Quality literature really does matter to the mainstream publishing houses. In this long article I’m going to be discussing why mainstream publishers are crucial for the success of every writer, no matter how this author enters the world of becoming published. My starting point is to suggest taking a look at any of the debut novels in this list compiled by Isaac Fitzgerald at Buzzfeeds. And while the consensus was that Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE was the best book of the year, even though it didn’t win a single major award, please take a look at two or three of the books in the Buzzfeeds list by those writers for whom this is their debut novel.
Perhaps the issue of greatest significance pertaining to the Buzzfeeds list is that debut novels do get published by the major houses. Look at the titles, read a few paragraphs of any books from the list and ask yourself what’s the special quality in the material. Many times, you’ll say it’s all very pedestrian. Yet it was published. Why? Subscribers will remember my asking that they read Donna Tartt’s, THE GOLDFINCH, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction. What set it apart? Or THE MINIATURIST from this year, which was Waterstone’s book of the year? The problem with my asking anyone to read a book is–who am I to suggest this? People have only so much time in a day, and one can justifiably say that Bacon’s idea of a quality book for me is not my idea of a quality book for me. And, by rights, this couldn’t be a more accurate statement, as no one should be so forward as to suggest what someone should or shouldn’t read. But for those people who read Newsletters on writing and publishing–such as mine–wouldn’t it be a good idea to see where the barriers for entry are set by the major royalty publishers?
These ambits or constraints, depending on one’s point of view as much as anything, are the only real guidelines writers have to go by. Yes, major publishers will take complete slop if it will sell. I don’t have to take the space to write the titles, as everyone knows them. But if an author doesn’t have a blog with eight million followers and whose only claim to fame is spending 10 years to write the best book he or she could come up with, what should that writer do? Self-publish and place it on the Internet? Or see if it passes muster at the Big 5 level? The people who are paying a writer five figures or more for a debut novel have a responsibility to see that what’s presented to the public is in some way gripping and capable of holding a readership until the author’s next book. And, yes, there will be the hope (read “demand”) for more material if the first book is successful either via sales or critical acclaim.
If the legitimate mainstream publishing industry were to crash and burn, my opinion is that there would be no guardhouse. Anything and anyone could enter, and this has nothing to do with those who self-publish for whatever reason. I’m speaking solely of some publishing entity’s setting a bar and expecting people to demonstrate the ability to jump over it if they have any interest in acceptance by the literary community. And it’s my further opinion that the literary community does matter. With so many books now being published each year, without the respected critics–even if I might vehemently disagree with their selections some in not most of the time–there would be no gatekeeper to provide a legitimate yardstick for measurement.
I know of some people who each have read several thousand books in their lifetimes yet don’t understand the purpose of a soft break or the importance of writing out a character arc. But those people are all great at finding a misspelled word or a typo, and they will judge a book by a typesetter’s miscue and not quality of the story. Remember my Newsletter a while back in which I cited the one-star review a book received because the writer was judged to be a democrat. Or the one-star review GONE WITH THE WIND received from one erudite pundit because Ms. Mitchell couldn’t possibly have known what the Civil War was like–since she had not been born at that time in our history. And who will ever forget the one-star review because a book’s cover was damaged on one end?
My take is that the quality of book reviewers is just as important as the authors who write the books. Likewise, submissions editors are crucial so the bar is held high. Ten million new books published in the past few years can’t be allowed to lower the entry criteria. I might also add that I believe that analyzing a book correctly is an art form. The editors responsible for submissions for the bona fide royalty publishers know exactly what turns up the heat and what shuts it off. And why a debut novel makes the grade, while a difficult chore, is not horribly difficult to understand in a great many instances. Look at Mr. Fitzgerald’s list with Buzzfeeds, and if we take the time to read just the opening thousand words in any of the stories, there is a common thread: It’s a character(s) in deep conflict, and quite often in a culture with customs or mores most Western-hemisphere readers aren’t necessarily familiar with.
What made THE KITE RUNNER work? Or what’s so good about the Anthony Doerr. I promise that no one will have to read far to figure it out. And reading brings me to the final leg of today’s Newsletter. I found it gratifying that so many subscribers clicked the links to the prior Newsletter to look at the books I discussed. I get the report on “click” and I’ve noticed over the years that it’s almost always the same group of people. These are clients of mine who I’m pleased to say are the best writers of the people whose material I’m familiar with in the all the countries my drivel now travels to. The same people! And they don’t just write–they read.
A friend of mine passed away four years ago, who happened to be, according to his peers, and outstanding cardiologist. I knew Whitey, the nickname those of us who knew him well called him, for 40 years. When Whitey and another friend and I went on a fishing trip what now seems like a million years ago, he was reading THE WINDS OF WAR, Wouk’s first opus. He was just off his residency and in his first private practice, and I assumed he’d be a great person to discuss literature with forever. But as the years went by, Whitey, as brilliant as he was, had become rather shallow to anything except medicine.
One day another mutual friend asked what he was reading of late, and Whitey said rather professorially that the only books he had time to open anymore were of a clinical nature. I laughed because I thought he was being pompous. I would be wrong. He became incredibly well-respected, as he was routinely called in to consult on the toughest cases in Indianapolis. Ten years or so ago, I asked Whitey what made him such a good doctor. He took me in the library in his home. Every wall was covered with books, journals, and professional papers. He said, “I read everything about my subspecialty. I always have.” Then he said, “I didn’t want to spend all the time it took me to get to this point and not be good at it.”
I don’t know what the moral of this story is, except that here was a fellow with 13 or so years of higher education, a medical practice most doctors could just dream about, not to mention the universal respect of a medical professional’s severest critics–one’s own colleagues–and his reading was devoted to one thing: getting better. Quality, quality, quality.
If someone at his level read and read and read about his profession so he could achieve a higher level of competency, is it out of line to suggest that all of us who write should not at least pay ourselves the same respect so we, too, can do better? This is why in each Newsletter I devote so much space to specific books or subjects to research that I believe can aid authors. No one who reads these Newsletters, and most of all me, has writing figured out. And, again as I wrote earlier, it’s the same cadre of subscribers accessing the writing links I provide, who when they send me material–consistently demonstrate the greatest proficiency. Once more, no moral just the facts.