Friday, May 21, 2010

A long musing on light reading

As longtime readers of this blog may remember, it was a seminal experience of my life when my mother let me take the day off school to go to a Dick Francis book-signing. I am not a great attender of signings in general (I do not altogether dissent from Brent's observation as to how odd it is that people should value a scribbled-in book more than a pristine copy of the same book!), but when I received an invitation last week from Lee Child's web maven Maggie Griffin to come to the book launch at Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center on Tuesday night and join the party for dinner and a beer (it turned out to be Dom Perignon, though!) afterwards, I really could not resist.

In fact after my last ruminations on the topic I did pre-order 61 Hours; the doorman in my building handed the box to me on Monday night around ten as I came in feeling very fatigued, and so it was an absolute gift to be able to flop down on the couch and devour it.

It is difficult for me to imagine a book I'd rather be reading than the brand new Jack Reacher novel (well, a new novel by Peter Temple would be at the very top of the list, and I was certainly unable to keep my hands off that Diana Wynne Jones book the other week) - there is a short list of writers whose books are especially dear to my heart, let's say, and Lee Child is certainly one of them. It is a delightful book! You know you have come home when Reacher picks up the book's first cup of coffee ("The coffee was an hour old, and it had suffered in terms of taste but gained in terms of strength"); it is a priceless mixture of familiarity and surprise.

One of the things I've always liked about this series is the way it plays around with the variations possible on a set of constraints - the constraints are tight, but it is actually very unusual to see (as one does with this series) the author switching between first- and third-person narration in different books, or successfully integrating the "prequel" mode (and I was happy to learn that there will almost certainly be a "prequel sequel").

By far the most striking thing about the book event itself is that it is perfectly calibrated to audiences. I've been thinking a lot recently about book publicity, more in its online incarnations than concerning the in-person version, but I feel that any author about to undertake a bout of publicity should go and see one of this handful of authors who really know how to pitch and work the crowd. Lee Child is one of the best I've ever seen at this (his writing is nothing like Neil Gaiman's, and they make very different choices about what sorts of project to prioritize, but I think of them as the two clear undoubted masters of the new world in which authors reach readers through the internet and through a sort of personal charisma that can be scaled up very effectively at quite large book events) - his manner and his verbal intelligence are also very well-suited to this sort of event, but it's the format he used that really struck me.

He said that he would offer up six facts about the novel and then turn things over to the audience for questions, and proceeded to do just that - an economical and appealing solution to the problem of what to do at a so-called 'reading' (I did actually 'read' when my first novel came out, but in retrospect it is a mistake, Q&A or some other play-within-constraint-type structure is really the way to go). The repertoire of questions that will be asked is obviously finite, so the answers to those are appealingly sharp, economical and funny; all in all, most interesting and edifying.

(I also note that the questions were much more coherent than the ones I hear at academic talks that are open to the public - abstraction is less likely to lead to readerly clarity than vivid concrete action!)

(Random fact, not one of the initial six: this novel was written in 79 working days - I think I am recalling the number correctly - but the Child doctrine is that unfortunately even if one works on every available day, days like Christmas will necessarily intervene, so that work time must be preciously guarded. There is no substantive rewriting or revising, only polishing; he says that he can tell as early as two or three words into a sentence that things are going wrong, and backtracks rather than going through the inefficient process of writing and then revising/cutting! I am a draft-writer myself, but the sense of the time-frame required to produce an initial draft fits with my sense from Invisible Things, though that then underwent 2 significant further revisions - but then that is what happens if the book is composed over eight months that also include a semester and a half of teaching. There were lots of funny moments/good laughs, but one of the ones I privately most enjoyed was the shudder - I think it is a mixture of awe and shock! - that greeted the revelation that a typical Childean working day begins when he gets up at 11!)

I got my copy inscribed for my nephew Jack (it is my understanding that Reacher is at least in part his namesake!), the youngest person in this picture. I also set to thinking hard about what I can do to get this next novel of mine out there, but even more about what sort of choices I need to make about the books I am writing.

The style book (which should go out shortly to publishers) and the ABCs of the novel book that I'll be working on this year are not novels, but neither are they academic books. I hope that they will both be interesting and intelligent books of interest to anyone who likes to think about how sentences and paragraphs and novels as a whole work. My life would be easier if I just stopped writing novels - but I have been writing a novel, one way or another, since I was about nine years old, and I think it may be a necessary part of my life!

What kind of novels to write, though? That's the tricky thing. I am temperamentally a "try everything once" person rather than a "find a good thing and stick to it." This comes with advantages, but also some significant downsides. With novel-writing in particular it is by far easier to find readers if you start doing a good thing and then keep on doing it.

If I could just choose, I would definitely be writing crime fiction of some sort; it's the genre I've been reading in most faithfully and most extensively for many years. I have absolutely no yen to be a 'literary' novelist and have to play the associated games, it is not appealing to me (if I were writing that sort of book, I would gravitate to the experimental small-press world rather than the higher-prestige end of it, because then you really and truly are pleasing yourself in your writing). I have been and always will be an enthusiastic reader of young-adult fantasy, and to a lesser extent non-fantastical young adult fiction more generally and non-young-adult fantastical fiction - but I don't think it's a good fit for me commercially, when it comes down to it.

