Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Laundry Effect

by Stephanie Black

Multiple discussions about the Whitney Awards have been taking place over on the LDS Publisher blog, including comments on how judging should be done. What criteria do the judges use? Josi Kilpack made the following comment in the comment trail:

A good book is one that keeps me reading instead of doing dishes and laundry--that's my basic measure. The more dishes and laundry piled up when I finish the book is a pretty good indicator of how good that book really was.

I love this. I can relate to the Laundry Effect. And for clarification, the Laundry Effect doesn’t mean that if someone gave me a choice to do laundry or read a particular book, I’d choose the book, therefore it must be good stuff. The back of a cereal box could win in a contest like that. The Laundry Effect means that a book grips me so tightly that I have trouble doing anything else until I’ve finished it. To me, that’s a strong indicator that the author did something very, very well. On some level, that book connected with me. I was riveted by the story. I cared about the characters. The book worked.

Does a novel need to have the most brilliant writing ever penned in order to evoke the Laundry Effect? Not necessarily. The writing has to be solid enough that it doesn’t annoy me and jar me out of the story (and the more I’m enjoying a book, the less likely I am to nitpick), but it doesn’t have to be poetically marvelous. Some writing is “wow” writing where the writer has amazing skill at weaving words together in a beautiful, powerful way. Some writing is transparent writing, where words aim simply to tell a good story. Either type of writing can produce a good novel, depending on the effect the writer seeks.

I can and do enjoy and admire books without experiencing the Laundry Effect. More often than not, I don’t experience it--I can usually set even an excellent book aside and come back to it later. But every now and then, I end up with a book absolutely glued to my hands and I’m willing to let the roof fall in if I can just finish it.

Interestingly, a book that is a Laundry-Effect read for one reader may be a dud for another reader. Reader A was riveted by the book; reader B gave up on page 20 and used the book for firewood. To which I say—so what? We don’t all have the same tastes, and thank heavens we don’t, or the selection of fiction would be far more limited. As Josi also pointed out (I love Josi), just because she hates a book doesn’t mean it’s bad.

I’m guessing most of us give lip service to Josi’s sentiment, but when it comes down to it, we secretly feel that our opinion on a book is the right one. You read a glowing review of a book—or a jillion glowing reviews—then read the book and think, “Meh. Poor to mediocre. What’s wrong with those people who raved about it?” Or vice versa—you loved the book and others didn’t. “What’s wrong with those readers who don’t see how good this is?” Am I right? Have you ever felt that way? Admit it.

What it comes down to is that our taste is books is very subjective. The same book can evoke very different reactions in different readers. I'm betting there isn't a single reader anywhere who thinks every book on the Whitney finalist list is superb. Each reader will love some of the books, like some, and dislike some--and their preferences will be different from those of the next reader. That's just fine. The Whitney Awards can't be all things to all people, and they never will be--not as long as our tastes vary.


At 3/18/2009 1:58 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Great post! It's been really interesting to see how close writer friends and I disagree on books. Many times now I've been stunned that they hated a book I totally loved or vice versa. And these are award-winning, published writers themseleves. It really is so subjective.

At 3/18/2009 2:18 PM, Blogger Josi said...

And it's because it's subjective that the Whitney Awards work. Readers have to like it enough to nominate it, judges have to like it enough to make it a finalist, and the academy has to like it enough to make it a winner. There is no one group making the decision-AND the more people that read and vote, the better the results will be. Thanks for the shout out, Steph. And for the record--I just finished a Whitney book and my laundry is completely caught up and the dishes in the dishwasher are clean--guess how much I liked the book?

At 3/18/2009 3:20 PM, Anonymous Emily M said...

How I wish I could have a candid (yet kind) discussion with everyone who is voting to see which books they liked and disliked and why. Because like you say, Stephanie, even when I try to be diplomatic, I really do think all my opinions about these books are right. ;-) But I want to know about everyone else's right opinions too.

At 3/18/2009 4:13 PM, Anonymous ally condie said...

Stephanie, I have actually been meaning to contact you because I just finished Fool Me Twice this weekend. It was a complete Laundry Effect book (also a Dishes Effect book and a Working On One's Own Novel Effect book). :) I thoroughly enjoyed it!

At 3/18/2009 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read a couple of Josi's books this month - haven't done laundry in weeks!


At 3/18/2009 5:33 PM, Blogger Anna said...

I've had books that I have the hardest time putting down and doing things I should be doing. Then I have books that I can read it here and there and take weeks to read it.

Some of the books that take weeks to read are just as good as the "can't put it down" book.

