My view on how bad books (and bad stories and bad writers) get published

writerMFA application season is coming to a close. Most applicants to most schools have already been rejected (although the official notifications might be awhile in coming). It’s a weird thing, this applying to stuff and submitting to stuff. You read someone’s work and you think, “Man, how could this person ever get rejected from anywhere?” And then they’re rejected from everywhere. Similarly, I read peoples’ stories and think, “Man, this is so much better than most of the things in the magazines,” but, despite my opinion, it still does not get published.

And then, on the flipside, tons of terrible stories and bad writers manage to get accepted* and you wonder how anyone could’ve possibly thought this was worthwhile. Sometimes it all seems so senseless and random.

Part of the answer here is that different people have different aesthetic standards, obviously. For instance, I like plenty of novels that other people consider poorly-written. I’m able to overlook thin or imprecise writing in a way that many sophisticated readers are not. It’s not that I and they disagree about the nature of the work—it’s just that we disagree as to which of its qualities are most enjoyable and important.

But I think that part of the answer is that the people who do the selecting in these cases—particularly in the case of MFA admissions—aren’t necessarily following just their aesthetic standards. Because, you know, I can’t help but think that according to the aesthetic standards of most professional writers, the stories of almost all MFA applicants would be deemed unworthy (since, you know, we’re obviously still just students).

Every person has a certain quality threshold below which they are simply unable to be affected by a story. And if you can’t feel an emotional response to a story, then it is very difficult to judge its merits. You’re left in the odd position of looking at this mediocre story and trying to figure out whether the person who birthed it will ever be able to, someday, write a good story. And that’s a pretty difficult (and perhaps impossible) task.

With editors, the problem is slightly different. Sometimes you come across a story that you don’t like, but you sense that your readership might like it. When I was reading slush, I’d often pass up stories that didn’t particularly resonate with me, just because they seemed like the kind of thing that SH publishes. Sometimes, the editors above me reacted much more strongly to them than I did.

I think this aspect plays the biggest role in book publishing.** Here you have a bunch of very educated and very sophisticated readers doing their best to figure out what books might be enjoyed by less-educated and less-sophisticated readers. That’s a hard job, because it doesn’t really involve the aesthetic sense—it mostly seems to involve a lot of guessing. Sometimes they guess right, but 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong.

Obviously, the solution is to only accept writers who send you stories that you respond to and to only publish stories and novels that you, personally, enjoy. But that’s a luxury that most programs and most editors, don’t really have—the exigencies of their position demand a certain output.


*Obviously, I am not talking about Hopkins here, because everyone in this program is awesome and talented =)

**This is just a hypothesis, I have no idea if this is actually the case. Perhaps every bad book is championed by an editor who really, sincerely, loves it. I kind of hope that is the case.

Comments (



  1. Huw Thomas

    Think you’re missing the marketing angle here. Hence so many crappy vampire/50 shades of whatever novels get published in the wake of one big money maker.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yep, but that’s just more of editors blindly trying to guess what will sell.

  2. Diana

    I think there’s a lot of sense to that. One of the things that the massive proliferation of “reader blogs” has shown me with my most recent book is that it’s often a case of “not the right reader for the book.” I saw a reader blog post about my book today and it was all “how are people saying this is romantic? They never even kiss! She never leaves the farm and goes anywhere else. Also, I hate classics.” And I loved it because it was very much “this is not the book for me.” But it was so the book for other people. Everyone reads differently.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Absolutely. Often, I dislike stories because they’re going to a place that I am tired of. Other people, though, love that place and seek out that place. This is why people get burned by Goodreads giveaways and stuff, it puts your books in the hands of people who’ve never shown themselves particularly receptive to your thing.

  3. J. Nelson Leith

    Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I think another explanation lies in social biases. A lot of the stories I have read with just plain awful dialogue, flat characters, poor description, and inexplicable plotting nevertheless key into some cultural or political sentiment that I can see appealing to this or that segment of the public. People like it not so much as fiction, but as a sort of veiled booster piece for one of their causes.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think that’s just part and parcel of editors trying to guess what will appeal to people who don’t read many books.

      1. johnleith602

        Well, mixed feelings… I unabashedly approve of that tactic if the idea is to inspire more readers, but I can’t imagine that there aren’t plenty of good writers who also just happen to key into cultural/political warrants.

        Or maybe I’m not cynical enough about writers?

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I think the feeling is that, to some extent, unsophisticated readers don’t want sophisticated books, so you actually NEED bad writers, in order to appeal to them.

  4. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    > it’s just that we disagree as to which of its qualities are most enjoyable and important.

    Or as economists would say with economy of words “different utility functions”.

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