The Unwilling Contrarian

The trouble with reading advance copies of books is, as I see it, that sometimes something crosses your desk, you decide to dive in and see what the fuss is about, and you find yourself profoundly disappointed. The flip side of this, of course, is that you read something early that you’re overwhelmingly excited by and can’t wait to encourage other people to read. That, however, is not the subject of this post.

So you finish this new novel with all the buzz and you think, “Wow. This is going to get creamed when it comes out. I can’t believe they’re making it into a big deal.” And then the book comes out and the New York Times raves about it. PW and B&N name it one of the ten best books of the year in its category. It sells thousands upon thousands of copies in its debut week. And you think…if this had come in through slush, I would have drop-kicked it back to the author in the blink of an eye.

I assume this has happened to all of you exactly as I describe.

Okay, fine, I’m talking about a very specific and current example, but the feeling of disliking something everyone else raves about is not completely new to me in any category whether it was feeling like the only person who didn’t love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or fruitlessly trying to explain to people why I thought E.T. was one of the most overrated movies of all time.

And I do have these debates, but how I handle them can go one of two ways. Either (a) I convince myself I only know idiots who can’t tell quality from trash, or (b) I feel a profound sense of disquiet and begin to doubt my taste in absolutely everything.

Just kidding!

(No I’m not.)

So what do you do when you’re the only person you know who fell asleep during Avatar or can’t for the life of you figure out why anyone loved 2666? Fight or flight? Extra confidence or a bundle of doubt?

12 Responses to The Unwilling Contrarian

  1. C. says:

    In movies, it’s The English Patient – it is the safest way to put me to sleep. (I’m also with you on E.T.)

    In new releases, there is a paranormal romance series that drives me up the frickin’ wall, because of its pronounced political agenda. There are just some things you don’t have your characters say or do if you don’t strongly support those ideas yourself, and I fail to see the value in having the author’s values repeatedly shoved down my throat. Thing is, I support the same values, but I really don’t want them served with a side of vampire sex.

    Although there are some divergent reviewers hating this (and the books in general) it has received stellar reviews across the board from critics and readers alike.

    I feel alone and confused, but prone to fight rather than flight. I guess it’s time to go write that review.

  2. If you think it’s bad as an agent when this happens, imagine what it might be like as an author trying to pry open the gates of publishing. (Especially when that book in particular lands a mountain of a contract.)

    When I read a great book, I reflect on my own writing and know I have to be as good as I can be. But really, that doesn’t change when I read the occasional overhyped mess that finds adoration in the public eye. (And to be fair, I haven’t run across many.) In the end, I still have to be as good as I can be. That’s all I can do as an author. I have no preconceptions that I am great or that I am a hack, though on certain days I may profess the latter.

    What I do have to believe is that I have good taste in what I write, and then strive to write it as best I can. My tastes and the industry’s tastes shift constantly, but all I can do is hope that at some point they become aligned. I’d be lying if I said that the accolades for the books you’re talking about don’t discourage me to some degree. However, if all I did was focus on doubt, I’d never get another word written. The system doesn’t work all the time, but I think it does work. The market makes corrections. For every book that’s a miss for me, there is a brilliant work just around the corner. I keep that in mind and hope that, at the very least, I can fall somewhere in the middle.

    So to answer your question, I guess I don’t fight or fly. Perhaps I indulge a little head-scratching. Maybe even a moment of self-loathing. But then I swear – that’s it. After, of course, an anonymous review. And a whiskey.

  3. I am hereby proposing that the industry officially start using the term “drop kick” in liu of rejection.

    “Yeah, my manuscript was drop kicked five times last week…”

    “You have a great voice, and there was much to admire, but unfortunately, I’m going to have to drop-kick.”

  4. Janet Rundquist says:

    For me most recently it was Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”. I was just in a book club discussion with others who LOVED it – and I was all “I could take it or leave it.” I will say, though, that the more we discussed it, the better I liked it… but should that be necessary? That might be an interesting blog post in and of itself. 😉

    But I figure, we all have those moments. Sometimes I am one of the masses, but I can totally understand why someone might NOT be a part of it… and vice versa. Sometimes I think I’m snobby, but then I’ll be one of those masses that loved (after finally being convinced to read it) The Help, and even the Twilight series… but totally understand why some of you reading this comment right now have just made gagging noises… (I’m pretty sure you all don’t rep any of these authors I just mentioned, right? Right?)

    And, like C says… review! If all the reviews were wonderful I’d be suspect…

  5. Barb Riley says:

    YES!!!!!!! OMG JIM, YES!!!!!!!! I just don’t get it. TWICE recently, I’ve read some really hyped up books. One has become required reading for many school programs. The other is a new style of writing and OMG it’s so amazing for a debut book, already sold film rights, etc. Yeah right! Both were a couple hundred pages too long and too boring. Blah blah blah.

    Both have TONS of stellar reviews… and both have a smaller population of one to three star reviews that had me nodding my head and agreeing. I know I’m not alone, but it’s strange how people gravitate toward something or away from something.