The crime fiction community is smart and adult and welcoming, and so many good books are being written (Lee Child was mentioning his peer group - i.e. they were the new kids around the same tie - being Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman - the list speaks for itself); I guess my readerly identity is pretty strongly in crime fiction; and yet, as I have said several times recently, I just don't think I can write good crime novels!

I'm not a minimalist, I can't keep out the copious and wayward other stuff that creeps in, I don't know any criminals or any homicide detectives or any men or women of action, I don't truly have the journalist's skill set/set of interests (you see this differently in Lippman and in Peter Temple, or Sara Paretsky, but it is part of what makes much crime fiction so appealing).

I don't have the puzzle/game-like feel that makes Lee Child's books so successful or that Dick Francis worked so well in his best books. I am too lazy to look up the link, but Francis said in an interview that when he was about to start writing Enquiry, he cast about for what would be the very worst thing that could happen to a jockey, and it seemed to him that it would be losing his license - and you can see that the first sentence of the book is indeed "Yesterday I lost my license." There is an elegance and forcefulness to this sort of approach that I admire immensely but that is not at all congruent with my own temperamental and story-telling strengths!.

I do think that I could write some kind of thriller. Stieg Larsson's books are interesting to me partly because they strike me - I am not saying I could have international success, just that the mode is better suited to my strengths! - as much more the kind of thing I could write. They're a bit baggier and more rambling, they're set in a milieu of journalism and computer hacking and corporate private investigation that is much more what I could successfully research and bring to life, they are stuffed with research and integrate history as well as the present and altogether just give me (more than many other works of my favorite light reading do) the sense that I could pull off something like that.

I was thinking recently, after reading Dorothy Dunnett, that I should try my hand at full-on historical fiction, as it would play so much more to my strengths (I love doing research, I am knowledgeable about the past), but my ardor has slightly cooled for that idea, partly because of how much I enjoyed Tomalin's Pepys biography. Like, might as well write a true book if you are going to delve so deeply into the 1660s....

Anyway, that is quite enough rambling for now. I guess I grudgingly have to admit that yes, I will write more novels, and no, I am still not sure what sort of novel they will be; I am a slow learner in this respect, I have not yet discovered my vocation as a fiction-writer! But I do think that whatever it is, I should partly let my blog tell me; it is the steadiest and most continuous record of my day-to-day thoughts and interests that I have. Might spend some time later this summer looking back through the archive - perhaps it will tell me that I should be writing a high-concept series of thrillers with journalists, scenes set in research labs, Big Pharma scandal and genetic engineering - this is more the sort of thing I feel I can write about convincingly than people beating each other up in a bar!

(I mean, I could have one or two bar fights, but it would be a very poor use of my resources to write a book that was mainly set in that sort of milieu...)


  1. The part of book signings that I enjoy are the (usual) talks by the authors first. I've taken my eldest daughter (she's now 22) to several of those and she has really enjoyed them. Tamora Pierce was a big favorite. Of course, Tamora Pierce has always been one of her favorite authors, so it's no surprise the signing was a hit! In fact, TP inspired my daughter to writer her own YA fantasy novel, back in the 7th grade. She still has it, naturally. The YA fantasy genre as a whole seems to be exploding -- you sure it's not a good fit for you? Take the Ganzfield series, by Kate Kaynak, which is coming out shortly -- the first book is "Minder." The author wrote an "intro to psych" paper on parapsychology -- and got a not great grade because the TA didn't believe that telepathy existed. So the author decided to create a world in which it does. I LOVE that kind of inspiration -- reminds me of my own child, I guess. It's just what she would do (and kind of did) -- she's looking forward to this series.

  2. I forgot! I'm on hold for the Reacher book -- but one thing that sort of bothers me about those is that he's just always the loner, goes from town to town, etc. I just think he needs to grow as a person, which he doesn't seem to do. But maybe I'm totally off base here ... it's been a while since I read one of the books.

  3. I guess I like the way he's always the same - I don't at all disagree with your observations! You may well be right, too, about the YA fantasy thing - I will see how it goes with this next book, but I must confess that sales were very disappointing on the first - really the problem is that I just kind of hate having to think about anything to do with publicity and marketing!

  4. First - that family picture is spectacular! I love how everyone is dressed and standing separate from each other or playing off each other. It's gorgeous.

    I am very intrigued by your thought process now and wish so very much that THE EXPLOSIONIST had been embraced on the scale that I felt it deserved. The one really bad thing about YA is that it rewards (in sales) those who follow the herd. I often feel like I am screaming in the wilderness about my favorites which are offbeat in one way or another; you would certainly be more welcomed in the adult field for being an individual.

    Perhaps you should blend your love of crime and research for a historical crime novel? Have you read the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear? It is as much ruminations on the post WWI era in England the solving of historic crimes/wrongs as anything else. There might be a dead body or two but the action of the death is not described so much as the aftermath; in other words describing bar fights is not necessary!

  5. Wonder post - found it on Nephele's list of links this week. But I can so relate on this searching for a genre issue. I've tried several and what really pleases me is writing what it is I write - and not worry so much about the genre - which is both a good thing and a bad thing.