You Really Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover

We've all seen movies where someone falls into a river, climbs out, and while on the boat that has rescued them is suddenly completely dry. Or movies with a fight scene where someone falls on their back on solid ice, then jumps right back up and resumes fighting without so much as an "Ouch!" Yeah, right.

A few days ago I finished reading a book. The story held much promise, but the execution was lacking, loaded with far-fetched situations and, at least in the beginning, writing more suggestive of a rough draft than a finished product.

The topic of Not Ready for Prime Time books getting into print without adequate editing is a hot one right now. Romantic Times magazine has published reader letters in which they complain about rampant typos and other aspects of poor editing, and Blogging in Black has featured discussions about the same.

The book I read didn't have any typos, but there's more to being not ready for prime time than misspellings. This particular novel did mix up timelines (Obviously I can't give the precise example; I'm not out to trash someone's work here. But as a similar situation I offer the scene in the movie Titanic where Rose, on the run with Jack from her fiance's manservant, gives the man the finger . . . something I found jolting because the setting was the year 1912, decades before this obscene gesture came into being). It also contained several implausible situations, one glaring incident in particular that I simply couldn't buy. I'm amazed that these got past both the author and their editor.

An editor's job isn't just to merely check the spelling and punctuation. They're supposed to point out how improbable a situation is, or that the author might be referring to an incident that hadn't happened yet, which can be very easy to do when writing a novel set in years past with present-day mindset, even if it's just a few years. (The 1987 film Wall Street announced at the very beginning that the story began action took place in 1985, then in an early scene a character describing the notorious Wall Street Wizard Gordon Gekko says that he was on the phone selling within seconds of learning that the the Challenger rocket blew up - an event that didn't happen until 1986.)

Minor incidents, like the one I cited from Wall Street and the one in a novel I read which was set in the first half of the 20th Century, where a character who'd been killed in World War II sent regrets to a wedding held in 1953, are really not a big deal, because they have little effect on the plot (although I do maintain that if hundreds of readers noticed the latter, it should have been picked up in the editing phase.) But huge mistakes, like in the book I read where 20 years was misplaced in the lives of prominent elderly characters, to the point where one woman died at an age that was roughly equal to the year she was married, reduced what had been a compelling story to just plain unbelievable fluff, for these old folks would at best be over 100 at this pivotal part of the story and, more likely, deceased. You can't just make characters 20 years younger all of a sudden because it fits the plotline.

One of my books, The People Next Door, contained an unfortunate error in a character name early on, one that my personal editor remembers correcting but somehow got through. I was expecting readers to point that error out to me. They didn't. It was rather jarring - I referred to a character by the name of another character who wasn't even in the scene. But if anyone noticed, they didn't tell me.

Back to the Titanic. This was a highly successful movie, breaking box-office records, but I have to wonder . . . did anyone other than me notice how implausible it was? The story of the sinking was narrated by one character, yet contained numerous scenes where she was not present (the scene on the bridge where the iceberg is first spotted, the chaos on the decks as people fought to get to lifeboats, the scheming of her fiance and his manservant, etc.) and would have no way of knowing what transpired.

The publishing world has to be deaf and blind not to recognize consumer discontent with poorly edited books. Whether they will cut back on trying to flood the market with books in an effort to pump up their profits remains to be seen, but if they do, I hope they will pay equal attention to complaints about stories with farfetched or downright nonsensical plot devices as they do to the spelling and punctuation. There's more to a book than an eye-catching cover. The content has to mean something.

The dilemma of this is that books with implausible aspects to their plots are often popular with readers, getting wonderful ratings, which tells me they are either are not comprehending or they just don't care. If a publisher is making money, why should they slow down for quality?


Gwyneth Bolton said...

Great post, Bettye. I think the other issue with this is that people bring different knowledge basis to the reading. So, what stands out to some of us others don't catch because they don't know about XY or Z.

It comes down to writers taking the time to make sure that their stuff is correct and editors making sure that happens. Every reader won't catch things. And if these kinds of inconsistencies are the only things that make a book not work for some, it's easy to see why others are ranking them so favorably.

