It’s CRAP, I tell you!

by J.T. Ellison

I was watching Richard Roper on Jay Leno the other night. The teaser before the segment’s commercial break was, "When we return, we’ll talk about the worst movies of the year." They came back and had a very interesting discussion about bad movies. Leno asked if there are times when the director knows the movie is going south during filming and moves forward anyway, or do they truly believe that they are making a great movie.

Roper replied, "Well, no one sets out to make a bad movie."

Of course they don’t. No one in their right mind wants to produce crap, be it a movie, television show, or even a book. We’ve all read a book or two that’s a complete stinker. I’ve had a few moments when I look back to see who the editor is, who the house is, and find brand names in the acknowledgments. How does that happen???

Yes, criticism is subjective at best. What I love, another will hate, and vice versa. And it is sooooo easy to read a book, or watch a film, and say man, that sucked. But can we explain why? And if it’s so terrible, how did it make it into our hands and onto our screens???

I need to limit this to discussing books, because I’m hopelessly lost when it comes to movie production. I’d love it if a few of our movie folks would chime in from that side of the fence.

As authors, we strive to make each book better than our last. We struggle and soar, we research and express, we do everything in our power to give good quality entertainment to our readers. Sometimes we have a deeper message. Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, it’s just plain escapist fiction, fun for the writer to write and the reader to read.

So how do we produce clunkers? Because I have to tell you, there isn’t an author on the planet who hasn’t written a book they believe in, given it to their editor, who is enthusiastic, gone through the process of being sold-in to booksellers, who are also enthusiastic, then gotten slammed with a crappy review. Does that mean a book is bad? No. A review is a review is a review. Nothing more, nothing less.

What about the books that get brilliant reviews, but the readers hate? What causes the disparity in opinion?

And how does a book that everyone, and I mean everyone, agrees is terrible, make it through the process? The books only a mother could love. How does the editor let it through? How does the publisher get behind it? How does it make it into stores???

Again, no one sets out to write a bad book. No one sets out to produce a terrible movie. But they do exist. So where’s the quality control? Where are the editors and publishers and agents who need to red light the process, send the book back to the author and say, "You need to rewrite this puppy."

I can understand how much more difficult that might be in a movie. Our Toni is producing an indie film right now, and she shared some of her duties with me. I was flabbergasted. Imagine that on a George Lucas scale, with millions upon millions of dollars invested into a film. Have you even really read the credits at the end of a movie? Thousands of people are involved. Scrapping it to start over isn’t exactly feasible.

But if a novel isn’t up to snuff, what can we do? We’re one person, working with one editor, one agent, etc. There aren’t a million people on the payroll. Why can’t we full stop and start over?

As strange as it may seem, authors are people. Which means that they are experiencing this little thing called life, which has a tendency to get in the way. Say, God forbid, a loved-one passes away mid-way through a book. Is that novel going to be the author’s best effort? Maybe, maybe not. But can you insert a disclaimer in the preface and apologize to the reader? Or should the book be pulled from the queue and the author given a pass until they feel ready to produce again?

I’m speculating here, and I’m curious about your opinion. How do the bad books/movies make into the hands of the consumer? Do we do ourselves a disservice by not having a system of checks and balances to make sure that bad work doesn’t make it out there? Does it matter???

Wine of the Week: Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2004



14 thoughts on “It’s CRAP, I tell you!

  1. Gerald So

    I think when we get down to it, only a few people need to approve of a book in order to get it published: the author, the agent, and the editor. Many more people can disapprove of the book; the author has no say in that, and it doesn’t change the fact the book was published. I’ve been dissatisfied with my share of books by name authors, but these get published because they will sell; that’s the bottom line after all.

    As for unforeseen events adversely affecting the finished product, I would think it happens more often to movies than to books: more people necessarily involved in the creative process, budget concerns, time constraints, etc.

  2. Patti Abbott

    Slightly off-topic here but dealing with what is a good book.From my experience in a book group where we only choose books that have already been much lauded, there are always 2-3 of the 8-10 women who dislike any one book. They find it boring, overly didactic, poorly written, too long, too padded, too violent, old-fashioned, too post-modern and so on. The only books they all liked in five or more years was Kite Runner and a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The Hollywood development system ENSURES more bad movies will be made than good. It’s pretty much a miracle when something good does get made.

