by Michael Neff
This is a question that comes up time and time again, and it's always difficult to answer. But the answers have implications for the entire publishing industry.
Ultimately, the publication of bad novels, i.e., novels in any genre deemed poorly written by any reasonable reader of that genre, is not the fault of the reader, but of those involved in the publication process, from agent to publisher. How can it not be? Can one blame the gods or the stars in this matter?
I've found that the majority of literary agents and acquisition editors are intelligent and savvy people, not to mention hardworking! However, there remains a number of types involved in the process who really should not be there. The culture weeds out some of them, as a matter of course, but many persist. And these types, like film biz types, will never fault themselves for the failure of their products. If the film fails, someone must be blamed (like the actor or director), not the studio execs who made the decision to enthusiastically move forward with an inferior product.
After working with scores of agents, I've met a few who really don't have a clue what makes for a good story, or what makes for good literature in general--and we're not talking James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, we're talking literary work that sells well in the marketplace--like Water for Elephants or The Hours.
In other words, these particular people really don't have any taste.
Ok, so let's just assume that only 20% of active literary agents currently pushing projects in the marketplace are a bit short on taste and knowledge. Well, what of it? That's still a lot of projects, represented by them, being pushed in the face of editors at major houses. Hopefully, editors, who are generally pretty sharp, will see through these loser manuscripts, but what if they are overworked and don't get to read the whole novel? What if they trust the agent too much because they work for a respectable agency? What if their assistant who "reads" the project is fearful of saying no to the project because he or she detects an atmosphere of optimism for it that will reflect badly on them if tell the truth? What if the novel has been written by a name author and the reader knows he or she will lose their job if they raise a red flag?
Any number of scenarios are possible.
After all, how can one possibly explain the publication of monstrosities like Fan Tan and The Emperor's Children, two of the worst novels ever written in the English language? If you get a chance, read the one and two star reviews written by real readers, not sock puppets of the publisher. It's a real eye opener. And there are many more, many more novels on the shelves not quite as bad as the two above, but horrible enough that someone, somewhere, should have said something. But they did not, and yet, they were all, all represented by literary agents who are supposed to be the gatekeepers for the industry.
So what went wrong? Badly designed autos sometimes make it to the dealer floor, but bad novels make to the superstore display far more often.
Perhaps the managers and successful agents at major agencies should keep a closer eye on employees who are doing a questionable job. Perhaps they should methodically use an independent reader critique group made up of experienced and unbiased readers, answerable only to top management and forbidden to interact with agency staff.
Perhaps a few simple changes at the source will help winnow out some of the worst loser novels, even by name authors, before they make their way to the superstore shelves.
So what is the alternative? Biz as usual?
If new methods are not introduced at the ground level, the public will rebel even further and buy even fewer books. Let's be realistic. How many times can you falsely praise a bad novel before buyers as a whole become fatigued and wary?