Unfinishable books: Are the publishers eating themselves?

by |June 17, 2010

Not so long ago at a gathering of writers, one of my colleagues was sitting next to a woman who had published a book every eight months for more than a decade. This got me thinking about whether or not I could actually finish reading all works by my very favourite authors if they were churned out every eight months and I have to say, the answer was a very definite NO.

I used to subscribe to the view that once you started a book, you definitely had to finish it. It was a matter of respect – respect for the author who laboured over every sentence, nay, every word. And respect for the written word itself. Somehow the mere fact that the words were arranged on paper before the reader, implied an imperative to consume every single one of them.

I came to this idea partly because of the influence of a friend from my 20s who was almost an obsessive compulsive reader. No matter how inexcerable the book, he always finished it. He considered it a character flaw to read more than the first page without getting (in proper order) to the last. He was both didactic and persuasive.

But my need to progress from beginning to end, without deviation and without procrastination, was probably implanted in me in high school days by a certain Mrs Mitchell, my English teacher. Flame haired, of dramatic disposition, it was she that brought literature off the page and into my heart. From Lord of the Flies, to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, from Canterbury Tales to The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, it was Mrs Mitchell’s well modulated narration that imprinted reading into my brain.

Unfortunately, Mrs Mitchell was no match for the tyranny of the well-oiled usually globalised publishing machine, which churns out thousands of new titles every month. For a bookseller, reading moves from being an idiosyncratic pleasure to an extension of work, and more is the pity. As for always finishing a book, well it is pretty hard to justify if you don’t love it and you have another 30 stacked up all needing to be consumed by the 26th of the month (the date around which all the next month’s new releases come in).

Of course, like thousands before me, I entered the bookselling world arrogantly thinking I was widely read. Little did I realise that I was widely read in about 1 per cent of the book world. Maybe less. A very humbling experience. And it took me only a few weeks to realise that to be a bookseller, I had to find away to make books appealing from Madame Bovary (which I love) to The Five Greatest Warriors (which I hate).

I put this dilemma to a friend of mine recently, a person with many years experience of customers and authors, and he told me his maxim. If he isn’t hooked on a book by the number of pages that corresponds to his age, he gives it away. Now that I am reading for work rather than for pleasure, I have applied the theory and in a great number of cases (The Five Greatest Warriors for example) I can tell you that I wish I was a lot younger.

So how does an online bookseller deal with all of this and still be able to sleep at night? Well, in general I take the coward’s option. I simply don’t bother reviewing the books I hate. Why put off a customer with a damning review plastered all over the “product page” on our site. And afterall, we have sold substantially more of The Five Greatest Warriors than Madame Bovary, so what would I know anyway?

And what about books that are just plainly disappointing? The ones that make you feel guilty that a perfectly good tree has been cut down to make the paper and you just know the book is going to be remaindered? Well at the risk of offending my good friends in publishing, not to mention a few authors, I am going to actually come and out and say it. I had a lot of trouble getting to my requisite number of pages with these three below. In fact, I am going to have to plant a few seedlings this weekend, just to compensate for my part in the carbon that was wasted  unnecessarily on their publication.

So here it is – for once – three books that I wouldn’t buy. But don’t blame me if one of them turns out to be the next Matthew Reilly.

MEMOIRS OF A FAT BASTARD: HOW I LOST MY GUT AND GAINED A LIFE

Chris Gibson grew up in Mel Gibson’s shadow. Actually that is not entirely true. Mel outshone his brother Chris in just about everything, but Chris’ shadow was always bigger because Chris was the said “fat bastard” in the title.

Its publisher describes the book thus:

This is a bittersweet account of how a middle-aged man on the road to destruction turned his life and health around on his own terms. It is a telling and frequently hilarious story of the ways in which some men can lose their way, and the way back to finding meaning and happiness amid the competing pressures of being provider, family man and all-round good Aussie bloke.

I presume the publisher has actually read all the book. I have not. However on the strength of the pages that I read may I just point out that just because you are related to someone famous, it doesn’t make you interesting. Especially if the person to whom you are related is completely odious. And constantly swearing, without having mastered profanity as humour, nor profanity as threat, is tedious in the extreme.

Most of us don’t have very interesting lives and Chris is one of them. What lifts an unexceptional life into an exceptional book, one that someone is happy to pay $34.99 for, is good writing and the creation of emotional tension and I am glad that his publisher, and his wife, care about Chris because I don’t.

Memoirs of a Fat Bastard is a July release and is available to pre-order here.

SOMEWHERE DOWN A CRAZY RIVER: A SPIRITED LIFE CACHING LOVE, FISH AND WISDOM by Robyn Catchlove

Now Robyn Catchlove has had an interesting life.

Robyn Catchlove wasn’t destined for married life and two and a half  kids in the suburbs of Adelaide…So in her early twenties, she walks away from a marriage to seek out adventure and lead the life she’s always dreamed of.

