This past November, my second book in the Scar of the Downer series, Rise of the Branded, was released. Trying to market this book and get it “out there” has proved just as difficult as the first book, and in some ways, more so.
So, what do you do when you live in a rural area? There aren’t as many opportunities around here to promote my book as I would like.
Then again, people don’t read as much as they used to. Film, television shows, sports, and a host of other things take up most of people's time. Is this a good, a bad, or a neutral?
I would argue, like many other authors, it is definitely a bad thing. But why? Why is it bad? What does reading really do for you? We have seen the memes that tell us how reading a book opens up a world, enables us to meet characters, go on adventures, etc… But it also does so much more.
Unfortunately, according to The Atlantic, the number of non-reading adults has nearly tripled since 1978. This is troubling. Reading and writing is perhaps one of the best ways to combat tyranny. I would argue that a society that doesn’t read is ripe for oppression. There must be something to it since the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938 in the Soviet Union killed or exiled many authors.
In America, however, only 28 percent of people read at least eleven books in a year. Authors make a much less impression than they did 70 years ago. In fact, you don't have to go that far back.
In 1978, 42 percent of adults read that same number of books. That's a stark picture. We can see how much reading has declined in America.
This is sad because reading actually makes one smarter and, some suggest, more compassionate.
When we read, we envision ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. That enables us to see beyond ourselves, not making us so isolated. Stories are important. Even Christ taught through parables.
When I was younger (early 20s), I read a lot of nonfiction (philosophy, political books, some Christian books). Something, however, was missing, something I couldn't put my finger on. Eventually, I figured out what it was. You see, nonfiction tells you that you can be better while fiction shows you that you can be better. I didn’t figure this out until I started to read it.
I began with some books I missed growing up, but didn’t stop there. I read adult fiction, comic books, young adult fiction, children’s literature, literary classics from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to Victor Hugo to Erich Maria Remarque.
What I discovered is that reading is like the cutting of an umbilical cord. It tells you that you are free (not in a spiritual sense.) That, I believe, is something only Christ can do. But it does teach you how to think independently.
How is this so? It seems like a paradox that another man’s words enable someone else to think autonomously. But it works if you let it. The reader is someone who doesn’t necessarily look for a leader. Why? Because he is willing to take a journey on his own. Now, I know that this isn’t completely clear-cut. There are readers who are more sheep-like (and not in the good way) and there are nonreaders that think independently.
For the most part, we live “humdrum” lives. We go to work for over 40 hours a week and set our eyes on the next vacation as a way to deal with the next interval of mindless employment. It is much harder to pack up our things and go on an adventure in this day and age. Unfortunately, there is probably some sort of federal regulation restricting that.
Reading doesn’t necessarily free your body, but it does free your mind. To me, it’s that important. But to our country, it is a dying notion.
When it comes to literacy, 43% of adults in America are at or below a basic level. Another 44% are at an intermediate level, while only 13% were proficient.
We, as a country, need to read more. We are losing something because of it, something that is not easily defined. Something that’s not necessarily tangible. But if it ever goes away, it will be ever so noticeable.
Think about this. If reading wasn’t important, then books would be pointless. If books are pointless, governments wouldn’t work to ban them. If governments go to that length, then there must be power in words, thoughts, and stories.
We have to hold on to it. If this sounds ridiculous to you, I say this. Open a book, read it, and find out for yourself.
What makes an author great? Is it how many books he or she sells? Is it the phrasing of words an author uses? Is that what makes them a great writer? Is it better to be Ernest Hemingway or Victor Hugo?
Is it the emotion the author arouses in the reader? Is it the story? What is the measuring stick we use to determine who is a great author, who is a mediocre one, and who should be kept away from a pen or pencil entirely?
I’m going to be honest. There are authors, playwrights, and screenwriters that many people have placed in the annals of greatness that I find unbearable. Some, I even find, dare I say, mediocre. Of course, once I admit this there are those who will say I’m jealous or that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m unknown (which, I guess, is the litmus test for taste and knowledge).
I agree, I may not know what I’m talking about. I may also be jealous, but that’s not what I’m trying to figure out. I want to know what makes an author great.
We can all list authors that have passed the test of time.
But what is the quality that makes it so?
What if the author has a great story, but can’t write it well? What if he can write well, but a story is not among the words? What if he has a story and can write it well, but the writing is emotionless and disconnected from the reader? Some may say you need all three. With that, I agree. There are those, however, who have been deemed great authors who don’t have all three, at least in my opinion.
Is that what it comes down to? Opinions. Opinions of people who work at certain places (The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal). Or is there some objective standard we can use?
All writers would love to be known as a great author, but as each generation changes the qualification, the measuring stick seems a bit more arbitrary.
How many times has a great work been rejected? Some of them have been rejected 20 or more times. Was the work subpar then because many of the gatekeepers thought it wasn’t any good. Or is it good now because the world said otherwise? Who is right?
My wife loves the book “Jane Eyre,” and I thought it was decent. I “sped” through the unabridged version of “Les Miserables,” but it took my wife two years (she kept stopping and reading other books). A lot of the history, she thought, could’ve been cut. I didn’t mind it.
It brings me back to my original question.
What makes something great?
Even in many of my rejection letters over the years the agents admit that the publishing world is a subjective business. So, in essence, they are looking for something THEY like rather than something that’s good. Sometimes the two meet and sometimes they don’t.
This makes breaking into the industry incredibly difficult. Why? Because your work isn’t being accepted or rejected because of its quality. It’s being accepted or rejected based on some other unmentioned reason. As one agent said, they didn’t “fall in love with my query."
Where do you go from there? In the end, what does a query have to do with my story? (I know it's the way the system is set up, but it doesn't make it any less ridiculous.)
Why does any of this matter?
Well, the one thing I’ve come to realize is that many of the “experts” rely solely on their taste to determine what is quality anything. You name it: movies, plays, literature, music. The problem is when you try to gauge the quality of something based on your tastes. In the end, the “experts” don’t know what makes a book great anymore than I do, or you do. Let’s face it. We’ve all read books that were on the NY Times Bestseller List that we thought shouldn’t have been there. I can think of one immediately, and it’s a book I loathe.
How do we judge something with no objective standard? We all have opinions about books, and more than likely they all differ.
Are they same books that are popular today going to be lauded as great in two hundred years. If not, what happened to them in that time? Is greatness determined by popularity? If so, we've ruined the word "greatness."
So, back to the beginning. What makes an author great? Can we find the answer? Is there an answer?
Who knows? I know what books I like and maybe that's all that matters. Who cares what other people say or think. If you like a book by a "non-great" author, so what!
It's better to have read a "bad" book and loved it than no book at all.
Scott Keen is the author of two young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers and Rise of the Branded. His third and final book of the Scar of the Downer series, War of the Downer King, will be released in July 2019.