Thursday, July 8, 2010

What sells?

I have a friend who's written a brilliant book that, through the lense of fiction, examines the strange, complex, and disturbing social compound that is the current Middle East. The book began as a collection of short stories, one that featured a variety of protagonists, some that are native to the region, many that are not. The point was to show, in some cases expose, the various and confounding strata of human lives and human interactions in this unique and terribly important part of the world. At the advice of an agent, my friend--who for several years lived and worked in Abu Dhabi--turned his collection of stories into a novel. But, staying true to the diverse nature of the stories, the novel very much features an ensemble cast. It is difficult to claim one of its protagonists as the Central Character. Don't get me wrong. My friend put in years of work metamorphosing his story collection into a unified fiction, making sure that the plot lines and characters interweaved and overlapped sufficiently, making sure the structure was tight enough and the final effect singular enough to deserve the designation of novel. It just happens to be a novel with several important characters and several substantial viewpoints.

My friend's book has received serious looks from a number of leading publishing houses. But it has not yet been picked up, despite glowing reviews. Apparently, one reservation is this lack of a single main protagonist. That's just not how most novels go. Well, maybe not most novels, but I'm sure you, reader, can think of a very good novel, one you enjoyed and maybe even treasure, one that might even be regarded as a classic, that involves an ensemble cast. I know other authors whose novels have been written off by editors because they start too slow. As if there aren't dozens of classic novels that refuse to jump out at you with a murder or bomb explosion or car crash on page one, that begin far more humbly than that. As my friend said to me the other day over coffee, "Look at War and Peace. Nothing happens for the first hundred pages!" And what bothers these authors most of all is when the It starts too slowly comment is delivered by someone who has not read the entire book--who, in fact, read only the first ten or twenty pages--and thus has no clue as to whether or not the novel's opening makes sense for the book as a whole. Indeed, maybe that opening is integral to how the book plays out; but the reader never read far enough to judge. I think most novelists, at least the ones I respect, see themselves as writing whole books not writing openings with some extra stuff added on to reach a page goal. Ironically, I have also read articles in which editors complain about manuscripts in which the first 50 or so pages are jam-packed, as if the author felt that he or she had to introduce every major character, each essential plot point, and some sub-plots too, right off the bat. Non-stop action, the editors complain, no room to breathe, everything a jumble; they give me a headache. Well, I think, can you blame the writers for this, when they are constantly preached at that their books must begin fast? I'm sure those authors thought that they were giving you exactly what you wanted.

My point is that there are clearly an understood set of musts in publishing, musts that get stricter every passing year as budgets become more and more tight and publishers become more and more afraid. And, even understanding (I really do) that the bottom line is the bottom line, I can only regard these musts as regrettable. Because every year books that no one could have predicted to do well capture the imagination--and the dollars--of the reading public. Other books that seem to fit all the required musts fall flat on their faces. Every year I read at least a few contemporary novels that simply blow me away, that astound me, that leave me in awe and with terrific hope for the state of literature. (In fact, I've written about a few of these on this blog.) And every year I read novels that leave me cold, leave me bored, leave me dry, books that make me wonder how in the world they got published because they are significantly inferior to some unpublished books I've read. And then I realize: Oh, it's because they fit all the musts.

What sells? Can anyone offer a definitive answer to that question? I doubt it. I can't, except to say that it seems to me that books that finally sell very well do so because they are striking in some unique, idiosyncratic way. Because they are not like everything else out there. And I have to think that the best way to get to such books is to encourage authors to tell their stories in the manner that their stories demand. Even if that means an ensemble cast.


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