Why Do So Many Books and Movies Suck? An Explanation

I just read a book by a famous writer, and I thought, “If this book hadn’t been written by this person, it never would’ve been published. Not in a million years.”

And that got me thinking: why are so many books and movies so mediocre — or outright bad?

First, let’s stipulate that good books and movies are much harder to create than they look. They look effortless because they’re working, not because they actually were effortless to make.

But still. Why do so many bad books and movies get through the system? Aren’t publishers and movie studios supposed to skim the cream off the top of everything that’s being written in the world? Don’t they have editors and script doctors they pay to make the stuff as good as it can possibly be?

There’s this is idea that publishing houses and movie studios are “meritocracies” — that the “best” stuff is the stuff that gets released.

And I absolutely do think that, over time, the “best” writers are definitely the ones that get published and produced. But it’s also absolutely not true that movie studios and publishing houses are “meritocracies.”

Who you are matters. And what you’re selling matters. Probably too much.

Basically, a lot of what gets published and produced these days is based on a “pitch.” Movie studios and publishing houses buy ideas. (“Okay, picture this!” the writer says to a room full of executives. Or, “Hey, how about we make a movie based that old board game, Battleship!”)

If they like the idea — or at least if they think they can make money off the idea — they give the writer money to develop it.

Now I’m the first to say how important the “idea” is to the success of a story. I believe “high concept” is not necessarily a bad thing — certainly a lot better than “no concept”! I also think way too many writers spend way too much time on ideas that are tapped out, ripped off, or just not all that interesting to begin with.

But a great idea is only one small part of the writing process. Coming up with a truly great, original idea is really, really hard. Executing that idea effectively is even harder.

Basically, a lot of great “ideas,” or great pitches, don’t end up making very good books or screenplays.

Obviously, right? Only rank amateurs think that great ideas “write themselves.”

Alas, once a publisher or movie studio has spent time and money on a project, they’re invested — figuratively and literally. So even these bad books and screenplays are much more likely to see the light of day than if they’d just been submitted as spec projects.

(This is obviously even more true among publishers than movie studios, mostly because books are so much cheaper to produce.)

As a writer, I like this status quo. I can pitch a project, and then I have money to live on for the next year or so while I write it. It brings some stability and predictability to a profession that is incredibly unstable and unpredictable.

The fact is, if I had to “run the gauntlet” with every new book or screenplay I wrote, if my past credits didn’t count for anything or open any doors, I might not bother being a professional writer. It wouldn’t be worth it — I also probably wouldn’t be able to eat!

But as a reader and movie-goer? I’m not so crazy about this status quo, mostly because I’m getting tired of all the mediocre or outright bad books and movies.

What do you guys think? Do you think there are too many bad or mediocre books and movies in the world? If so, why do you think they’re there? Is it all just differing tastes — or is there something wrong with the system itself?

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16 Responses to “Why Do So Many Books and Movies Suck? An Explanation”

  1. Amanda 29 May 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I read books all the time I think are terrible–objectively terrible, with horrible plotting and bad characters. And yet they have great reviews. Explain that!

    • Brent Hartinger 30 May 2012 at 3:14 am #

      It's all very, very subjective?

      I think IN GENERAL reviews are accurate. But when it comes to specific reviews, it's all a crap-shot.

      But even as I write this, I recall a book I just picked up that was all raves … and I hated it.

      So let me amend that: I think IN GENERAL reviews are MOSTLY right, and Amazon averages are even more right. Usually.

  2. Amber 30 May 2012 at 2:18 am #

    I read a lot of books by lesser known authors, and while I've found quite a few hidden gems, I've also found a few that are unbelievably awful. Those books get published even though authors don't even have a name to go on. I think the real reason is that there are a lot of people out there with horrible taste in books and they continue to support authors who have no reason writing books in the first place. After all, how else do you explain the fact that Twilight is a real thing that actually exists.

    • Brent Hartinger 30 May 2012 at 3:12 am #

      Ouch! (But I think I agree with you, Amber, including about the hidden gems).

  3. Gwen 30 May 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    I suspect a lot of it may have to do with what I call the Anne Rice Syndrome. Basically, somebody makes,writes, or otherwise produces something awesome, giving them legitimacy as a creative producer. Everything they touch afterwards is garbage but they still get the green light based on those first few projects. This condition is also known as the M. Night Affliction.

    • Brent Hartinger 30 May 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Really, really good point, Gwen. I was just discussing Anne Rice yesterday with a friend: how could someone who started out so great end up writing stuff that is among the worst crap I've ever read?

      M. Night is a slightly different case, IMHO, because I thought Sixth Sense was wildly overrated even at the time (I guessed the ending in the first five minutes, which made it a very very boring movie!). Basically, I called that one. ;-)

      • Gwen 5 June 2012 at 4:28 pm #

        What always made the Sixth Sense stand out to me was that it didn't rely on gore to inspire fear. A lot of horror movies tend to be disgustingly, violent. The Sixth Sense tried to make the fear psychological. For that alone, I will always appreciate it.

        Then along came 'The Last Airbender'.

        • Brent Hartinger 5 June 2012 at 7:30 pm #

          Good point.

  4. Nikki 31 May 2012 at 12:21 am #

    Speaking of books and movies, isn't Geography Club being made into a movie?

    • Brent Hartinger 31 May 2012 at 2:35 am #

      It is indeed. The news is all good and exciting, and the movie will be out next year, but alas, I'm still not supposed to reveal any details just yet.

      Shold have more to say in a month or so. :-)

      • Nikki 31 May 2012 at 2:49 am #

        I'm so excited to see it. I love the books so i'm sure i will love the movie too.

      • Oren 14 June 2012 at 8:01 pm #

        WHAAAAAAT????!!! Geography Club movie?? Next year??? BEST NEWS EVER!

        • Brent Hartinger 15 June 2012 at 7:00 am #

          I'll have full details very soon. The cast is amazing!

  5. Ben 1 June 2012 at 3:20 am #

    I know it wouldn't be polite for you to tell who it was that you were reading, but I'm guessing Dean Koontz :) I regularly have that thought when reading 90 percent of his books, yet like a sucker I keep going back. So I suppose I'm partially responsible for this "suck" culture, though in my defense I've rented most of his books from the library.

    I think there's too much crap out there, and I don't want to sound snobby, but I think it's because a growing percentage of our population cannot for the life of them think critically or abstractly. They need their media cut up and spoonfed to them, so we have Two and a Half Men bringing in 10 million viewers with fart jokes while a much smarter show like Community struggles to stay on the air.

    • Brent Hartinger 1 June 2012 at 6:49 am #

      I agree with you about Dean Koontz (that's not who it was — close though). I've read three of his books, one was "okay," the others horrible, and I finally decided he had become a "brand" so the quality didn't matter.

      I suppose you're right about the audience — as Lisa Simpson says, you'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. But I've always thought that book readers were a cut above.

  6. Gary 20 October 2012 at 12:20 am #

    I think the influx of bad movies and books comes right down to personal values and availability. Does one value edifying and inspiring entertainment or does one value entertainment that only gives them the immediate stimulation of the five senses?
    The other side of that is availability and exposure as a factor.
    One may think that the base and carnal series "Prison Break", which is even in its title un-creative, is a great series. Perhaps it's because they have never seen The Shawshank Redemption or even The Great Escape?
    That's just one example of exposure being the chief factor.

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