I tried – just couldn’t do it.
As most people are probably aware, women dominate the literary market – the estimates I always see are around 80%. 50 Shades of Grey has become the best-selling book of all time in the UK. A quick browse through any website that promotes free Kindle giveaways and promotions – not to mention Amazon’s own Top 100 lists – will turn up a very large proportion of book covers featuring ripped, glistening male torsos with pants that are just about to fall off. For better or worse, this is where the market is right now.
I simply cannot read those books. I would hurl my tablet against the wall by page ten, I’m sure. But to completely ignore this entire sector of the market (what I will grudgingly call ‘chick-lit’ simply because I can’t see what else to call it to describe it properly) seemed to me irresponsible; there must be something out there that, while maybe not up the same standards as, say, a Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, at least ventured into the same territory but with a more modern outlook. I had hoped that Robin’s Blue might be that book; it’s about a young woman who uses her looks to jump around from one guy to the next, searching for herself, reviled by the jealousies of other women (sounds very Atwood-y so far, right?), and it was classified on Amazon as ‘literary fiction,’ and the write-up talked about the ‘decadence’ of the 80s’ which hinted at some layering and social commentary and criticism …
While all of that may possibly be in there somewhere, I’m not going to stick around to find out because I really don’t think it does, and Alster, quite clearly, is not Margaret Atwood. The prose is not absolutely horrible; there a few good lines and observations here and there, but it’s just not written well enough at a fundamental level for me to need to finish it. It starts off intriguingly, with the titular character screwing her vaguely disgusting older boss to get some drugs, and right away you get a very strong impression of the character and the time period. It’s a good encapsulation of what the book may offer, but it disintegrates very quickly from there.
There’s a single line early on that sums everything up a bit too neatly: “Why was I not being rescued, why couldn’t I rescue myself?” A writer of greater skill would probably not have had the main character actually say so clearly her own tragic flaw, (and the whole raison d’être of the book), but the narration is in first-person so it’s technically permissible. But then every single scene is simply a tableau of that one idea – Robin gets hurt by someone (friend, father, etc.), Robin uses sex to barter food, shelter and drugs from men, repeat ad nauseum . Does Robin ever break out of this cycle? I don’t know, because I only got 40% into it, which works out to roughly 200 pages. Seeing no differentiation in those first 200, I simply couldn’t bring myself to slog through the remaining 200. Is this my fault? Perhaps, but then I saw this review on Amazon …
This book could have been edited down to a pamphlet, or maybe even a sentence: girl becomes coke whore because daddy didn’t pay enough attention to her. There, I just saved you at least a few days or maybe a week of your life. This book has no arc; no climax or denouement. It’s like a Groundhog Day where the coke whore meets one bad egg after another and self medicates to make it palatable. Rinse and repeat.
… and I felt exonerated. It never does go anywhere. I’m glad I saved myself the mental anguish.
This Amazon review mentions the editing; not only do Alster and her editor apparently not understand anything about narrative arcs and character development (this gets back to my comment about how it’s not written well enough at a fundamental level), but they also apparently don’t know much about grammar and punctuation either. About every third sentence, like the one I quote about, is a comma splice. Now, it’s possible that the comma splice has become the new sentence fragment (“I’m an author, and if I want to write in sentence fragments I’ll damn well do so thank you very much”) but somehow I doubt it. This seems to be another example of an indie author without a full and proper knowledge of the literary craft, cheaping out on the editing process and bringing a book to the marketplace before it’s ready.
This is the sad reality of the indie-pub world, and perhaps the future of the entire industry as ‘mainstream’ publishers continue to lose ground to indies because it’s just so easy to publish yourself. But in this case the market can’t really take care of itself. If a product is too cheap and it doesn’t work or breaks too easily, it will fail because people won’t buy it; with books, however, a majority of readers clearly don’t understand or care about things like grammar or good plotting or that kind of quality – they’re just happy to get a cheap read with lots of sex in it (as seemingly indicated by the over 50 5-star reviews for this one and the whole aforementioned ‘50 Shades‘ thing). I’ll refrain from any commentary on this topic as I’m sure it’s already been done to death somewhere.
So as much as I endeavoured to break out of my usual reading habits, I failed spectacularly. Is this a personal failing of mine, that I just can’t tolerate the types of books that the majority of the market wants? From a marketing standpoint, maybe, but from a literary standpoint, I think I’ll be just fine.