Bob Salvatore has this story he tells, whereby he points out that for every critic or reader who blasts his novels as derivative, empty drivel, he receives two or three emails from readers talking about how his stories got them through a very rough time, or how they read his novels on the hospital bed, or how his work inspired them to write stuff of their own.
Now, I don't know how prevalent that is for most game-related fiction writers. I will say that based on the number of people who come up to me (and I'm one of the small guys--I'm not talking about Ed or RAS or PSK or RLB), not everyone ascribes to this tired old stereotype.
(And I acknowledge that if you go to the novels with this stereotype in mind, it's hard to see the art that's written there. That's how stereotypes work, as we all know.)
Now--what do I think?
Let's get past this "shared world/game-related fiction sucks" attitude.
Yeah, a lot of game-related fiction sucks. But then, a lot of NON-game-related fiction sucks. So really, it's just par for the course.
Only game-related fiction has an extra burden to carry, in that it is more often than not classed with other fiction in the same shared world--fiction written by totally different authors with totally different attitudes and totally different aims.
It's like PSK's apples and oranges discussion. Just because game-fiction is wrapped up in a convenient package to dismiss all at once (i.e., I didn't like this Realms novel, so all the Realms novels must suck) doesn't mean you should, any more than you should write off an entire genre based on one book you didn't like.
Realms authors are no more alike than authors in the greater fantasy genre, and often times the only similarity between their books is the setting itself (and the Realms provides so much variety that this is rarely an issue). You can't really draw quality conclusions about, say, Paul Kemp's writing from Richard Lee Byer's writing. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses. They write differently and are after different things. You may extremely dislike one author's book but totally love another.
There are, for instance, Realms writers who ascribe to the "rough-and-tumble he-man-like hero rescues the eye-candy/weepy girl and saves the day." And that's fine, if that's what you want--that's how Robert Howard wrote Conan, after all. Meanwhile, there are some Realms writers (like me) who eschew that classic fantasy sensibility and write fiction that at least attempts to deal directly with real-world gender issues in the Realms. There are Realms writers who love writing about quirky relationships and split-your-sides humor (Rosemary Jones), some who do high-octane action (Bob Salvatore), and some who write about the dilemma of the human soul (Paul Kemp).
Now. Go back over that paragraph and replace all instances of the word "Realms" or "the Realms" with the word "fantasy" (or any other genre you care to name). Or just take out the word entirely, and let it apply to all authors in all genres of all time. The Realms has the full range of stuff, just like fantasy, just like all fiction in general.
How can one possibly--at least honestly--express the view that shared-world/game fiction is any less worthy than non-shared-world/game fiction?
It has all the same range and suffers all the same faults--it can address the same issues and is free to suck just like any other fiction out there.
The only real difference is that instead of expending the creative juice to *make our own world,* we spend it on *integrating our stories into an existing world* that is steeped in a hundred game supplements, three hundred novels, and forty years of tradition. If anything, that is *harder* than creating your own world, where you can just make up the solution to any problem. In the Realms (or any shared world), it's research, research, research. Because if you don't do that, your novel is going to crash and burn.
Ok. I've made the point that you can't dismiss all the Realms novels (300ish novels) on the basis of a small handful (5-10). Let's go the other way: Maybe you've read all the Realms novels and found them all wanting. Maybe you're a big-time literary critic and you know your stuff and you know when you're not getting it.
But even in that situation, there's no guarantee that the novels will mean the same thing to someone else. A book you may think is absolute drivel might get smothered by the love of hundreds of other readers (it's happened to me!). You may be sitting back in your chair wondering why a particular fantasy book (be it game-related or not) on the NY Times Bestseller List sells more than a dozen copies. But it can--and it will--and it'll be because no one can choose fiction for everyone.
When it really comes down to it, fiction is a hugely relative thing. Everyone's got different tastes, and you should read what you like. And--by extension--don't read what you DON'T like. Just as we should all leave everyone to choose what to read and what not to read.