Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What Keeps Me Up at Night

I'm currently reading MAGICIAN: APPRENTICE, by Raymond Feist, and I like it. I'm noticing, though, that there are a few things he does that I would probably have urged him not to do, mostly involving POV, and I am somewhat surprised by the number of elements he's tossed into the mix and I'm not even halfway through.

As an agent, I often get queries or sample chapters and synopses and as I'm reading them, I wonder, "Where is the kitchen sink?" And this novel is somewhat getting there. Which makes me wonder if I had received this as a submission, would I have accepted it for representation? Obviously, the book has been around a long time and spawned many sequels and has many fans. So not taking it on would have been a mistake. Yet I wonder if I would have.

I've had lunch with more than one editor who told me that he or she had read THE DA VINCI CODE and would have rejected it had it been submitted to him or her. A huge mistake, obviously, if they had. Yet I couldn't get through the book. I thought it a Hardy Boys novel for adults and nothing more.

Then I look at an author like Nelson DeMille. A success, for sure, and in my opinion generally a better writer than Feist or Brown or Ludlum. Yet he has enjoyed nothing like the success of the latter two. The first, he likely has. Why is this? Why do some writers—clearly better writers—fail to be as successful as weaker writers?

I used to say that Grisham's THE FIRM was such a hit because it was written at a sixth-grade reading level. I don't know that for a fact, but it's my guess. Should writers intentionally write more simplistically and at a lower reading level to get more fans? After all, one source I just found says the "average American" reads at an 8th- or 9th-grade level. Thus, if you write above that level, you are potentially limiting your market.

Now, though, we have these doorstops about Harry Potter that are being read by 6th-graders and beyond. Is that because 6th-graders have gotten smarter? Or because the book is appropriate for their age and the rest of the reading audience is a bit dumber and attracted to an entertaining story?

Am I, as an agent who majored in English and clearly prefers a good narrative over a light, dialogue-driven popcorn read, more likely to miss the next big book because of it? Or do I stick to what I believe works and not sell out to the apparent cravings of the masses for the literary equivalent of Skittles?

This shit keeps me up at night.



Rebecca Knight said...

I have wondered this same thing when going through the Fantasy and Sci Fi sections of the bookstore, and am not sure what's up.

However, I admit that even though I love reading Ray Bradbury, Joan Slonczewski, and Lois McMaster Bujold, I once in awhile pick up a lighter read just for fun.

I know some books aren't very well written, or are written for teenagers, but there is something to be said for a guilty pleasure read :).

I try to have a balance of Award Winners to popcorn, but maybe I'm just contributing to the problem.

Does everyone do this? Is that why Dan Brown is so famous? (I couldn't get through The Divinci Code, either.)

Miguelito said...

I just finished reading Magician: Apprentice and will say that I found it mediocre and I won't be picking up the next books in the series, despite having such high hopes for it. It's far too simple writing for my taste (I like to be challenged). And Feist does several things that annoy me, including having character-action description before almost every line of dialog. To me, that breaks up the flow of dialog and it's something I try to avoid (if I can't get the character's mood across in the dialog and need to describe every facial tick, then I'm doing something wrong). Of course, it's personal taste.

penitent said...

You are an agent, not a critic. That should mean that you pick the book that sells, which very probably is not the best written book. The majority of readers read for entertainment. And entertaining books are easy to read, have interesting characters that the masses can identify with, have unique stories or unique twists on been there done that stories, they teach the reader something they didn't know (so that he/she has material for the opening conversation on a first date--yes, The Da Vinci Code), and the story moves quickly (yes, The Da Vinci Code). If you have all of that, plus a sprinkling of sexual tension, hey presto bestseller! My advice: don't let your english major get in the way of being a super-successful agent.

J.M. said...

I am not alone.


Joshua said...

I sent Frank Conroy the MS of my first novel. His comment: this reads like a smart guy writing down. Which was funny in a non-humorous way because it was about the best writing I was capable of at the time (which isn't to say it wasn't pretty terrible). But it led me to think that writing successful trash might not be as easy as it looks...

Josh Nossiter
San Francisco

Anonymous said...

Being someone near the end of her first four years of college, and entering that strange dimension between childhood and adulthood, I can see both sides of the equation. Most of the adults I know don't even read proper narratives, and I know plenty of high and middle schoolers who are reading things I once never imagined people in those age groups even considering.

I practically live in B&N, so I've been watching all the mainstream authors selling like mad, and all the truly brilliant authors sitting under a patina of dust. The way it seems to work is that, once most people hit a certain stage, they stop caring about new and fascinating concepts and just stick with what's quick and easy whenever busy life gives them a break. People who truly love language and the written word, however, never lose that spark. It's just that the former has us beaten in numbers.

It's sad, but fast brain-food sells for a reason. It's not always good, or good for you, but it's quick, and interferes less with your day planner and world-view.

On the bright side, at least they can read. In the age of "txt" messaging and "Twitter" (I still haven't figured that one out...) the fact that people are reading hardcopies at all--and digesting them normally--is a bit of a miracle. English is doomed to die if we don't at least produce 6th grade-level stories.

It's still disheartening, though...

Sarah B.
Melbourne, FL

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