    It must be destiny. There’s no other explaination. I’m destined to hate this book. You’re destined to love it.

    :) That’s what I think.

  6. RamseyH says:

    I figured out a long time ago that if “everyone” loves something, I’m almost guaranteed not to like it much. I don’t know if that makes me antisocial or contrary or what, but it doesn’t really bug me when everyone else thinks something awful is awesome. If someone wants to try to convince me otherwise, I’ll state my mind, but otherwise it’s no big deal.

    I did enjoy Avatar, though.

  7. Julie says:

    As a book blogger, I’ve read some books that are extremely over-hyped. Sometimes a book lives up to my expectations and the buzz. Other times I think to myself, why did everyone like this book? If a book is receiving so much buzz, I put off reviewing it until I can form my own opinion. I don’t want all that noise clouding my own reading experience.

    Yes, there are certainly books I read and wonder why they ever got published and want to throw them across the room. But an agent and editor liked it enough to publish it. Then a book comes along that’s so great that it inspires my own writing.

    You are not alone…I’m not a fan of Avatar. I agree with Charles Barkley who said he could never get back those 3 hours of his life.

  8. Kaitlyne says:

    I’ve had sort of the opposite experience. For instance, I know that Dan Brown is pretty much universally loathed among writers as being talentless. Truth is…I kinda like him. I read Angels and Demons ages ago and actually enjoyed it. I see people complain, but I can’t help but think I’ve seen an awful lot worse.

    Makes me seriously question my writing ability to be honest. I wonder if perhaps he really is a hack and I’m just not good enough to understand why.

  9. Hillsy says:

    My default setting is: I’m wrong.

    ….And that runs the full gamut from which overarching ideology that ought to be driving force behind humanity, to the taste of broccoli. Doubting whether or not you “got” a book or not pales in comparison to doubting your own tastebuds.

  10. I tend to fall into the “If everybody likes it, it’s suspect” camp, but will also champion those gems that seem to get overlooked. The bottom line is, you have to be honest with yourself. Ask: “Am I watching/reading/listening to this because I’m SUPPOSED to, or because I WANT to?” And then give yourself permission to stop and move on to something that really does grab you. After all, we’re not in school anymore and we don’t have to do this for homework.

  11. Joelle says:

    Well…I actually take solace in it. It happens to me a lot, and when someone reads my book and doesn’t like it (not that this ever happens…haha), I just remind myself that “Everyone LOVED XXX” but I couldn’t stand it, which just goes to show…no one loves everything, and I feel better! Oh, and I also secretly feel smug that I’m right about said book, and everyone else is caught in the hype. :-)

  12. Anu Kalgudi says:

    Jim, you read my mind! I’ve been a loyal follower of your posts for a while now, and this time I feel compelled to overcome my shyness and finally comment.

    This reminds me of an incident that happened recently, that’s been bothering me to bits. While I was working in a remote village in India, I came across a lady raising 5 girls all on her own, with no education, no proper skills or job set and earning less than a dollar a day. I was very casually told that she would, in all probability, end up in prostitution. And send at least one of her daughters away to a ‘boarding school’ in order to make ends meet. Her story like many other’s, is burnt in my mind.

    When I mentioned this to an acquaintance who was interested in developing an online portal for writers in India (our publishing industry is still in its nascent stages), he was very dismissive about it. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, people don’t want to know stories like that. Everybody knows on some level how downtrodden things are in the world. His message: not interested. What he wanted to read, was a story about an American in India who gave up everything to come here and work. Want to know why? Because you could create a hype with that one.

    And here I come to my challenge as a writer. People don’t always have the interest for good stories of substance. Worse, they wouldn’t even recognize them if slapped in the face with one. And in the Indian context, even if you do have your ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ success, it’s usually because a negative side of India culture is always portrayed. Somehow, we have to conform to international standards of right and wrong to sell the book. But that rarely ever captures the real beauty and complexity of India and always magnifies Her faults.

    I imagine that many writers face similar challenges to mine in their own way: striking a balance with being true to your story while keeping in mind the public’s mentality. The saddest part for me, is that it’s been years since I was really inspired by a good book or a great movie because I think people have stopped taking chances. Am I a pessimist to think that way? I don’t know…

    It makes me want to hold firm and fight, to give deserving literature a fighting chance. And occasionally, to embrace a narcissistic sense of superiority that believes the world is full of idiots.

    I console myself with a food analogy: salads are healthy and wonderful, but let’s face it, we all need french fries every once in a while. Trash literature is like junk food for the mind. Sometimes it feels so good to laugh at it!

    And Unwilling Contrarian, I’m with you on Avatar. I went through a truck load of cheese popcorn to get through that movie. Still…it wasn’t as bad as ‘The Last Samurai’. I actually fell for that one till the very end. Then it slowly dawned on me that the last samurai left standing in Japan was Tom Cruise. Yeah. Yep. Not a good day for me, that one.

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