where the writers are
It's Crap, I Tell You!

I was watching Richard Roper on Jay Leno the other night. The teaser before the segment's commercial break was, "When we return, we'll talk about the worst movies of the year." They came back and had a very interesting discussion about bad movies. Leno asked if there are times when the director knows the movie is going south during filming and moves forward anyway, or do they truly believe that they are making a great movie.

Roper replied, "Well, no one sets out to make a bad movie."

Of course they don't. No one in their right mind wants to produce crap, be it a movie, television show, or even a book. We've all read a book or two that's a complete stinker. I've had a few moments when I look back to see who the editor is, who the house is, and find brand names in the acknowledgments. How does that happen???

Yes, criticism is subjective at best. What I love, another will hate, and vice versa. And it is sooooo easy to read a book, or watch a film, and say man, that sucked. But can we explain why? And if it's so terrible, how did it make it into our hands and onto our screens???

I need to limit this to discussing books, because I'm hopelessly lost when it comes to movie production. I'd love it if a few of our movie folks would chime in from that side of the fence.

As authors, we strive to make each book better than our last. We struggle and soar, we research and express, we do everything in our power to give good quality entertainment to our readers. Sometimes we have a deeper message. Sometimes there's a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, it's just plain escapist fiction, fun for the writer to write and the reader to read.

So how do we produce clunkers? Because I have to tell you, there isn't an author on the planet who hasn't written a book they believe in, given it to their editor, who is enthusiastic, gone through the process of being sold-in to booksellers, who are also enthusiastic, then gotten slammed with a crappy review. Does that mean a book is bad? No. A review is a review is a review. Nothing more, nothing less.

What about the books that get brilliant reviews, but the readers hate? What causes the disparity in opinion?

And how does a book that everyone, and I mean everyone, agrees is terrible, make it through the process? The books only a mother could love. How does the editor let it through? How does the publisher get behind it? How does it make it into stores???

Again, no one sets out to write a bad book. No one sets out to produce a terrible movie. But they do exist. So where's the quality control? Where are the editors and publishers and agents who need to red light the process, send the book back to the author and say, "You need to rewrite this puppy."

I can understand how much more difficult that might be in a movie. Our Toni is producing an indie film right now, and she shared some of her duties with me. I was flabbergasted. Imagine that on a George Lucas scale, with millions upon millions of dollars invested into a film. Have you even really read the credits at the end of a movie? Thousands of people are involved. Scrapping it to start over isn't exactly feasible.

But if a novel isn't up to snuff, what can we do? We're one person, working with one editor, one agent, etc. There aren't a million people on the payroll. Why can't we full stop and start over?

As strange as it may seem, authors are people. Which means that they are experiencing this little thing called life, which has a tendency to get in the way. Say, God forbid, a loved-one passes away mid-way through a book. Is that novel going to be the author's best effort? Maybe, maybe not. But can you insert a disclaimer in the preface and apologize to the reader? Or should the book be pulled from the queue and the author given a pass until they feel ready to produce again?

I'm speculating here, and I'm curious about your opinion. How do the bad books/movies make into the hands of the consumer? Do we do ourselves a disservice by not having a system of checks and balances to make sure that bad work doesn't make it out there? Does it matter???

Wine of the Week: Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2004

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Bad Books/Bad Movies

I've sort of come to the conclusion that there aren't really any bad books or bad movies. In fact, as unenlightened as it might sound, I no longer believe any artistic effort is bad. Maybe not great, but not...bad. But there is that other factor, let's call it the E(bert) Factor, that deals with nothing more than personal preferences. Usually what the E Factor is composed of is a series of associations that accumulate over time to dictate what kind of colors we like best, what our idea of a perfect meal is, what moves us, what excites us, etc. The problem is that my E Factor might not be the same as your E Factor, and that's probably why stark distinctions start entering into the equation: the S(iskel) Factor. Sadly, though, it seems that more often than not we tend to gravitate toward those who share the same opinions as our own, and as a result that only reinforces notions of what is good (the things we value and like) and what is bad (the opposite of what we value and like). People do this, clubs do it too, so do political parties, and, of course, whole societies--sometimes with horrific consequences.

But when it comes down to the critics, those folks who by now surely outnumber us lowly writers, I find an increasingly annoying backseat driver quality to what should be well-considered critiques of books and films (backseat drivers who, if truth be known, probably can't drive all that well). I would be lying if I said that I didn't want to shake some of these critics and say, "If you aren't capable of doing it then shut the fuck up!" Although I haven't actually been given the opportunity to do so.

