I have read fairly widely in the thriller genre, mostly bestsellers, and one thing I've noticed is a wide disparity in the quality of the prose. Writers like Nelson DeMille and Gillian Flynn are fine wordsmiths, in my opinion, while a couple of NYT bestsellers who come to mind couldn't write their ways out of paper bags. Starting every third or fourth sentence with a dependent clause, for example, is not only bad form, it's just plain annoying. Of course, as I noted in my previous discussion, this is only my opinion, but it does seem that quality prose is in no way, shape, or form, a prerequisite to bestsellerdom.


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There's a minimum level that has to be met, but it's pretty low. The quality of the writing is well down the list of things the average person looks for in a book, which is not surprising. Most people read to be entertained, period. They have plenty on their minds already; they don't need to think about why this entertained them. Those of us who care about such things need to make peace with the fact that we are the outliers.

Those of us who care about such things need to make peace with the fact that we are the outliers.

True. I think I've made peace with it, but it's still annoying when you buy a book with rave reviews and the writing turns out to be shoddy as hell. I like to give authors I haven't read previously a try, but lately it seems I get burned more often than not. At $14.99 for the e-book version! Once bitten twice shy, I suppose.

I've long noted the same phenomenon, Jude, the expansive range in quality of prose amongst best selling mystery & suspense writers. The way I make sense of it is by segmenting the readers in my head. There are simply a lot of readers--probably a majority--for whom story is everything, assuming that the "minimum level" of prose quality, as Dana puts it, is met. When I started out reading in the genre I was such a reader. (No more!) God help me, I used to read James Patterson! (To be fair, I probably learned a trick or two from him about writing suspense fiction.)

Yet I think excellent prose can help an author to find an audience. A lot of readers for whom story is everything, including fans of Patterson, won't mind a well turned phrase, or a brilliant simile, and might even enjoy it. Other readers actually require top notch prose, and these people often include literary agents and editors, who obtain much more cachet, if not cash, by publishing, say, John le Carre than Harlan Coben.

Yeah, the $14.99 makes it tough. Otherwise, it's kind of like asking if the quality of a Big Mac matters - no one would say it's the best hamburger available but it is a bestseller. But it is cheaper...

Could there be truth in the old newspaper adage: It's what you say, not how you say it?

And "quality writing" is an opinion like anything else. Because ultimately writing is communication, I believe simple is best -- clarity of idea and thought, clarity of the language. Like Willie Mays playing center field, a good writer makes the whole thing look too easy. JMHO.

I was very lucky in how I learned to read as an adult. Younger, I read for story, period. Then I'd start to notice how some boos were more entergtaining than others because of an occasional turn of phrase or digression that may not have moved the story forward, but was a fun or rewarding break. About that time i started to notice the holes in what I had been reading: lack of imaginative story-telling, cheats in the plot, characters whose sole purpose in life was to fulfill a lot point. Robert B. Parker got me thinking about some of this. Then I heard he was heavily influenced by Chandler, so I tried him. Then Hammett. James Lee Burke took me a few tries to get into before I appreciated what he was doing. Ed McBain. Now I'm looking forward to my next James Ellroy. had I come to him first, I would probably have backed away altogether.

I was also lucky in that my first two great leaps forward in reading came during period of un-or underemployment. Without workaday things on my mind, I wanted more from my entertainment, both reading and visual. I had time to think about them. A lot of people don;t have that luxury. (Though I hardly thought of unemployment as a luxury at the time.)

I just tossed a  new-to-me author's book that should have met my requirements: British police procedural, traditionally published, one of 14 in a series already published.  No grammar problems:  Severn House has some of the finest copy-editing available.  But the prose was so pedestrian I couldn't stomach it.  It read like something you'd expect a retired police inspector to write who had decided to start a second career as an author.  Which it is.  :)

On the other hand, I finished Cotterill's THE MERRY MYSOGYNIST, though it contains at least one horrible grammar error.  This, published by Soho, clearly did not receive proper attention, but it was an amusing and otherwise well-written book.

So the word "writing" covers a very broad spectrum.  Some shortcomings are tolerable if the rest is above average.  But sometimes the awkward use of the language can become so dominant that the reader can't take it for more than 10-20 pages.

Because ultimately writing is communication, I believe simple is best -- clarity of idea and thought, clarity of the language.

Absolutely. But some of us recognize amateurish prose when we read it. The overall rhythm is off. The dialogue is "on the nose" in places; or, obversely, irrelevant to the story at hand. There are too many long sentences in a row. Too many short sentences in a row. Word repetition in close proximity. Unintentional rhymes. Too many fragments. Too many run-ons. Unclear dialogue attribution. Unclear pronoun attribution. Bloated descriptive passages. Long boring back stories on multiple secondary characters. Etc.

What I don't understand is how people who consistently write like this become bestselling authors in the first place. How did they ever even land an agent?

What it boils down to, I think, is that the writing just really doesn't matter to most people. Or that most people don't even know bad from good. Or something. I think that's a shame, but it is what it is. The only real problem I have with it is when I shell out a healthy chunk of change and then feel compelled to read such slop.

Well, there's the library for sampling.

Well, there's the library for sampling.

I've been buying mostly e-books for the past couple of years. I do read the samples, but on some of them it seems greater attention to quality was spent on the first chapter or prologue. Almost as if someone else wrote it.

That's easy to explain.  Everybody's been preaching for years that agents and editors only look at the first chapter.  So people spend more time on that, and maybe get professional help.  Of course, this applies more to new authors looking for publishers than someone who's already hat 13 novels published.

And it illustrates that the "gatekeepers" aren't really interested in quality.  They just want the sales.  Severn House publishes primarily for U.S. library sales, spends no money on promotion, doesn't provide books to reviewers except the trade ones, and pays very small advances. (I had two novels published by Severn House, so I know what their business plan is like).

And it illustrates that the "gatekeepers" aren't really interested in quality. 


Well they sure pretend to be. And I think they truly are, based on interviews with agents and editors that I've read, some dealings with them. It's true they don't care about quality when they see dollars signs, e.g., Snooki's novel and other celeb offerings, anything with a ready-made market.


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