    It’s a much better system in publishing, but there are still things that happen… my publisher decided they wanted my fourth book third, so I had to put the one I was into aside. It was really excruciatingly hard to switch gears and get into the new one, and I worry that I don’t have enough time to do it justice. So there are external factors that make the circumstances not optimum. Circumstances like – life.

  4. Jeremy

    Bad movies occur becauseA) Some movies with limited plot or logic do well because of pretty people and big explosions. As a result, many do not worry if the film they are making has gaps in logic or has a script that appears to have been written by monkeys.

    B) Joel Schumacher is allowed on a movie set.

  5. Dana King

    I have junked over 100 pages of a WIP and essentially started over, salvaging what I could. I think every writers should have the patience and self-appraisal to do that, but I know publishing deadlines can get in the way for established authors who have a book due. (Or, as in Alexandra’s case, they want to switch the sequence. I know that hurt; I hope it didn’t leave a mark.)

  6. John Dishon

    I think part of it is because people don’t really say what they feel about a book unless they’re Publishers Weekly or some other established site. Everywhere I go online you see people patting each other on the back saying how great their latest story is, and you know some of it’s lies. To hear people talk to fellow writers, you’d think a bad book or story was never written. Whether it’s because we want to help our careers, or maybe the writer is a friend–anyway, there’s some lip service going on, and if more people learned to take criticism and acknowledge when a work is no good, better writing would occur.

    Also, in response to what Alexandra said: Having to sell out your story for your career can hurt the story. If you’re forced to work on something when you’re not ready or when you’re not interested, or whatever, rather than writing what you want to write, then there’s a better chance that the finished story won’t be as good.

    Then there’s writing for publication instead of writing because you’re really into the story. If you have your eye on the bottom line, the story can suffer because you’re being too self-conscious, trying to make sure your story will sell, and taking out or leaving out some aspects or elements of a story that you or someone else think might not sell.

    @Jeremy: Your A) definitely applies to books too.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    On the other hand, how I FEEL about a story rarely has anything to do with how well it turns out. I think the creative process is more fickle than that. Sometimes the things you most hate writing turn out to be your best work, and vice-versa.

    I don’t pretend to understand why that is, but it is.

  8. Zoe Sharp

    JT – Get well soon! We’re all thinking of you.

    Excellent post, as always. I agree about movies. I often watch the credits roll and think, how could all those people have put in so much effort to produce such a poor end result? And so often it seems to be down to a lacklustre script.

    I freely admit to being fairly lowbrow when it comes to movies. ‘Die Hard’, ‘Under Seige’, that kind of thing. But those movies are rescued by interesting characters, brilliant villains, and good, witty dialogue.

    I realise I’m looking at this an a total outsider, but so often it seems they start shooting without a finished script, or they change it dramatically from day to day and have teams of people furiously scribbling through the night. Have you ever tried to get anything done by committee? The word compromise comes to mind.

    As for writers who occasionally turn out less than their best, I believe the correct term is the contractual obligation book. I’ve read stuff by big names whose work I’ve really enjoyed in the past, and you can tell they’re just going through the motions. You feel really let down. Most of us turn ourselves inside out trying to avoid that.

  9. Gar Haywood

    One reason I think truly awful books make it to print is the relative anonymity of the editors involved. Who takes the brunt of the public criticism when a book stinks? The author, of course. So, beyond his or her job security (and even that is probably rarely at risk), where is an editor’s incentive to keep a godawful book out of print? Rather than fight with the author over massive rewrites or pull the plug on a bad book altogether, they’d much prefer to send it out into the world as is and hope its catchy premise—which in most cases is why they bought the book in the first place—will lead readers to forgive all its other flaws. Because such forgiveness happens all the time, right?

    Now, if a book title, in true Hollywood fashion, read:

    “Editor Eileen Globberbottom presents MURDER ENDS IN DEATH by Arthur Plebe,” well…

    You think maybe Eileen would make a little more effort to ensure the quality of the end result?

    Just a thought…


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