So how can a book that goes on to be widely disliked initially end up in the hands of a publisher and, then, the reader? If I really knew the answer to that I could probably also make sense of why fine novels sometimes get passed over by publishers and, then, fail to reach readers in a timely manner. Let's not forget that Simon & Schuster passed on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in the early '60s (almost twenty years before it was finally published) because they felt it "isn't really about anything." I could say a lot about that novel, but "being about nothing" wouldn't be one of them.

In any case, I have infinite admiration for the so-called "bad" artist, and it's often a joy to see the amount of revision that sometimes occurs when a "bad" artist is suddenly re-discovered as a great talent. I think the Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is a prime example of someone whose films were at first considered B-movie slop and are now, just a few years on, examined closely as if they had the importance of the Dead Sea scrolls. Time and context, however, can make all the difference to the good/bad distinction proffered by professional critics as the unbendable truth. As the cultural zeitgeist shifts so too does the estimation of certain maligned artistic creations. In the supposed heightened consciousness of the 1960s counterculture, Yoko Ono's music was generally considered to be the talentless caterwauling of a glorified groupie, but to the punks and new wavers of the 1970s she was regarded as a potent influence (Rock Lobster anyone?). Anyway, to mention at this point the initial unkind critical response to Van Gogh's studies in "black and white" (now regarded as his first masterpieces) would be way too easy, but, there, I just mentioned it.

So mark me down for no checks and balances on anyone's art. Instead, maybe we should advocate for a checks and balances on the critical community. I think that would be a better starting place.

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What we like to think is much simpler than life itself

“I like baseball, you either hit it or not. It’s like math, straightforward, much simpler, than…. Life.”

I think you hit a very great point here: what makes something bad, and how are we sure about that? I feel not only in the literary world, sometimes even in science, the ripples one’s action can cause is so great, it’s very hard to say it’s good or bad.

But we decide “things are going to be good or bad, black or white”, because it makes us feel good.

Renjie Wang      redroom.com

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One Man's Crap is another man's gold.

The theories I have beyond the idea of "We believe in this book or movie":

"We need to get SOMETHING on the shelf" mixed wih somebody out there will love this because they love this artist personally. It is not only a mother could love as much as Only a hardcore fan would love.

That can come from both the artistic side and the producing side.

An author who has put out that great book a year or so beforehand that was a bestseller (loved either by critics, the readers or the telltale signs of a great book: equally loved by both) and they need to get another one out on the shelf to ride that success of the first one.

The pressure of the artist by his lit agent. The pressure of publishing companies to produce another of the artist's book. The need for the readers to see what else is going to come out of this artist.

This is why there are so many "Sequels in movies". In this day and age they are shooting TWO movies at the same time to already have the sequel in the can "Just in case"

Matrix Two and Three are great examples. I was on the set of these two Shot in Tandem movies. (Matter of fact, I think every Bike Messenger in The Bay Area was in it too.)

When Matrix Two came out? I fell asleep in the movie theater only to be awakened by the confusing Architect speech. I had a lot of fun of that set. I got the distinct feeling this was not going to be good. But somewhere someone did. Including all of the fans of The Matrix Number one.

I could say that the really bad books that everyone in the world knows is really bad comes from Pressure and Money for Product. What is the byproduct of this is that everyone knows this is not a good book. from The top (The Artist) down (The kid stocking the book, who is an artist.)

You just pump yourself up to believe what you are doing is fantastic. In for a penny. In for a pound.

No one sets out to do bad work. But deep down you know the end results might not be what you wished for.

Why great writers and directors can sometime produce crap. And why people who continually seem to produce crap continues to produce crap until finally someone just says "your stuff just no longer sells" Not "Your stuff has never been good in the first place".

Pressure and Money.

I think one of the main reasons that drinking is on the high list of the creative writers, actors and directors.

On the movie end as an actor? I have been on sets of movies and gone "This is not going on the resume" You know that this is not going to be that good. But there is something in the back of your mind that says "Somebody, somewhere is going to think this is great...because taste is subjective"

There is also the "Ed Wood: It's so bad...its good" theories of why things get produced. The "We are laughing at you...not with you" theory.

But I guess there are shades of this too. Where his friends believed in him and did his deliciously bad movies and semi porn books at the end of his life that no one watched or read...only for him to become an iconic figure of bad and underground in death, someone making more money than he ever did alive...and actors winning oscars from protraying the actors who were really bad.

I love the artist world. There is something so dizzying about it that Roeper and Leno could take two full shows talking about. :)

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All three of you make such excellent points! Thank you for your opinions.

J.T. Ellison