Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“What We Need Is Less Published Novels And More Great Novels.”

I have no idea who the ‘Three Guys’ are, and know nothing about them, except for the fact that there appears to be four of them, but they do seem to have a sensible thing or five to say about the current state of the publishing industry. Here’s a few excerpts from their recent post-BEA ‘State of the Union’ address:
“Literary novels, as least the ones I read, don’t ever engage the common reader, the man or woman interested in getting emotionally involved in a book between LAX and JFK. There is a certain percentage of readers out there who do like literary novels, but it’s less than you’d think. I believe printed books would be dead and buried if it weren’t for the big splashy thrillers and kids in peril books that crowd the superstores and airport racks, books as entertainment, books as identifiable substances within your own life. With this in mind it’s the gate keepers who are hurting the industry. The agents, the editors, the money men who down size five good employees two days before Christmas when the company fell short of it’s 15% profit goal. I look at every catalog of every US publisher and I see 90% commercial tripe. Whether its fiction, genre, or non fiction, it’s all based on the lowest common denominator …”
  “Maybe what we need is less published novels and more great novels? Enough with the sentence, already. How about engaging readers with a great story? How about allowing readers to get inside the story, instead of holding them at arms length in the name of literary pretension? Most of the new fiction I read just doesn’t feel lived. Period. And it’s not compelling because it feels like artifice. It feels crafted, or overworked, or counterfeit. I’m usually all too aware that somebody is writing the damn story. Hell, I’d rather watch Deadwood or Madmen any day of the week than read most new novels. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Some of the best writing is going on in cable television, because television has finally learned the benefit of creating a good working environment for writers where film has mostly failed, and publishing has—/ahem/—also come up short in recent decades. Maybe we’re losing some of our greatest novelists to the greener pastures of TV? We’re certainly losing our readers. Fuck that. I still believe in the novel! …”
  “However many ways there are to write a great novel, they all have one thing in common while you’re reading them, at least while I’m reading them: the experience feels credible, or in some way lived. It doesn’t feel written, so much as alive. Too much literary fiction I read feels written to me …”
  “I think the problem is that most literary novelists don’t create and manage enough tension in their work, something genre writers, and good television writers can’t afford to overlook. You’ve got to have something driving the story besides words and insights and observations and narrative tropes and voice. In order to keep an audience riveted to a story, you must have some form of tension at work constantly. I’m not suggesting that every scene needs to be a confrontation. Most of the tension can involve internal conflict that need never be stated, rather suggested or dictated by a character’s situation. Also, I think that among literary novelists there is often a concerted effort to frustrate traditional (Aristotelian) story arcs, which is admirable. The problem is, that after tens of thousands of years, folks process stories a certain way. We respond to rising action, we expect climax and denouement …”
  For more – much, much more – clickety-click here


Brent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Declan Burke said...

Brent - you're seriously dismissing everything these guys have to say about the future of publishing on the basis on a single pedantic point, and not seeing the irony?

Or are you being ironic, and I'm missing it?

Either way, in the 'trapped in a lift' scenario, I'll take the guys with interesting things to say over the pedant any day, ta.

Cheers, Dec

Scobberlotcher said...

Thanks for posting this!

Brent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Declan Burke said...

Brent - It's all about the optics. These guys are talking about common readers, not 'shallow' readers; I believe they're actually calling the 'literary' writers shallow writers, because they haven't the chops to engage a wide audience. Or any audience, for that matter.

Every book doesn't have to be driven like a thriller, no, but I don't see any good reason why a well-written novel shouldn't be thrilling as well. Or why a thriller shouldn't be well written.

I paraphrase, but Joseph Conrad once said something that went, "Every word of every line of every sentence of every page ... should lead inexorably to the last word."

Conrad wrote some thrilling tales in this time, and he was a man who understood the value of words.

As for the 'less/fewer' thing - language is a tool for making yourself understood. I'm pretty sure everyone who read that line understood exactly what the guy was saying.

Cheers, Dec

Fiona said...

Brent, you're a prat.

Thanks Dec, good article. I'd never have seen it but for your blog.

John McFetridge said...

These comments now look like those Garfield comics with Garfield taken out.

I remember years ago in school creative writing professors obsessed with "the language" and the "craft" and not being interested in the story or the characters at all. The students who wrote the most "writerly writing" always got the best marks and left feeling they were real writers.

It felt like they were teaching us to be magicians who always made sure people could see how the trick was done.