Using your example of the Titantic, I didn't even blink at her giving the man the finger. I have no idea when folks started flipping folks the bird historically. But you're right, it's on the writer to know if he or she is going to use it. I'm rambling now... Great post.


bettye griffin said...

Thanks for your response, Gwyneth. I was doing a little rambling myself. Glad you stuck with it to see what my point was.

I did a little research (something I did to confirm my suspicions of errors on the book I read) and found that the origin of the bird, like that of the peace gesture, are hotly debated (makes me wonder about the thumbs-up or down gesture) and can possibly date back thousands of years. The earliest public example I saw was in 1964, and I remember firsthand when it became more prevalent around '67, '68. It's possible it might have been used much earlier, but it seemed out of place to me in both the setting and the character (It wouldn't have seemed quite so jarring if it came from the lower-class Jack).

Thanks for getting me off my duff to look it up.


Donna D said...

I love this post, Bettye.

I think the main reason that these types of issues arise is because readers don't complain loudly enough about such things. I recently read a book that had such awful writing it made me cringe to get through it. Once I finished, I said to myself, "I will never purchase anything by this author again." Sadly, I didn't take it upon myself to say anything to the author or the publisher. After all, it's just my opinion, right?

I think another reason that it happens so frequently in movies and TV is that continuity editors miss those things. And most people watching for the first time don't quite pick up on those things. It's only after the 2nd or 3rd viewing that I usually start nit-picking. I'm still trying to remember that scene you mentioned in Titanic and I've seen that movie several times. :)

bettye griffin said...

The effort involved in contacting an author or publisher about the contents of a book is more than most of us have the energy for. I've seen too many authors take the stance that they're just being picked on for the hell of it, or that the unhappy reader doesn't like them for some reason, or some other third-grade attitude when they get a bad review. Publishers let the sales talk for them. So I suspect it would be futile.

FYI, Rose gave the manservant the finger when she and Jack got into the elevator and it was descending while he looked on in frustration.


Patricia W. said...

Great post!

I remember the finger incident in Titanic, and I too remember thinking, "Did they do that back then?" It just seemed out of character.

I didn't catch the Wall Street one, although I've seen it many times.

I think it depends on the reader's frame of reference and general knowledge as to whether these things are noticed and have impact. I recently read a book where there were a lot of references to the African-American heroine's favorite color being red, and that's why she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Uh-oh! AKA colors are pink and green. Delta colors are crimson and creme (or red and white). As a Delta, for me, it stuck out like a sore thumb and drew me out of the story. An non-sorority member might not notice.

I wonder whether it's an issue of the editor not knowing and therefore trusting the author to have done the research, or whether the editors simply are brushing over this level of detail? In my example, it might not even occur to a non-AA editor that (a) these are real sororities, and (b) the colors were mixed up. Given that authors mix fact with fiction all the time, how do they know what details to check and which ones to bypass? Things like dates of real events make sense but what about other details?

bettye griffin said...

Good point, Pat. An editor really won't have time to point out every little detail to authors, only things that strike him/her as odd. It's perfectly safe to presume that an author did their research (this particular error was probably just an unfortunate mix-up on the author's part.) And if the editor wasn't a Delta or an AKA, it's likely they won't know their respective color schemes. I never joined; I personally find the idea of initiation rites unpleasant, but I did some signings with the Deltas a few years back and knew to wear red and white because I did my research!


Chelle Sandell said...

Thats one of the issues about writing to publish that worries me...research. A friend who is published had done alot of research on learning disabilities for a child character in her ms. She had a reader send her a scalding letter reprimanding her for using false info. But the research she'd done was based on a certain issue and was right on. I guess there will always be varying info on some things you can't help but it's so important on most to make sure it's correct.

bettye griffin said...

I agree, Chelle. I ran into trouble at my critique group for including that an ER patient with an arm laceration was given two pill for pains to bring home with him. A couple of people said that wouldn't happen, they'd just be stitched up and sent home and told to take Tylenol. Apparently, that had been their experiences with ER visits for their kids. But I'd transcribed many an ER report that said differently. The reference stayed in, and the book was published.