Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Indie Life: Who Defines Quality?

Welcome to this month's post about The Indie Life!

Last week, I announced that one of my books had won a "stamp of approval" from the Book Readers Appreciation Group. Ironically enough, the timing of the B.R.A.G. award for Lyon's Legacy came right around the time when an article about Awesome Indies was published on The Passive Voice blog. Some indie authors think that sites that give awards to indie-published work are becoming the new gatekeepers and think they're a bad idea, even if it's a way for writers to validate their work. (Personally, I see it as marketing.)  The discussion on that post got so heated Passive Guy wound up deleting all the comments, which is a shame.

Why do we get so passionate about quality and who gets to define it? Perhaps because, according to Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (one of my favorite books), Quality cannot be defined. However, when Pirsig teaches English composition to freshmen, he starts out by having them rank works by different students and found that the rankings were pretty consistent. He then had them look at various aspects of the work, such as organization. Even though this by itself is not Quality, it contributes Quality to the work. To paraphrase Pirsig (because I'm too lazy to look it up), "What started out as heresy turned into a beautiful introduction (to the class)."

Even if you don't accept Pirsig's statement that Quality cannot be defined, you can still agree that we all have different ideas about what makes a good book. Some people may focus on story craft, while other care about writing mechanics. People may disagree on how to begin a story, how much description to add, and what point of view works best. These ideas may change over time, both for the person and the overall culture. On the face of it, figuring out what makes a good book is hard.

I think in the end, each reader and writer has to decide for herself what makes a book good. As a writer, one should make one's work as good as possible given the skills and resources at hand. As a reader discussing books, it's helpful to explain what you liked and didn't like about a particular book. The more details you can provide, the more helpful your thoughts will be to others.

Pirsig quotes a line from Plato's Phaedrus: “And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good—
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” I say both yes and no. As a writer, I do need to hear objective comments about my work because I'm too close to it to see it clearly. But as a reader, I have forty years experience reading, so I think I know by now what I love and admire, what makes me close a book prematurely, and what leaves me feeling so-so about a work. Self-publishing means any reader can make that decision about any work independently of someone letting that book slip through the system. Let's not take these readers for granted.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the judgement of the readers is the most important. I've read award-winning books that bored me to tears. Some had sold well, others not so much, so again, it comes back to the readers.

Sandra Almazan said...

I agree, Alex! I've read books that were highly praised by reviewers but I personally didn't find great. It all depends on what you're looking for. Simply, I expect every aspect of a book to be done well. ;)

Hart Johnson said...

Funny you should post this. Way back when Self Publishing was just a thought, I was thinking, 'what self publishers need is a writer's guild--join with the agreement of rating some books... get your books rated, and they get a 'good enough' stamped on them if they are... I think the poorly done books hurt us all and the stamps of approval ARE nice. But they are also a hoop to jump through--I mean how do you get your books READ? I like the idea of the rating having domains. I know a lot of NON-writers who aren't put off by typos and grammar, but I really am. Then again, I also want a critique to say WHY--I love a twisty plot and some would call that 'too complicated'. A romantic pairing is just drapery to me and some would say it makes the book...

Catherine Stine said...

I think we do need some outside guidelines--gatekeepers, if you will. I was thrilled that my YA sci-fi, Fireseed One won 3 Indie awards. Yes, for marketing, and yes, for that stamp of approval. That said, I also feel that one's internal intuition of whether something's good or not is essential (and my Indie post for today). Without that inner compass, one is meandering in the dark.

Madeleine Sara said...

It is wonderful that you say: As a writer, I do need to hear objective comments about my work because I'm too close to it to see it clearly.

I feel the same about my writing.
I also find if I shelve a piece of writing for a month or more and revisit it, I see it with a more objective eye as though looking at it like someone else.

Sandra Almazan said...

Hart--I think there are indie author guilds out there now. Maybe when I find one that feels like a good fit, I'll join it. I can ignore a few typos and bad punctuation, but if it's extensive, it's a problem for me.

Catherine--Great minds think alike. ;)

Madeline--Yes, I do the same thing too with my stories. They have to rest before I can revise them. Good luck with the giveaway!

Andrew Leon said...

Quality may not be able to be defined, but there is an objective aspect to it. That's why, overall, people consistently rank the same books as "high quality" books.

Pat Dilloway said...

Quality and sales often don't go hand-in-hand. Books like 50 Shades of Grey get savaged by critics and sell billions of copies. There are films that get ridiculed by critics and still make tons of money and others where they know it's bad so they don't screen it for critics and still make a bunch of money. So having an award doesn't matter as much as getting a plug from some big celebrity or something, like all those books that Oprah plugged.

J.L. Campbell said...

You've said it, readers know what they like and there's no getting around that. I've seen some really bad books (IMO) that other people liked and I accept that because reading is subjective.

Pk Hrezo said...

Here here! And it's proof this is true with books like 50 Shades. I love that about indie pubbing! We get to write for the reader, not the editors.

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