Sean Penn wrote a book. By all accounts, it lingers awkwardly between over-ambitious and flat-out dreadful.
A couple of excerpts (via Huffington Post):
Whenever he felt these collisions of incubus and succubus, he punched his way out of the proletariat with the purposeful inputting of covert codes, thereby drawing distraction through Scottsdale deployments, dodging the ambush of innocents astray, evading the viscount vogue of Viagratic assaults on virtual vaginas, or worse, falling passively into prosaic pastimes.” ― page 36
“While the privileged patronize this pickle as epithet to the epigenetic inequality of equals, Bob smells a cyber-assisted assault emboldened by right-brain Hollywood narcissists.” ― page 99
Now, I applaud anyone with the creativity and tenacity to write a book. As we all know, many begin but few finish. And to do so as a celebrity, heightening the attention and, perhaps, the vitriol, takes definite courage.
So I’m not going to slam Mr. Penn. Despite the accidental horror found between the pages of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, he’s not the problem.
What I find interesting is what this predictable misstep says about the Big Five Publishing Houses. (Or is it Big Four now? Big Three? I forget.)
First of all, the bar for what they publish – when celebrities are involved but more and more just generally – is increasingly low. Almost nonexistent. If you have a bold-faced name and something of a Following – or write in certain one-click-heavy genres – they’ll apparently pay you a generous advance and then print whatever you turn in.
Secondly, I’m now convinced the Big Houses no longer employ editors. Period. Of any kind. In fact, I suspect the Big Houses are assigning what meager editing duties there are – spelling? punctuation? – to their first-year college interns who, themselves, struggle with the basics when it comes to putting pen to page. How else to explain the consistent disasters I find in those few – and fewer and fewer nowadays – Big House books I read?
Now, those two alone are annoying. But this is why those two combined really worry me: writers will begin to believe that bad, horrible, terrible writing is the way to get published. That the shyte they read on the page is somehow “good.”
Young writers – hell, writers of any age! – will forget what makes a great book great and a breathtaking sentence breathtaking.
We’ve already seen this in the romance genre with its endless avalanche of breathless, poorly-written e.l.james-wannabes. And now, with Mr. Penn’s overwritten opus, there’s a strong chance people out there will think THIS is how to write. Heck, even Salman Rushdie gave it a blurb (he claimed Thomas Pynchon would love it) and Sarah Silverman compared it to both Mark Twain AND e.e. cummings!
See the problem here?
Because the Big Houses have placed profit above quality, writers in search of inspiration and readers seeking a great story are inundated with consistent examples of what NOT to do. We are buried under bad sentences and atrocious grammar. An almost careless misuse of words – per Penn’s “an elderly neighbor sits centurion on his porch watching Bob with surreptitious soupçon” (note: that’s not even close to being a wise use of “soupçon”) – and what feels like a wholesale abandonment of cohesive narrative.
The awful has become normal.
So, it’s not just Sean Penn’s overwrought disaster of a debut novel. Like I said before, he’s not the problem. The problem is an industry that has the bar set so low that it’s forgotten what good writing, believable characters and a great story are. The problem is an industry that has, I suspect, lost any sense of pride about what lands on the shelf stamped with their name.
And it’s readers who’ve come to not only expect the worst but who support, encourage and applaud it with sales and pithy Five Star reviews.
So, where does this leave writers who can actually write? Who work hard creating stories with an emotional arc? Who wince when they’ve stumbled onto a bad sentence and immediately self-edit it out of existence? Who people their pages with characters who feel real, sound real and, for all you know, could be real because they leap off the page with such sincerity and force?
It leaves us with small, independent publishing houses who care about what they publish. Who aren’t burdened with the massive umbrella of being a corporation and, because of this, know that a few sloppy books could mean the end of them (something the majors apparently don’t consider anymore). Who take a personal interest in their authors, knowing, if their authors feel cherished, their work will reflect that.
It leaves us realizing that the name of a Big House emblazoned on a book no longer guarantees quality.
Read that again:
The name of a Big House emblazoned on a book no longer guarantees quality.
And, knowing that, seeking out those writers – regardless how they’re published – who know what they’re doing. And then supporting, encouraging and applauding their work with sales and sincere, heartfelt reviews.
It means we need to take responsibility for what we read. If it sucks, put it down. Return it. Get a refund. Demand better. And leave a review that calls out what you felt was wrong with it. Will that change anything? Probably not. Or at least not anytime soon.
But if enough people start demanding better and taking their business to those who care about creating great books, at some point the Big Houses will have to change.
And perhaps then we can get back to reading fantastic writing and leave the Bob Honeys of the world in the dust bin of literary history.