on my Kindle and began to read.

It opened with a war scene full of action and seemingly mindless violence. This is normally a big turnoff for me but the Tweeter recommended it so I continued to read. Well, I thought, maybe it would get better. The nonstop action continued. I scanned ahead and there seemed to be no end of blood and brutality and nothing that indicated the book would eventually appeal to me and none that it bore any similarity to the wonderful books by Sir Terry Pratchett. I closed it and opened up my copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mainly because I hadn’t yet moved it from my Kindle to my computer hard drive. Today I made an emergency visit to the library.

Now I know there are many people who thrive on nonstop action and I’m sure they would have not been able to put a book like this down. I just don’t happen to be one of them. To explain why not can be the subject of a later post but the short answer is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste. I find action by itself dull and uninteresting. I need to know about the characters first and there has to be something I find admirable about them before they are put in peril in order for me to care about their fate. Otherwise they are no different than those they are in conflict with. This is actually the same reason I was never a sports fan. I could never find a good reason to care which team won. The action isn’t enough. The game for the game’s sake isn’t enough. I need a reason to not only prefer one side over the other but also something to admire about the chosen side; something which their opponent either lacks or is opposed to.

I know this is out of the ordinary but that’s my point. With all the new indie authors publishing now you’d think some would be writing books that are not modeled on currently popular mainstream fiction and that there would be some that appeal to whatever niche you might find yourself in. I’m sure there are some out there for mine. Finding them is the problem.

So that is why I am asking for your help. I want to find more books to read and enjoy and I’m hoping some of you might know of some that suite my particular reading preference niche.

The following list should provide some indication of my personal tastes. Breaking out your tastes and preferences in a similar fashion may help you define and find new books you will like.

  • Genre – I prefer Science Fiction although Fantasy is a close second. Mysteries and “literary fiction” can also be good if they share several of the other traits listed here. The target audience can be either adults or young adults. I find that YA books are often the most enjoyable. Within these genres, books that include insightful cultural satire are the most appealing.
  • Mood – The mood is the overall feeling you get from a book. If you feel an emotion when you finish a book, the author has effectively conveyed a mood. I prefer books with positive moods such as, fanciful, happy, hopeful, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, or optimistic. If a book provokes a smile from me in the first twenty pages, that is a big plus. (You can find out more on mood here if you wish: Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood)
  • Tone – The way the mood is expressed by the attitude of the author is the tone. It can also be thought of as part of the author’s style or voice. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the story, the characters in it, as well as toward the reader. The books I prefer tend to carry a prevailing tone that is amused, cheerful, humorous, ironic, lighthearted, optimistic, playful, satirical, or witty. (You can find out more on tone at the same link as above.)
  • Theme – I tend to especially like books with an implied message of personal and/or cultural progress and discovery.
  • Characters – There should be something admirable about the protagonist and his, her or its allies. They should be ethically and philosophically superior examples of humanity, even if they don’t happen to be human. This could be because they are unbiased, kindhearted, caring, nurturing, empathetic, or several other positive traits. This is what makes me care about what happens to them and makes me sure that their goals deserve to prevail. It also helps if the main character is intellectually above the norm. Those who are bright, analytical, observant, inquisitive, insightful or skeptical are especially appealing.
  • Fantastic Creatures – If the story is a fantasy and includes such things as vampires, zombies, ghosts, or other supernatural or mythical beings, I prefer a certain amount of humor and satire in how these creatures are portrayed. I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a story and pretend such things can exist but it is more enjoyable if the tone of the book conveys that I’m not expected to.

So now know more about my taste in books than you ever wanted to. Thanks for letting me share. I have one more favor to ask. If you know of books that you think meet my somewhat peculiar taste by authors I have not listed below, please let me know either as a comment here or on Twitter.

These are some of the writers I know of who have written books that met the minimum threshold of my exacting standards.

  • Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Piers Anthony (Xanth Series – These are almost too silly but can be fun to read.)
  • Robert Asprin (Myth and Phule Series)
  • Kage Baker (Company Series – a bit too much romance but not bad.)
  • Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom of Landover Series)
  • Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Series)
  • Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl Series)
  • Peter David (Apropos of Nothing Series)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (The Reluctant King)
  • Gordon R. Dickson (The Dragon Knight Series and others)
  • Jasper Fforde
  • Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Craig Shaw Gardner
  • William Goldman (The Princess Bride – one of my favorites.)
  • Tom Holt (Some of his are good, others I didn’t much care for.)
  • Jim C. Hines (The Goblin Series was especially fun.)
  • Fritz Leiber
  • Gregory Maguire (Wicked was enjoyable. The others, not so much.)
  • Lee Martinez (Usually his books are a hoot.)
  • Jack McDevitt (Alex Benedict Series)
  • Martin Millar (The Good Fairies of New York)
  • K.E. Mills (A bit verbose but not bad.)
  • John Moore
  • Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf)
  • Terry Pratchett (My favorite writer by far. Fortunately a prolific one.)
  • Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
  • Robert Rankin
  • Rick Riordan
  • Spider Robinson
  • J. K. Rowling
  • John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation)
  • Martin Scott (Thraxas)

Thanks and happy reading.