What followed was Les, building a boat in Cairns, and 8 years bouncing around the hallucinogenic tropics of far north Queensland, all of which took her deep into the heart of the exclusively male world of professional fishing.

From all accounts of people who have actually met and spoken with her, Robyn is warm, engaging and marvellously eccentric. And she has a million stories to tell about her fascinating life. The trouble is however, that an interesting life doesn’t make necessarily for an interesting book. The reason that authors are authors is that they are compelled to write and they perfect their craft over a life time. This usually means they have to mine other people’s stories, or use their imaginative powers to conjure up fiction, because they quickly run out of source material going over the who-did-what to-whom of their own experiences. Sorry Robyn, but in my opinion, reading this is like listening to a friend re-count their dreams. Great source material with poor delivery means that any potential emotional impact is frittered away.

Somewhere Down a Crazy River is out now.

And so to fiction.

I really wanted to like COMRADES by Dominic Knight. A co-founder of the Chaser and author of Disco Boy (which I tried and failed to finish), I was attracted to the premise of the book.

Sydney University is Australia’s pre-eminent finishing school for politicians, and its Students’ Representative Council is the nursery where generations of future leaders have cut their first dodgy preference deals and performed their first backstabbings. Comrades is the story of one student President, Eddie Flanagan, and the brutal struggle to replace him, as a menagerie of campus lefties, Liberals and a would-be comedian dressed as a rooster battle for the spoils…Comrades is an affectionate portrait of student life, with its lofty idealism, constant hedonism and irrepressible humour.

That got me in. Having been a student of Sydney University and participated fully in the idealism, hedonism and humour (well, I amused myself) of the day, I clearly remember a certain current leader of the opposition making his run for the SRC (in fact, if I recall correctly, he was known on campus by his hyphenated name, Tony F***-ing-Abbott).

I really wanted to like this book. Alas, it is as hit and miss as The Chaser itself.  Lacking emotional depth and character development, there is no reason for the reader to actually care. All that wonderful material falls sadly flat. Comrades is another book  I was happy I to put aside once I reached my age limit.

Perhaps I really am too old. I like to think not. I think that in fact in their quest for the next bankable author, the next Mao’s Last Dancer or The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, the publishers are eating themselves. Hence them serving up the brother of a disgraced actor whose life is a train wreck. Oh, for a slimmed down publishing industry which is a bit more choosy about what it commits to. In this era of print on demand, e-pub and iPad, discernment is definitely going to be a casualty.

Comrades is an August release and is available for pre-order here.

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  • SueO

    June 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I totally related to this post. I am still trying to finish Shantaram (after starting it 2 years ago) and I just can’t get there. Great writing, but mired down in sometimes tedious detail! I know this book is much-loved by some, but I just can’t manage it!

    • June 18, 2010 at 11:35 am

      On advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through: “This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” Dr Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson
      A book worthy of being read all the way through!

    • June 18, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      I loved the idea of Shantaram, but for me, it suffered from being about 300 pages too long.

  • June 18, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Great post Toni! Interesting topic, and the Book Guru’s comment/quotation is very apt. I can’t fault it… but. But. But I’ve always been one of those people who *has* to read to the end of a book once started. Partly it’s my stupid personality (school reports always said “diligent” and “conscientious”, which I was proud of in year 9, but now wish had said “wildly imaginative and non-conformist”), but the main reason is that quite often a hideous/awful/boring book has suddenly blossomed for me half way through. Not everything is love at first sight, and don’t psychologists tell us we shouldn’t trust that emotion anyway? (They do.)

    Patrick White’s ‘Voss’ was a case in point… it felt like *I* was lost in the outback, so furiously did I struggle with that book- yet for some reason it all came together in the last 5 pages, which I finished with tears running down my face. Also “The Man Who Loved Children”, which I now recognise as a book that changed my life- yet for the first third I was just gobsmacked at why anyone would want to read about the awful, childish, abusive, stupid Sam Pollitt. Then (and again I don’t know why) I suddenly ‘got’ it, and the rest of the book sung.

    I could probably think of 3 or 4 more examples, and also easily an equal number of books I have finished, but never stopped hating (Austerlitz springs to mind rather quickly, as does Banville’s ‘The Sea’). The point for me though is that I never know what’s going to happen between myself and a book, and that’s why I push on. It’s just such a great moment when something suddenly opens up to you.

    (I will admit I don’t start any without careful consideration and reading of reviews/blurbs/ asking friends etc…. and am not afraid to skim if I have to. That’s how I got through Shantaram. Too much bloody detail! )

    • June 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

      I have to say that I have very rarely given up on a book entirely. But I am conservative in my choices. I only tend to read books with well established reputations, books known for their excellence. That way, if I don’t like a book, I know that it’s my fault and not the books. I put it back on the shelf promising to return to it later when, hopefully, having developed the necessary faculties, I can read the book with enjoyment.

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