The white flag is out.
I have finally reached my limit of true literary trash, or, as I call it, “bad trash.” I will no longer buy – or read – any of it. Reading these embarrassing books has sapped my time and patience. Myself, I just wanted historical fiction with a murder on the side, but the ebooks I’ve been downloading have been grave (no pun intended) disappointments.
Guess what I found out? Most of the bad trash I’ve been reading is in a category all its own called “cozy mysteries.” Who knew it was even a genre?
Cozy mysteries can be set in any era, and are normally written as a series. Although historical cozy mysteries follow similar lines to modern ones, the latter are almost always about a woman who:
- is just getting over a serious relationship and needs to “start over”;
- opens either a bakery or an inn (am not making this up);
- discovers a dead body; and
- meets a handsome, single man – usually some type of law enforcement professional – whom she doesn’t initially get along with. Often, there is an ex (or soon-to-be ex) -wife or -girlfriend in the picture.
And they finally get married in the 6th, 8th, or 10th book in the series.
From now on, I’d like to read only “good trash,” classics, and nonfiction. Good trash (and I use the expression affectionately) is a level or two above bad trash. It makes for great leisure reading; you know, where you lie on the couch drinking tea and eating chocolate. My favorite authors in this group include Alexander McCall Smith, John Grisham, Daniel Silva, and Rhys Bowen.
As I said in my last post, I’ve been contemplating what separates the poorly written, cranked-out cozy mysteries and over-the-top spy novels from the good stuff. After all, Rhys Bowen writes cozy mysteries and Daniel Silva writes spy thrillers. John Grisham, who is the 38th best-selling author of all time, writes books about lawyers. But why is Grisham one of the best-selling authors of all time? And why are readers begging Alexander McCall Smith to continue adding books to his three series as well as create entirely new series?
It’s not as if authors of good trash have cornered the market on unique themes and plot lines. Take Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, for example. Bottom line, it’s just another collection of spy thrillers:
- Elusive, handsome spy with a tragic past;
- Beautiful, young female agent who captures his heart by book 4 or 5;
- The ups and downs of their relationship for another several books until they finally get married;
- While he basically saves the world as we know it in every single book.
When presented like that, who would want to read this stuff? Yet why are Silva’s books so popular, and what separates them from the bad trash?
Good vs. bad literary trash
There are several reasons some books sell better than others. Here are a few.
Sometimes it’s simply an issue of money. Best-selling authors have contracts with big-name publishers, who usually require them to put out a book a year. By contrast, bad-trash authors are often individuals who have self-published with Amazon’s self-publishing services and created a cover with Canva.
Well-developed, likeable characters
Protagonists in good-trash novels are generally likeable, warts and all. In fact, drawing a character with normal human failings is another way to endear oneself to readers. Likewise, villains are often nuanced and not all bad. Sometimes the author Shows or Tells us what in a character’s past has led to his or her warped personality. Grisham and Silva excel in creating well-developed characters, although McCall Smith is the master. McCall Smith is also particularly good at nuanced heroes and villains.
On the other hand, so many of the characters in the bad-trash group are truly unappealing. Whiny, childish, not so truthful. The female protagonists are constantly either lying to their boyfriends and bosom buddies, or concealing from them a key fact that would have either caught the killer earlier or kept the main character from almost getting killed and needing to be saved by her boyfriend the law enforcement professional. Why would someone want to date or be friends with a liar? And what’s attractive about a man or woman who shows absolutely no shred of kindness?
Consistency and realism
Consistency and realism also separate the bad from the good. First, in good trash, characters don’t behave…out of character. You wouldn’t expect the Russian killer in a Silva novel to have a change of heart and put his gun down at the last minute.
Second, there are fewer coincidences in good trash. Events happen and are resolved logically. In bad trash you frequently encounter a dose or two of deus ex machina. The heroine “just happens” to walk by the burning building, or there’s a last-minute change of plans that saves her life.
Third, the ending in a good-trash novel is logical and not always 100 percent happy. Like life, sometimes things are messy. By contrast, most of the cozy mysteries I’ve read end in one of three ways:
- The bad guy dies
- The good guy law enforcement professional assures his girlfriend the heroine, “She’ll go to jail for the rest of her life.”
- The villain is sent to a mental hospital.
Notice that no one ever goes to trial or has his day in court.
Superb, professional copy editing
Really. Good trash has good grammar, good punctuation, good spelling, and nary a typo. Granted, the big names either can afford the best or have publishers who will foot the bill. But they also know how to write well, and they know the rules, so they make fewer mistakes.
As I’ve said before, just because your second cousin’s upstairs neighbor was the editor of their high school yearbook doesn’t mean he or she knows how to edit or copy edit a book. I suspect a lot of semi-professional writers who manage to publish ebooks are using friends or fellow writers to go over their manuscripts.
Famous authors know exactly what they are saying. Never do they throw in a sentence that sounds artsy but means nothing.
By contrast, get a load of this 32-word travesty, which is from the latest (and hopefully last) cozy mystery I read. It describes a vast room in a police department that stores confiscated weapons:
“Housing thousands of implements used for the purpose of inflicting misery, pain, and even death, most of the officers of the police department felt an inexplicable sense of negativity in the locker.“
- How did the author get away with this sentence?
- Did no one notice the dangling participle?
- Did the author read her own manuscript?
- Why “the officers of the police department”? Why not simply “the police officers”?
- Does anybody understand what “felt an inexplicable sense of negativity” means? How can you feel a sense? And what is the word negativity doing here? Would any normal person say, “Wow, when you point that gun at me, I feel negativity”?
- Why is feeling a negative emotion when walking through a room full of guns, knives, and garrotes “inexplicable”?
We’ve seen that both good and bad literary trash share many of the same themes, plots, and characters. We’ve also seen that not even authors of good trash have published a book that rivals, say, War and Peace (although who would want to read War and Peace?) or Pride and Prejudice.
Nevertheless, Rhys Bowen’s cozy mysteries are intelligent, humorous, well-written, and typo-free. John Grisham is clever, clean, and creative. And Alexander McCall’s books never succumb to gratuitous sex or violence.
This is good trash at its best.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where we’ll discuss common mistakes bad-trash authors make, as well as a list of no-nos if you want to remain on the good list – or even on the list of literary classics!
P.S. See the second post in this series here.