I confess I have a problem with … well, life in general. I bore easily. This is why I have about ten different projects started (I do usually finish them one bit at a time.) and write and read in many different genres. I also do things like walk away from boring conversations before I realize I’m doing it.
And some years ago I started doing that with books. Not just “worthy” books, though that was a great part of it, but also (even) my popcorn books. The last big batch of mysteries I bought used before I went fully electronic for fiction were mostly unread. Not unopened, but I realized halfway through reading (I thought) one of them that I’d actually been reading two of them and they were so similar I didn’t notice until it hit me the names were wrong. (I had one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom, and since folding down a corner gives husband cold sweats, and I can never find bookmarks, I was finding the page by memory.)This was particularly distressing since I actually read to escape the boredom that is every day life. In fact until I was about 20 and developed some internal resources I was either immersed in a vivid daydream (what we call “telling myself stories) or reading at all times. Heck, I don’t think even now I’d ever clean the house without reading via audible. I’d be up to my knees in cat hair and dust. Or probably have died of allergies.
And I don’t demand greatly original stories every time. In fact, if you saw the reference above to “popcorn books” these are the vast majority of what I read. I eschew the idea of choosing the third ending, or trying to be startlingly original because I don’t think that’s what the readers want. Not every time. As Pratchett said about sex, (paraphrased because I don’t remember which book) sure people read all sorts of fancy cookbooks, but when all is said and done, they’re happy if they get a tomato and egg sandwich and it’s tasty.
So… Most books are tomato and egg sandwiches and that’s fine.
So what changed round about… oh, the early 2000s that made me despair of “popcorn books.”
Well, there is a difference between not surprising me wildly and being functionally the same book. I no longer remember the titles or authors of the mysteries I confused, but they were both police procedurals with a male-female type of association, and they were of course vaguely romantic. Well, they were supposed to be vaguely romantic. Usually these partner/friendships are. But they didn’t use to cross the line. This one was a full blow affair. Fine, whatever. We live in the age of divorce and remarriage, so that didn’t even bother me much.
It’s more that these characters and the case were functionally the same: the male was a manipulator, and the woman is divided because she feels some loyalty to the man’s wife (!) while he doesn’t really care about either of them, etc.
She is moral and has no flaws (except for sleeping with this manipulator.) The case is the death of a woman with no flaws. Etc. Rinse, repeat.
For treatment of a flawed marriage, Agatha Christie did it better in the Hollow (whose victim is in fact a manipulator, single minded, is having an affair, and is yet also profoundly true to life and sympathetic even.)
At my last Cosine in Colorado Springs, Connie Willis talked of teaching a writing class and being told by the students that female characters can’t have flaws because that’s sexist. My own fledgelings have reported the same thing of their writing groups. M. Todd Henderson’s interview on my blog today reflects this too.
There are prohibitions on who can be villainous, in what matter they can be villainous and how characters are handled. There are also enforced precepts. So in the end, you know, these are like those formal plays of the French renaissance, where you can show this, you can’t show that, and all the plays sound alike.
This is not art. It is even less entertaining. Sure, it’s moralizing — it reminds me of nothing so much as my grandmother’s favorite books from childhood which were permeated with Victorian morality and you knew how they’d end from page ten — but more than that it is boring. Incredibly boring.
Books in the early 21st are not the first artistic/entertainment medium to fall down the rabbit hole (and movies preceeded us there.) I dabble in art, and I know about the French Academic style. I also have an MA in literature, I know of the schools that became stultifyingly mannered and constricting.
The only thing I can say about that is that it doesn’t last. Art and entertainment that are all the same are neither. And people are more like me but not. We are clever monkeys who eschew boooring.
Which is why indie came about. Trad pub wasn’t killed by indie. It is committing suicide book by boooooooring book.
And it will never admit it.