Related Posts:

On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

On Digital Books and the Evolution of Genre Fiction

I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music.  It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on.  But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.

I think it may.  One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea.  The advice? –  Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience.  Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.

I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice.  It happened with music.  It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.

So what does this mean for fiction?  Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to.  Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.

Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind.  Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited.  Still, these seem to make sense to me.

Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available.  What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them.  If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.

Genre melding – This is already happening.  There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc.  Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.

More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.

More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in.  A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality.  A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.

Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers.  The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.

Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction.  It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available.  Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.

Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good.  It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with.  You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently.  The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group.  But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form.  I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things.  Taste in music or literature is a personal matter.  It’s like food in that way.  If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?

Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want.  First there is the quality issue as stated above.  The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful.  This can make the good stuff hard to find.  But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices.  It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu.  It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing.  Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good.  Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious.  It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more.  The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce.  On the plus side, it is available somewhere.

There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now.  There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling.   But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers.  I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts.  Sometimes more is less but in this more is better.  More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers.  Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.

Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress.  What can I say?  I like it.  You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.

Beyond Genre – Novels and Emotional Needs

 I stated in a previous blog post that I thought tone and mood mattered more to me than genre and provided a far better indicator of whether or not I would like a particular book.  I’m not saying genre doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter as much.  In this post, I’m going to try to explore why that might be.  I assume others may also share my ranking of relative importance but since my sample size for this in one, my hypothesis is philosophical rather than scientific so I’ll treat this as a personal voyage.

As a reminder (so you don’t have to read the previous blog), the term mood describes the overall feeling of a literary work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone describes the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.

Fiction is an art form.  People feel something when they read it.  As with all art forms, it is this emotion that draws people to the work.  It may have intellectual aspects as well, which can enhance the experience; and increased knowledge about the art form can add to one’s appreciation of it, but it is the emotional impact that makes a person either like a particular piece or dislike it.

First, let me define the term “art form.”  I’m making this one up, not the term, the definition, so there is no compelling reason for you to agree.  It’s just my take on what all good art has in common.  For me, an art form is any stylized representation of some aspect of reality intended to evoke an emotional response from an audience.  That’s what makes a novel art, and a text book not.  Not that you can’t have an emotional response to a text book.  When in school, there were several text books I really came to hate but I seriously doubt the authors intended that.

That feeling the audience gets from art, whether it is a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a film, or a novel, is ultimately what determines if they like it–not appreciate it–like it.  They like how it makes them feel.  You can appreciate how a painter uses color and texture or how a writer constructs scenes and characters but still not like the end result.  The work, despite all of its technical strengths may not touch you, it may not make you feel anything, or it may evoke feelings you don’t like or want at the time.

Consciously or unconsciously, people approach a work of art with the desire to feel something from it.  If the work meets their emotional need, they like it.  If it does not, they don’t.  But of course different people have different emotional needs at different times so a book they did not like ten years ago, they may find they like now and may not even understand why.  I think it is because their emotional needs have changed during that time.  The novel, after all, is the same.

In some ways, all art is a form of escapism.  This is especially true for novels, as well as movies and fictional television shows.  But the word escapism has negative connotations and is, I think, not entirely accurate.  People turn to fictional stories in books and movies to temporarily take their minds away from the pressures of their individual realities or to vicariously partake in something they may find missing in their real lives, but this isn’t so much to escape from their lives as to balance them emotionally.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s assume a person works every day at a dull job in which he has no real control over what he does or when he does it.  When he comes home, this doesn’t change.  Several things have to be done, whether it’s pick up the kids from school, drop them off at band practice, cook supper, pay the bills, mow the lawn, or fix something that broke the day before.  When he gets that rare moment of free time, how does he fill it?  Well, if he likes having no real control over his life, if he does not like making decisions, he may just turn on the TV news and watch more things he can’t really have much effect on.  His dull and impotent life doesn’t bother him and therefore doesn’t create an emotional need.  But if the necessity to always react to situations rather than control them makes him feel frustrated, a good novel with a protagonist who always takes charge of any situation, may be just what he needs.  It can help him feel things he does not often get to feel in his normal routine.  It can help balance his emotional life.  Whether the novel is an epic adventure, mystery, space opera, or western, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of excitement and potency the mood of the novel provides.

The thing creating an emotional need does not have to be personal.  For example, someone who has more generalized frustrations about humanity in general, who is bothered by how people always seem to find excuses to harm one another or do really irrational and self destructive things, may turn to fiction to balance growing feelings of pessimism with books with optimistic and hopeful moods.

Escapism?  Maybe.  Therapy?  Perhaps.  Novels can fulfill an emotional need and are probably more effective and certainly less fattening than downing a six-pack.

Related Posts:

Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

Beyond Genre-Tone and Mood

Elements of LitWhen asked what kind of books you read, how often do you respond initially with some genre category: science fiction, fantasy, young adult, epic adventure, etc?  When you do, occasionally someone might say, ah, so you must really like X (X being the best selling or most heavily marketed book in that genre at the time).  If you say you didn’t much care for it, or loathed it, or aren’t interested in reading it after seeing the description in some review, you may find yourself confronting a very bewildered face, especially if the owner of said face happens to really like X.

