Two days ago I started reading a novel by an author whose previous book I enjoyed. Admittedly, I only had one book by which to judge her writing, but since I absolutely fell in love with the story, I trusted that I would like other books she wrote. The first novel I read by this particular author was set in medieval Japan, a favorite era of mine, which scored the book high marks right off the bat. I didn’t have to labor at all to find the exciting parts as the writing was excellent and the story captivated me. Again, this alone shed a positive light on the second novel even though it wasn’t about Japan.
Many years had passed between reading the two novels, but I had high hopes for the second one. The second book started slowly with very little dialog and page long paragraphs composed of rambling sentences from multiple POVs separated only by commas. It took some effort to follow whose thoughts were being expressed. But I’m no quitter. If I could read José Saramago’s The Double which has enormous paragraphs with only periods and commas even when it’s dialog, and ended up being one of the best books I ever read, then I could finish this book.
One of the first things I checked was where in the lineup of publication this particular book stood. It’s number fourteen for the author which is quite impressive. There was a reason to keep going. If publishers believed the novel worthy of printing, then I should probably press on. I mentioned this to my husband, and it generated a question we’ve debated before. Is there a certain place in an established author’s career when no matter how mediocre the book may be it will still be published based on his or her prior success and/or reputation?
I’m tempted to read this author’s first and second books. They were published several decades ago, and I wonder how the writing may have evolved over time. Is it better, worse, different? Was the author simply trying something new, something she always wanted to do but didn’t dare attempt until she was established enough to trust that her work wouldn’t be rejected? Or does this later book reflect the change in tastes among readers?
In either case, I’m going to be fair to this author and finish the book. There have been less than five books in my lifetime that I was unable to finish. Also, I’m willing to allow an author some grace as she builds up to the pinnacle of the story. I trust that fourteen books later, this author knows how to write worthy of my attention. There are slight mysteries and questions that have been posed, and I cannot set the book down without discovering what they are.
I mention all of this to lay some groundwork for the real issue I want to discuss. It has to do with query letters, synopses, and first page or chapter critiques experienced by new authors. If the book I’m reading was a first novel, without an established reputation backing it, to be judged only on a query letter, synopsis, or first chapter, regardless of how brilliant those items may be written, it would be rejected outright.
A person simply cannot focus on a tiny glimpse of someone’s writing taken out of context and judge whether or not the entire work is worthy of publication. And yet, this is exactly what it done during pitch sessions at writing conferences and in agents’ offices on a daily basis. How much brilliant writing is bypassed because an agent, editor, or publisher wasn’t aware of all the narrative forces driving the story as it unfolds to reveal its true shape?
I fear that what I’ve termed ‘fast-food thinking’ has negatively influenced the art of writing and publication of said writing. Everything in life takes place at the speed of light so that our desires receive instant gratification. Just as quickly, we move on to seek the next tantalizing thing without ever realizing that we aren’t truly satisfied. The more we seek, the more things need to be supplied to fulfill the vicious whims of demand. And if you are the person who can do it bigger, better, faster than anyone else, you’ll probably be the one to make boat loads of money. So what if quality suffers? Well, that’s the problem I’m leading up to.
Let’s step back for a moment and analyze why this fast-paced process isn’t working. Let’s start with the writing. Great writing takes time, and if people have bought into the lie that time is money, then great literature is in more danger of becoming obsolete than even I thought possible.
There has to be a better way.
Writing is a major investment of passion and time. It doesn’t follow cookie-cutter formats and spew out copycat books, it doesn’t happen to make the writer rich, and it doesn’t exist for the express purpose of becoming a movie. Writing can be summarized for book flaps and reviews, but if that was all it took to satisfy a person, the writing wouldn’t have become a book in the first place.
It’s time to trade in ‘fast-food thinking’ for ‘stop and smell the roses reasoning.’ If anything worth having is worth waiting for, then I propose allowing this lesson in patience to be applied to how books are evaluated. Furthermore, as a society, we must no longer tolerate being spoon fed our entertainment especially where books and/or writing is concerned. Readers must also slow down and appreciate the treasures they hold in their hands when they read a book.
Of course, I’m open to suggestions on how to make this process work better, not just easier. In doing so, we’ll not only rescue writing from being destroyed, we’ll stop this process from encroaching upon other forms of art.