I think it's important to know grammar, sentence structure, etc. But the neat thing about stories are that they can be told in so many different ways. I don't care if it's poetic in the wording or straight to the point mostly dialouge. If it's a good story, I like it. And of course, what I think is a good story, doesn't mean others will. Who wants a world where all novels are written the exact same way? We'd get bored of reading them.

At 3/18/2009 5:58 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Totally agree with you. And yes, I admit, I think my opinion is the right one. But I don't mind others disagreeing. Sometimes it can make a fun discussion.

Fool Me Twice was a laundry effector for me. So was Josi's Lemon Tart. :)

At 3/18/2009 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laundering the Whitneys

The titles of our favorite novels come and go, but laundry duty will always be with us.

You read a novel about an elderly man and decide its meh, okay. Not a classic. The writing is good, far from brilliant, but transparent enough not to annoy and that’s okay if only the story were more engaging. It’s the kind of novel where the wash gets done on time, the dishes never pile up, and your kids can count on three square meals a day. That’s a fair review to share with your friends, but it probably won’t get published in the New York Times. But, hey, you’re not a critic, just a reader.

The story didn't grab you. You didn't relate. The main character is forty years older, male and he’s dealing with the complications of old age. What kind of plot is that? You need something a little more appealing. Exciting. You're a happily married housewife with four kids. You and your husband are trying to pay the mortgage, put a little away for the future, and feed the kids without killing them. The demands of life make the romance of your college days difficult to replicate. In fact you’re not even sure if replication is the right approach. You tried that with your kids and look at how they turned out. You love a good romance novel and you’re not going to give up your obsession no matter what your weird, nosy, self-taught psychologist, neighbor friend tells you about romantically obsessive thirty-something novel readers.

Then you get that call. Its about your father. He's in trouble. He can't afford special care. Neither can you. And could you put him up in your extra room until we figure out something better? The first thing you notice are his frequent slips of memory. It’s part of the degenerative disease that brought him to you. His seemingly insignificant fears are your frustrations. His idiosyncrasies become your aggravation. How is this going to play out for you? For your family? You forget to wonder how it’s playing out for him and you pray for a solution. A cure. That’s a faith-filled prayer, isn’t it? The faith to heal. That God has power to cure your father and relieve you of this terrible burden.

But the cure you're praying for has already been delivered. It’s occupying the spare room. You just haven't prepared a place to receive it. Yet.

You begin to anguish with your father as he lets go of his sense of purpose in a life that was, until recently, filled with purpose. His childlike questions are, at first, annoying, but in his innocence you find terms for endearment. Your prayers for an escape become pleadings for his welfare. You wear your knuckles thin on heaven’s door, searching not for your happiness, but for his. A smile on his face is worth a hundred prayers. The mathematics of life, seen through his eyes, becomes a very simple equation. The totality of his blamelessness, his virtue, his incorruptibility, his pure love communicate a cure. God didn’t anoint you his savior. Somehow, in the imperceptible sum of eternity’s calculus, you understand. God anointed your father as the healer.

It’s been six years. Your father is still with you. One son is on a mission. A daughter is in college in another state. There are two teens at home. You come across that novel about the elderly man and you remember it reached the “meh, okay” needle on your likeableometer. But heck, you’ve got some time, and nothing better to read. You’re surprised at how you’re riveted to every detail. The story is palpable. The human interaction enthralling. The hope ennobling. The poignancy plumbs the depths of your soul. It’s the kind of novel where the wash builds up, the dishes don't get done, and the kids have to forage for their own food. You hold the novel and cry. What were you thinking when you assigned this masterpiece to the trash heap of mediocrity? It’s a classic. It’s touching. Every word poetically penetrates your heart.

You discover that you’re not ground of the same optical prescription you wore when you first read this timely work of art. You've changed. You see through a lens of a different color.

In the optician’s shop you find countless spectacles framed by different ideas, likes, dislikes, ages, genders, experiences, and backgrounds. Each prescription a different viewpoint, some for blocking the sun, some for farsightedness, others for shortsightedness and all of them intended for the purpose of reading.

The laundry still piles up, but it backs up for a very different novel today than yesterday. And tomorrow it will back up behind yet a very different story.

Good luck laundering the Whitneys.

At 3/19/2009 12:44 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Ally and Karlene--I'm so excited that Fool Me Twice caused Laundry Effect! Thank you!

Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. I confess that I, too, think my opinion is the right one :) It is fascinating how opinions on the same book can vary so widely. And Anon, good point--depending on our stage in life, a book may affect us very differently at different times.

At 3/24/2009 2:03 PM, Blogger LexiconLuvr said...

The back of a cereal box could win in a contest like that.

Ha ha ha! You're way funny, Stephanie.

As for recent reads, Josi's Lemon Tart absorbed me. I picked it up and didn't put it back down (literally) until I finished it. =]


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