As an example, I’m going to pick one extremely popular Young Adult (YA) fantasy series; Harry Potter.  If we assume only people who like this genre will even crack open the cover, all reader reviews on Amazon.com , Goodreads, or any other site should give these books four of five stars.  It may surprise you that there are actually some readers of YA fantasy who loathed these books.

The following statistics are of customer reviews on Amazon.com for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as of 3 July 2011.

 5,655 Reviews

5 star:    4,758 (84%)

4 star:       548 (10%)

3 star:         93 (2%)

2 star:         80 (1%)

1 star:         76 (1%)

(2% lost due to rounding)

 Here is another example.  These numbers are for the popular YA Soft Science Fiction book Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

 2,484 Reviews

5 star:   1,906 (76%)

4 star:      373 (15%)

3 star:      106 (4%)

2 star:        50 (2%)

1 star:        49 (2%)

(1% lost due to rounding)

 Okay, so there are always a few malcontents.  The stats still show that most people really liked these books, right?  In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 94% gave it four or five stars.  For Hunger Games, it was 91%.

Yes and no.  There are two reasons why these figures do not necessarily represent the overall opinions of readers of those particular genres.  The most obvious is that no statistics indicate how many applicable genre readers decided not to read these after seeing the description on the book jacket or on Amazon.  The reader reviews only represent the opinions of people who actually thought enough of the book to pick it up and give it a shot based on the marketing and, possibly, other reviews.  In other words, only those who expected to like the book before reading it were in the pool of potential reviewers.  The other reason is that many people (myself included) are more likely to write a positive review for a book they liked and simply not say anything about the stinkers.

So what is it beyond genre that makes someone want to read a book and, having read it, like it?  I think much of the answer to this question lies in what it is different people are looking for in their reading experience.

I have probably read thousands of fiction books.  Until recently, I never really kept count or, except for a few I really liked, kept copies.  These were in various genres but primarily science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, and YA although I have also read several mysteries, and books considered literary fiction.  Some I liked, some I didn’t, and I asked myself why this was.  What was it about one book I really liked while another in the same genre, possibly with a similar plot left me cold?  I have come to realize that, for me, the tone and mood of the novel matters more than the genre.

If you are not familiar with tone and mood as they apply to literature, here are some quick definitions.

Tone – The tone of a novel reflects the author’s attitude toward not only the characters and events he creates but toward the story itself as a whole as well as toward the reader.  It is conveyed by how the author tells the story including choice of setting, vocabulary, and other details.  A single book can have more than one tone simultaneously and they can be mixed in an almost infinite number of combinations.

Following are some words that can describe tone:

Amused, Angry, Cheerful, Clear, Conciliatory, Conversational, Detailed, Formal, Gloomy, Humorous, Imploring, Informal, Ironic, Lighthearted, Matter-of-fact, Neutral, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Playful, Pompous, Resigned, Sad, Satirical, Serious, Suspicious, Witty. . .

An example may help to clarify this concept.  Terry Pratchett populates his immensely popular Discworld fantasy novels with likeable and believable characters and he puts them in situations that can seem very real–except he conveys through the use of a lighthearted and satirical tone that he does not take them seriously and neither should the reader.  Neither they nor the world they inhabit can really exist, and yet the stories are immensely enjoyable and have important meaning and relevance.  It’s not easy to do but Sir Pratchett is a master at it.

Mood – The mood of a story is the prevailing emotion the reader experiences when reading the book.  Setting, plot, dialog, images, and many other factors can be used to convey mood.  Sometimes the mood will remain the same from the first page of a novel to the last; other times it will change because of changes in the plot or characters.  The emotion the reader feels at the end, however, is the most important for defining the overall mood of the book.

Following are some words that can describe mood:

Anxious, Cold, Disgusted, Depressed, Excited, Fanciful, Frightened, Frustrated, Gloomy, Happy, Hopeful, Idealistic, Intellectual, Joyful, Lonely, Loss, Melancholy, Mournful, Mysterious, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic, Romantic, Sad, Sentimental, Sorrowful, Suspenseful, Suspicious, Tense, Thoughtful . . .

Basic emotions such as these provide the mood for the story.

A good example of tone and mood is provided here using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as and examplehttp://www.online-literature.com/austen/prideprejudice/

The tone of the novel is light, satirical, and vivid.  The mood is intellectual and cold.  In this book, lack of strong emotion is the prevailing mood.

Notice that words that can be used to describe tone can also be used to define mood because both are dependent on feeling.  You can think of mood as the overall feeling of the work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone as the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.

This blog post has already gone much longer than I had originally intended, so even though this has not been an exhaustive exploration of tone and mood, it’s time to wrap it up.

My point in this post is to point out that there are aspects of fiction beyond genre that may be better indicators of whether or not a person will like a particular book.  A bit of introspection has led me to suspect that the most important–to me at least–are tone and mood.  As to why that is will have to wait for another blog post though.

Related Posts:

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

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