The journey - An alternate theory of books

 *via Women Running from Houses (a blog that "judges a book by its cover")

In my search for my next good book, I've been reading loads of samples on my Kindle and checking reviews of books on Amazon and GoodReads, trying to decide what to read next. Without naming any names, I have found books which seem to break all the rules - backstory or prologues at the beginning, duplication, repetition and over-description, cardboard characters or cliched plot moments. And yet many of these books have an average of 3.5 or 4 star ratings.  Essentially for every 1 reader who complains of faults, there are 10 others who loved the book.

I recently finished reading a book that I have not mentioned here or elsewhere - so let us say it will go utterly nameless. It is a recent bestseller that is too long and repetitive.  It shamelessly rips off concepts from other popular novels - not just derivative, it feels uncreative.  It offers up bad physical description (a horror I'm learning about in my own writing).  i.e. She splayed her hand out on his neck possessively. Heavens help us. Maybe I just dislike the word "splay".  I have never splayed a thing in my life.

And to top it off the main characters feel flat.  One is a little too perfect: The leading man is strong, handsome, protective, intelligent, sensitive, and... of course, rich. But the leading lady is neurotic, insecure and weak-minded - although still stunningly beautiful and brilliant. One of her most frequent scenes is lying limp in his arms as he caters to her every need. It is such a lovely fantasy, isn't it? No wonder women like it. As I read, I found myself wondering if he q-tipped her ears for her or cut her steak for her or folded her socks. And when these two characters jump too quickly into sappy forever hardcore love and the reader is supposed to latch onto their incredible chemistry which never quite feels justified.

And yet... it is a best seller and lots of folks love it.  Why?   It had take-you-away settings ranging from exotic to cup-of-tea comforting.  And of course, there was romance.  I'm calling it "blankie romance", a term I'm coining here for the kind of romance that is like a child's blankie - the totem of comfort, a romance that is so inevitable, so flawless, so epic - the ultimate fantasy that is a salve to our modern quandaries. And most of all it had a Big Idea, generating suspense and adventure, even if the execution could be better.

Now I say all this, not because I'm whiny and bitter that these types of books get published - maybe I'm still too naive or optimistic to feel that way. But primarily I want to recognize that many people read to be swept away, taken on a grand adventure, to meet new interesting people in new interesting places, in situations that rarely bear resemblance to reality and if you can manage that convincingly your average reader may overlook a variety of literary sins.

I'm hardly advocating for writerly slack.  I'm just saying that you can spend all your time trying to follow the rules and write perfect prose, but if you're not taking a reader on the journey they long to go on it doesn't really matter - whether it is a wild improbable journey or an intimate human journey. 

I'd like my writing to be perfect from every angle. Who wouldn't?  But it's a reminder to not get wrapped up in rule-following and perfection and forget the main objective: the pleasure of a reader turning pages.


  1. Hi Valerie, I am follow your post nmow for a while but I noticed only yesterday, that you have a special part in your blog dedicated to maybe motherhood. I want to thank you for your open words - it is so authentic. I am currently sitting in the same boat and struggling with having nobody to talk about it. People who have not made this experience yet cannot understand how we feel. For them becoming pregnant is the most simple thing in the world. In contrary, they get nervous if it does not work at the first or second try.
    So it is very nice to know one soul outside there (even virtually) that suffers from the same situation ;-)
    Eri (unserekleinefarm-erika.blogspot.com)

  2. Hahahha you are so funny. I don't like the word Splay either!

    <3 Belly B

  3. I've been reading "A Walk in the Woods"...it's good if you like nature, nonfiction, hiking, and stories without any female presence at all. I guess that's just the way it is.

  4. Hi Eri, Thanks so much for that! I'm glad to know what I shared meant something to you. It's hard to open up sometimes, and I'm always glad to know it makes someone else feel like they're not alone.

    And Belly B - I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who doesn't "splay".

    Iris - thanks for the book recommendation!

  5. V- thank your for this post. I got a load of books from the library and few weeks ago but as so disgusted with the weakness/flatness of the female characters. I mean does every single woman need to be redeemed? I am not looking for a someone gruff but someone well-rounded and not brought to life by a man. Don't get me wrong, I like romance but I'm so over this formula. At the very least, I would hope for some witty women leads. I am currently searching for rounder books.

  6. Great post! (and I don't think I've ever used the word 'splay' before).
    Playing by the rules can work wonderfully well, but yes I totally agree ... sometimes breaking the rules can lead to interesting and successful things too.

    I'm a perfectionist so I'm working hard on just letting go of a little of that control, and giving over to where the words want to travel to.