I’ve just finished reading Emile Zola’s ‘Doctor Pascal’. It’s too bad for Emile that he didn’t have beta readers who could have helped him make this into much more of a story.
‘Emile,’ they would have said to him, ‘there’s not enough action in this book. Sometimes you go on for pages and pages about one little thing, examining the same thought or feeling from a hundred different angles. Your readers won’t stand for it.’
And Emile would, perhaps, have obliged by removing all that unnecessary atmosphere, all that superfluous guff about what was in Doctor Pascal’s heart, and Clotilde’s, and Martine’s, and upped the biffo quotient, or added a few spicy love scenes. Perhaps a body could be found under the rough stones of the threshing area. Or perhaps not. Maybe he would have said, ‘thanks for your input, but the story is what it is, and I don’t think it really requires jazzing up with more gratuitous activity.’
That’s the nub of my problem as a writer, dear reader. I understand that today, everything moves much more quickly than it did before. Generations of people brought up on 30 minute sitcoms and 60 minute crime shows don’t have time to sit around delving into the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the books they read.
God forbid that the author actually burdens them with lengthy descriptions of places, people, sunsets, non-pivotal actions and subtle observations. Hell no! What readers ‘need’ is a short, sharp progression from problem to solution. Preferably with a pile of killings, conflict, chases and sex, and maybe, just maybe, the odd wry aside that doesn’t get in the way of more action, action, action.
The more things happen in a book, the less the poor reader has to work to understand the characters’ motivations, or tax their imaginations by really trying to see what the author has created. It takes away the hard work of thinking, leaving the reader, much like the TV viewer, just watching. Breathlessly, with any luck.
Alas, my work may never achieve the success I had hoped to attain when I started writing novels. My unseemly attachment to wanting to immerse the reader in the story to the point where they don’t care so much if there isn’t some sort of massive eructation of physical activity every page or two, will be my undoing. I don’t have it in me to pander to the instant gratification requirements of today’s readers. Shame.
So rather than pursue my career as an author, maybe I should spend my time more profitably pretending to have been a beta reader for some of the greats.
‘Dear Fyodor,’ I would write. ‘I like the story, but why on earth does it take so long before Raskolnikov bops Altona and Lizaveta on the head? And what is with all that maudlin reflection? Good lord man, there needs to be at least one lengthy chase.’
‘Franz,’ I would also write. ‘People just won’t buy that your man Josef K doesn’t know what he’s being arrested for. They’re still trying to get their heads around the fact that his last name is a single letter. It would be much easier for the reader if you just had him go out and strangle a prostitute at the start.’
Publishers are a funny lot. They are all looking for the next big thing. All desperate to sign the next JK Rowling or George R R Martin, make their fortunes, and be noted as the ones who found ‘the one’. But that’s not what’s funny about them. What’s funny is that although they are all dead keen to find that major talent, they are mostly so lily-livered that if it came up and slapped them in the face with a manuscript, they would quiver with fear and reject it. Unless of course the author could satisfactorily respond to the great Qualifying Question, “ah, but what is it like? Of which current bestseller is it a clone?”
Until you admit, or even proudly boast, that you’ve basically copied someone else’s idea, appropriated their style, or have jumped on the latest bandwagon with both feet, you’re on your own mate. Publishers will run a mile before they’ll take a punt on you.
History is littered with examples of genius that has been shunned, ignored and even swatted away like an annoying fly by the great powers of publishing. Richard Bach’s Jonathon Livingston Seagull, L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are all works that were too different to be picked up by the wise ones at major publishing houses, at least initially.
Frank Herbert collected something like 20 rejections for his epic Dune – although nowadays he might have uttered the magic word, “serial”, and been given a crack. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at 31, in part because he couldn’t find a publisher for his work, A Confederacy of Dunces. It was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Presumably Toole couldn’t answer the crucial question, “yes, but what other books is it like?”
It’s a question that could easily have stopped the authors of many a bestseller, from Ms Rowling to Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, to Brett Easton Ellis.
“So tell us, Brett, where do you see American Psycho in the bookshop? What would it be next to?”
As a writer, it’s irritating and degrading to have to face such a question, knowing that unless you can answer it with, “well, it’s Game of Thrones meets Harry Potter with vampires and bondage,” you’re screwed. You’re untouchable, and the very powerful implication is that your work must be crap because it isn’t ‘like’ somebody else’s.
So my advice to you, dear reader who is a writer and who has created something so utterly unique it will shatter all records and create a genre all of its own (until publishers find someone who can say, “it’s like that one – you know, that one that everybody loves right now”), is to self publish. That way, no one can reject you simply because you’ve chosen to tell a different story.
And my advice to publishers* is to stop being such bloody cowards and take a risk on a new author once in a while.
*I joke of course. As if a publisher would deign to read my blog. Unless someone tells them it’s like Jeff Goins’ blog.