Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Falling Short in '08

This would usually be the time that I do a round-up for 2008. I scan my shelves, my notes, my reviews and compile a list of best books I read this year. I usually have trouble deciding which to include because there are so many I loved. This year, I didn't have that problem. I actually found it difficult to find a book that really blew my hair back.

There were many, like TRIGGER CITY and GOOD PEOPLE, that were well written, gripping, all of the things I ask for in a good book. But usually there is a few, one at least, that was amazing, one that I couldn't put down, one that reaffirmed my love of fiction, one that was impossible to forget even a year later.

Book critic David Montgomery addressed this a few weeks ago, but what I've been thinking about is, why? What was it about 2008 that made it a weaker year for fiction? Have publishing standards changed? Have audience standards changed? Or was 2008 not weaker? Is it simply taking more to impress the critics?

After spending all Chanukah thinking about this, I've come to a few conclusions:
  • The more you read, the more it takes to be impressed. After reading hundreds of crime fiction novels, it's hard to stumble upon a truly new idea. A plot or character that would have impressed me years ago, may be old news today. If the book isn't fantastic, if it doesn't have a new writing style or plot idea, it tends to blend in and is more easily forgotten.
  • As we know, the publishing industry is in trouble. People aren't buying as many books, they're not taking risks on debut authors, etc. Because publishers need to make money, they often publish books that are similar to previous bestsellers. After DA VINCI CODE, how many foreign thrillers centered around legends and artifacts were released? How many celebrity moms have parenting books on the shelves? Publishing a new concept or an author with a new writing style is risky, and in this climate, publishers aren't about taking risks.
  • I think this has also been a particularly bad year for debut authors, which attributes to a weak 2008. Debut novels are fresh, new, and often very well crafted. A debut novel is the one the author spent years working on. No contract, no deadlines, writing until it was the best it can possibly be. While most authors get better with practice, I can usually see the labor that went into that first one. Finding a new author is a memorable moment, and there weren't many of those this year.
  • Looking back, I also have to say this wasn't a particularly great year for movies either. The artist in me thinks it's both lack of inspiration and innovation on the part of the story teller. One of my favorite books is LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN by Hubert Selby Jr. and one of my favorite movies is DONNIE DARKO. What do these two have in common? First, they both tell a story in a different way. Selby plays with sentence structure and punctuation to make the story sound the way he wants. DARKO is a mix of fantasy and reality, is told forwards and backwards, to get the screenwriter's message across. Both are emotional, both have memorable characters, and both are different than anything I've ever read or seen. I don't think we had any of that his year. I think everything I read was told in standard, narrative form. There were no characters that were different or surprising. There was an overall lack of risk taking, which makes fiction fall short.

I hope that this changes in 2009 as I'd hate to lose my passion for reading. While I'm more motivated than ever to write an innovative, gripping novel, it's hard when there is a lack inspiration lining my shelves. With the publishing world deteriorating the way it is, part of me thinks that it will only get worse, even though I try to stay positive and hope for the best.

So as not to end on such a pessimistic note, here are a few books that I really enjoyed and that are still memorable all these months later:

No comments: