The dumbing down of ‘chick-lit’

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I already know what ‘serious’ writers are going to say: chicklit is ‘dumb’ by definition. I beg to differ; however, I also think that the derision isn’t entirely without foundation. My own reading and writing habits have led me to this conclusion. But let’s start in broader terms to address the question of whether writing and the literature that is the result has, overall, suffered from the dreaded ‘dumbing down.’ Many believe so.

In a 2015 piece by Stephen Carter, a Blomberg View columnist (he also happens to be both a law professor at Yale and a novelist), he quotes prominent science fiction writer Ursula K. Leguin who refers to what she sees as the twenty-first century formulaic creation of best sellers in this way: “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food…I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”[1]

Of course she refers to the influence of Amazon and its well-pondered algorithm for determining best-seller status. Carter, however, isn’t buying it. He believes that perhaps a more important part of the issue is that readers’ tastes have changed; attention spans are shorter. Perhaps we have done it to ourselves. But others take a different view.

There is much grumbling in the ‘serious’ writers’ communities about the perceived negative impact of self-publishing on current literature; there is a significant sentiment (not held by all self-described serious writers, I might add) that it has been the proliferation of unedited self-published books that has had the most serious effect.

One online writer has suggested that “with self-publishing it seems like the editors have all disappeared. Ten or more books on recent New York Times Best Sellers List are there because the millions of fanboys and fangirls have bought their hero’s book…maybe the bar is set a bit too low.”[2]

So there seem to be two issues that people consider to be characteristics of ‘dumbed-down literature.’ The first one (and a big one for people like me who have taught writing over the years) is the issue of actual command of the language including grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice and all those things that our English teachers tried to inculcate in us over the years. The second one is the substance – or lack thereof – of the books that are popular today.

In my view, the truth is that quality writing can be practiced in any genre from literary fiction to popular erotica and everything in between. The topic seems secondary; if you’re passionate about writing it, you’re good at it, and your readers love it (or at least the first two if your readers haven’t found you yet), then I say write on. Even if what you write is derided by some as merely ‘chick lit.’

In general, the term chick lit means any literature that appeals mostly to women. So, what’s wrong with that? Does that make it dumb? If chick lit is dumb, then women are dumb by extension. Don’t say that to my face. But has even literature aimed at women been dumbed down? I have a personal hate on for many pieces of chick lit and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.

In my view, women are infantilized by their chick lit not so much by the stories or the writing, but byu the covers. Have you looked at any lately? I’ve been examining them as we contemplate the design of my new book which is women’s fiction. Is this really how women see themselves?

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Need I say more?

 

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Okay, just a bit more!

 

 

Well, I’m a smart woman and I write #litforintelligentchicks. In fact, I love to read chick lit, but I can’t get to your really great story if I feel infantilized by the dumb cover – whether it’s an illustration or a stock photo depicting a sweaty clinch and a few bits of a six-pack.

Okay, my rant is over. Back to the drawing board for that new cover.

Sources:

[1] Stephen L. Carter. June 11, 2015. Don’t Blame Amazon For Dumbing Down Literature. Bloomberg View. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-06-11/why-ursula-k-le-guin-s-amazon-pan-is-only-half-right

[2] Self-publishing and the Dumbing Down of Literature. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/21/1452940/-Self-Publishing-And-The-Dumbing-Down-Of-Literature

10 Common Mistakes of Self-Published Writers

oopsOkay, we’ve all made mistakes. And I doubt that there’s a writer among us who has yet to experience a misstep in his or her writing career. Throughout my (long) writing and publishing history, I’ve made my share of doozies (To read about one of them see The dumbest publishing decision I ever made), but to broaden my observations even further, I’ve observed a long litany of mistakes among my fellow authors as well. Here are the ten I believe to be the most common.

  1. Publishing a first (or even second) draft. As a new writer, you might think that your writing is just fine the way you put it onto the page or computer screen. It isn’t. Believing in the infallibility of a first draft is the hallmark of an inexperienced writer. The more experienced you get, the better your writing gets. And the better your writing gets, the more you realize that the first draft (or even second) is not the draft you want ANYONE to read – not even your beta readers. Have a bit of respect for their time.
  2. Failing to take the time for writing practice – without publishing a single word of it. Just like figure skaters, pianists and dancers to name only a few, writers need lots of practice before any of their words should see the light of day. It’s a question of quality.
  3. Believing that basic building blocks of writing – grammar, spelling and syntax come immediately to mind – aren’t important. I’ve actually heard neophyte authors on online forums arrogantly suggest that readers don’t care about these things if the story is a good one. I beg to differ. Many care a lot and you should too. It is impossible to convey the right message/story if you and your readers are not using the language in the same way. Remember the book Eats Shoots and Leaves? If you don’t, you need to read it. Immediately.
  4. Failing to carefully copy-edit. Or even better, failing to hire a professional copy-editor to do it for you. New writers don’t seem to know the difference between a substantive edit (which gets you from draft one to two to three etc.) and a final copy-edit. Every book out there – even ones that are professionally copy-edited – can harbor typos and other errors that are missed at this stage in the publishing process. That doesn’t make it okay for you to publish a book that hasn’t been edited in this fine fashion.
  5. Designing your own book cover (without even a modicum of design experience or talent). If you do have graphic design experience, then I think you should go ahead and design your cover. In fact, you are probably the best one to do it since you know the book intimately. However, without this kind of background, you need to step away to avoid a book cover that makes it onto sites like Lousy Book Covers or in articles like Kindle Cover Disasters: the world’s worst ebook artwork . Readers do garner a lot of information about a book from its cover. Primarily they decide if they want to read it. Or not.
  6. Failing to do a final format check after conversion of a Word file to PDF for publication. I’ll admit it – I’m guilty of this one. Before I realized that PDF’s would read some of the background formatting that I could no longer see in the Word document, I blithely thought that once I had done a final review of the Word document, that was enough. Not so much. That PDF needs a careful final review before hitting the ‘publish’ button.mistakes
  7. Disregarding the importance of writing and carefully editing the book’s online description. Mother of God! How many times have I read online book descriptions with typos?! Sentence structure problems?! Grammatical errors?! Of course not to mention those ones that fail to provide even a modicum of persuasive copy.
  8. Continually tweeting “Buy my book, buy my book.” This is beyond annoying to those of us who would otherwise like to follow your contributions to Twitter. Once in a while it’s fine to promote your book, but don’t do it in every tweet. And don’t do it every single, blasted time you contribute to a LinkedIn Author discussion. This is beyond irritating. (For more on this rant of mine read When book promotion gets annoying.)
  9. Failing to understand that you need to connect to readers online – not a whole lot of other writers who are equally trying to sell their books. Unless your book is directed to writers (uh…hem…some of mine are) you’re barking up the wrong tree.
  10. Apologizing for being self-published. Can we all just stop it? If you write well and provide readers with a quality product that respects them, you don’t need to apologize for how it got into their hands. Readers who love your books don’t care.

I think that creating quality material in whatever genre, and providing it to readers with respect are the two most important parts of being a writer – regardless of who publishes your work.

Self-publishing versus vanity publishing: What’s the difference anyway?

publishing word cloudBefore self-publishing had any kind of credibility (one of my assumptions here is that it has risen a notch or two on the credibility barometer in recent years,) it was referred to strictly as vanity publishing.  Presumably it was vain for an author to pay to have his or her book published.  I’ve never been sure why it isn’t vanity recording when a musician pays to have a CD recorded and subsequently distributed, but perhaps that is another discussion.

According to a man by the name of Jonathon Clifford, he coined the phrase vanity publishing around 1960.[1] Clifford’s lifetime crusade was for honesty in the vanity publishing world.  It is true that over the years, authors who could not get – or did not try to get – mainstream publishers (often now referred to as traditional or legacy publishers) would pay to have their work produced, and those vanity publishers would suggest to the authors that they could, perhaps, just maybe, probably get rich.  That was the problem. As Clifford says:

“If you cannot find a mainstream publisher to publish your work at their expense, you must look on the whole process of publishing not as money invested to make you a return, but as money spent on a pleasurable hobby which you have enjoyed and which has provided you with well-manufactured copies of your book. If you do also manage to make a small profit, then that should be looked upon as an unforeseen and unexpected bonus”[2]

Things haven’t really changed all that much.  At the end of the day, most writers – even those traditionally published – make less than $5000 a year, indeed most make much less than that.  Today, the notion of the vanity press (versus other self-publishing options) seems to be tied into the issue of promises made by these entities – promises that they cannot possibly keep.  So, the term self-publishing has arisen to take the place of vanity publishing, and it seems to have taken on a less pejorative connotation.

Self-publishing, from the author’s point of view though, is exactly the same as vanity publishing.  The author pays.  And any author who thinks a publisher, regardless of whether they make you pay or they pay you, can predict much less guarantee sales success of your book, is naïve in the extreme.  Unless you have a name that is widely recognized, there is no way to predict sales.  This is where my personal skepticism begins to creep into the relationship between author and publisher.  But, it is now time for me to come clean as they say. Stack of Books

What seems like a hundred years ago now, I did take up with one of those vanity publishers two years after my first non-fiction book was published by a ‘real’ publisher.

The book was called Confessions of Failed Yuppie.  And it was funny.  It was nothing like what I had written previously, nor like anything I have written since (although I did recently re-write it and make it available as an e-book).  The vanity press I chose was one of the big ones in New York.  They took my seriously substantial fee and provided me with two cartons of the 130-page, hard-covered books.  I was thrilled.  But something kept me from mentioning its provenance to anyone – although I’m not sure anyone would have cared.  Many of my friends read the book and told me that they were amused.  I even still get a small check every year from the Public Lending Right Commission[3] in Canada because there are copies of it in libraries across the country.  Anyone want to read it?

So, what’s wrong with this kind of model?  What makes a vanity-published book, or a self-published book less worthy than a book published via the more traditional publishers?  In a word, quality – but not necessarily quality of the content, story, theme or writing.  It is often the quality of the editing as well as the production values – the cover and interior design mainly.  The problem with self-publishing is that it permits you to publish without any kind of quality controls.

In the grand scheme of things, I believe that self-published books, and books published by as-yet-to-be-created business models that include the authors, will, indeed be the way of the future.  I think that these models will find ways to enhance both the quality and the reputation of the products.  Until then, those of us who are concerned about quality will continue to write, publish, market and hope that our work will stand on its own in the eyes of the readers.

Professor Dana Weinberg, co-author of the 2014 report Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Survey[4] commented as follows:

“Publishing a book for sale is a matter of both art and commerce. I would argue that for most writers publishing is not only about money; it’s about a lot of other things including touching readers and sharing stories, but the money is important in a lot of ways.”[5]

It seems that not much has changed for authors and their love of writing since Jonathan Clifford wrote about vanity publishing.  And perhaps it never will.

[This post is largely — but not entirely — excerpted from Who Will Read Your Book? The Unknown Author’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing]

[1] Vanity Publishing: Advice & Warning. http://www.vanitypublishing.info/

[2] Johnathon Clifford.  Vanity publishing – Advice ad warning.  http://www.vanitypublishing.info/

[3] Canada Council for the Arts. PLR Frequently asked questions. http://www.plr-dpp.ca/plr/faq.aspx

[4]What advantages do traditional publishers offer authors? 2014  http://store.digitalbookworld.com/advantages-traditional-publishers-offer-authors-t3591

[5] Alison Flood. 2014. Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals. The Guardian online.  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/17/writers-earn-less-than-600-a-year