Recalibrating What's Good

Unlearning what I learned in my MFA program

Hey friends,

I’ve read a bunch of mediocre (published) books lately. And THOROUGHLY ENJOYED THEM. Why would I call them mediocre if I enjoyed them? Because they WERE! They were not high art. The plotting was clunky in places and definitely predictable. There was dialog that made me roll my eyes. There were events that made me go uh, that’s not how that works????? But I loved them. I couldn’t put them down. I am sad that I have read all the books by this one particular (mediocre! best selling!!!!) author.

Why would I like something that’s not “good?” Because I ENJOYED THEM. I liked the story and the characters and the setting and the familiarity of the construction! Even if they weren’t “good!” Because who honestly gives a shit about one definition of “good?”

When we talk about “good,” at least in my mind, I’ve been using that a short hand for “literary” or artful or fancy or whatever you want to call it. But there are so many definitions of “good” when it comes to books! Important! New! Thrilling! Exciting! Though provoking! Incendiary! Scary! Sweet! Romantic! Funny! Sad! Comforting! All of those things can come with prose that many would consider “good” or artful or fancy or whatever. Many of them do! Many books that do have “good” prose stylings are also very boring, to me! And that’s ok! All of this is ok.

Some of you may be like Kate, you are such a snob. What is your problem? And you may be right! I blame it on being an insecure kid who was desperate to stand out in some way (i.e. being a snob) and on my MFA program that reinforced my already entrenched belief that fancy prose = good book and nothing else. Did my MFA program mean well? Yes. Did I learn other stuff there? Yes. But it was a place really only one kind of book was going to thrive, and tbh I’m only just now realizing that. Other people got there a lot sooner than me.

These are largely revelations I’ve been having about my personal reading life but it’s something that will also affect my personal writing life (and of course my agenting life). That doesn’t mean I’m going to seek out sub-par books or slack off in my own writing. A successful book, i.e. a book that people, hopefully many, want to read, still has to do A LOT of work to get there. The characters have to be convincing. The plot has to work. There has to be some frisson of magic or electricity or art between all the different elements that holds the reader’s attention. The art can come in the prose, or the setting, character, plot, idea, dialog—anything. But it has to be there.

Some of you read my first paragraphs and thought Congrats, Kate, you discovered genre books. This is a little bit true! What I think I actually discovered is the joys of other parts of books that are not exclusively the writing. The writing matters a lot, of course. It has to be effective and clear and understandable. It can also do more than just wow me on a sentence level. It can paint worlds and bring characters to life and so much more! My whole point here is not look at this miraculous thing I alone discovered, but to say it out loud so that you, writers and readers out there, can give yourself a break. So that I can give myself a break. So that those who are anxious about whether their book is “literary” or not, can give themselves a break. Maybe your book is! (Because I don’t think we’re at a point where we can totally break down the link between “literary” = “better.” Though that’s what I hope to do here a little.) But your book can also just be good. Enjoyable!!! People can read your book and enjoy it even if it will never win a National Book Award or whatever. THAT’S OK. There are so many books out there! Isn’t the point that someone will read it and love it? Does it really matter who or why?

I hope to also comfort (or shut up) those who complain that a “bad” book was published and theirs was not. What’s “bad” mean? Not well written? Not convincing? Not artful in some way? Could your unpublished book be “better” than a published book? YES! That happens all the time! But those who feel that way are likely measuring things on just one metric, often prose, but not always. I’ve said it a hundred times but I’ll say it again: publishing is not a meritocracy. All the books that are published are not “good” and all the unpublished books are not “bad.” Maybe you write a good sentence but not a great character! Maybe I do that, too! It’s (usually) impossible to pinpoint why a book doesn’t sell or get published. It’s often lots of reasons all at the same time, many the author cannot control. But it’s not just because a book was “bad.” Many books are bad, published or not.

I hope this expands your own concept of what’s good and what’s bad when it comes to books, writing, and publishing. I know that’s where I am right now and I think it’s a great place to be.

As you may have seen on Twitter, my clients have A LOT OF BOOKS coming out soon. Here are some you should preorder!!!!

  • AC Esguerra’s graphic novel EIGHTY DAYS is going to blow your mind. Queer fighter pilots in love and peril. The art is STUNNING. Read about it in the LA Times here!! Out September 7th!

  • Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre’s LIFETIME PASSES is coming October 5th and is another graphic novel you don’t want to miss. Find out what happens when a group of theme park obsessed teens figure out that if someone in their party dies while at the park, they get lifetime passes! And guess which one of them works at a retirement home! No one gets murdered, of course, but well, you’ll have to read it to find out more.

Are you a subscriber to Agents and Books? Thank you! If not, what are you waiting for! You’re missing out on Q&A Thursdays where you can ask me anything and the Fifty Queries Club—a real life query critique!

Please get vaccinated, friends. Wear your makes, again, still, to keep everyone and yourself safe.