Surveying the self-publishing landscape, Kirkus Indie editors occasionally daydream about a Harry Potter–esque wizard who could wave his magic wand and make a disconcerting trend vanish. For example, one annoying development he could target, also widely prevalent in traditional publishing, concerns book titles: authors’ insistence on copying Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and others by using Girl to call attention to their works. Kirkus Indie recently reviewed The Girl in My Wallet, The Girl Who Cloned Lightning, Just a Girl, Last Girl Standing, The Girl Who Said Goodbye, The Girl Puzzle, The Mutiny Girl, and The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke. Of course, this benevolent wizard could also take aim at Indie fantasy epics that feature Hogwarts-esque schools with extravagantly eccentric teachers in their serpentine plots …
Read on to learn which trends three veteran Kirkus Indie reviewers wish would disappear immediately.
Underdeveloped, Servile Minority Characters
Stephanie Dobler Cerra, who has written more than 1,500 Indie reviews, asserts that the trend she would like to see vanish “is one that film director Spike Lee brought to wide attention in 2001, during a discussion with students at Washington State University: the ‘Magical Negro.’”
“In this plot device, a minority character (black, Asian, Native American) has special access to insight, healing, or wisdom and is happy to use these gifts on behalf of the white protagonist,” she explains. “Often, the minority character is less powerful, wealthy, or educated than the white character. Beyond serving as helper, the minority figure plays little role in the plot, often disappearing or dying on behalf of the protagonist or when no longer needed.”
She notes that Stephen King uses this trope in his novels The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), The Talisman (1984), and The Green Mile (1996). In The Stand, Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old black woman, “magically draws the book’s protagonists to her home following a disastrous super-flu and gives them the benefit of her wisdom and advice, directing them to the next step on their quest.” She then disappears, returning only to share one final vision before dying, her purpose being served.
Cerra speculates that authors employ this stereotype unconsciously or they feel well-intentioned since the characters are portrayed positively. The minority characters are spiritual, wise, giving, and good. “But, as with the similar Noble Savage trope, the trouble is that the stereotype rests on seeing black/minority characters as fundamentally different from white protagonists. They are said to have, unlike more sophisticated and civilized white people, a direct connection with primitive, elemental, and primal spiritual forces.”
Still, she maintains, this view marginalizes minorities, depicting them as less fully human and making them into a servant class whose prime purpose lies in helping whites fulfill their destinies. “Thus, there’s no need to write them as full characters.”
Series Books That Can’t Stand Alone
Kent Armstrong, who has reviewed scores of Indie books that are part of fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, or mystery series, has noticed that “a lot of new authors plan from the beginning to spotlight a recurring character. Heroes having adventures throughout multiple novels are certainly entertaining, but I think authors should be wary of isolating readers just joining their series.
“Authors often assume everyone’s already familiar with preceding novels and will, for example, freely reference earlier narratives,” spoiling the books for readers who intend to go back to the series’ start.
And sometimes, Armstrong notes, “authors omit pertinent details,” such as why the protagonist has a morbid fear of otters, when a quick explanation would benefit both returning and new readers. Each volume should accommodate all readers, welcoming some back and luring the rest.
Disjointed Plots and Bad Dialect
Ivan Kenneally, who has reviewed for Kirkus Indie since 2010 and also writes for Open Letters Monthly and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other literary magazines, points out some irritating developments in both Indie fiction and nonfiction, including the nonlinear narrative: “Plots boldly leap from past to future and back, a device I find bewildering. Unless it’s done with great artistry, it gratuitously places the burden of constructing a coherent story on the reader. It’s like the novelistic version of a jigsaw puzzle, to be completed by someone other than the author.”
In period fiction, Kenneally spots a lot of dialogue trying to mirror historically authentic dialect, which usually sinks into exaggerated caricature. “I’ve read a ton of historical novels set during Civil War–era America, and everyone sounds like Yosemite Sam. It’s hard enough to write good dialogue without approximating the speech patterns of a bygone time.”
A Lack of Importance—or a Sense of Overimportance
On the nonfiction shelves, Kenneally finds the disappointing proliferation of the “quotidian chronicle,” or the memoir whose signature characteristic is the thematically disjointed “list of mostly everyday events: ‘Then in October of 1963, I decided to wear more pastels and learn to cook Mediterranean food.’ Not everyone’s life is meant to be exhaustively cataloged at book length.”
Finally, he deplores the “angry partisan panacea” genre, where an author solves the world’s problems in under 200 pages in a way “that deftly eschews even the appearance of political compromise: ‘Now that I’ve settled the issue of what consciousness really is, I’ll set my sights on immigration.’ No particular party allegiance has a monopoly on this market—these self-professed sages spring from both sides of the aisle.”
—Myra Forsberg is an Indie Editor.