I understand. I really do. Publishers want to make money and, traditionally, the best way to do that is to keep producing something like a guaranteed winner. After The Da Vinci Code became a hit, the bookish world was treated to a flood of books about historical mysteries that would change everything we ever knew about the world. Publishers are still trying to find books like the Harry Potter series, Gone Girl, and others. I don’t have a problem with any of that.
Getting lightning to strike twice, as it were, is hard work. One has to learn about the exact conditions that caused the lightning and how to reproduce those conditions. What was it about Harry Potter that made readers fall in love? Why on earth was Twilight so popular? It’s like having to psychoanalyze without being able to actually talk to anyone. One can only make decisions based on impressions and it’s no wonder that publishers sometimes get it wrong and produce books based on incorrect deductions.
So far, I’m good. What I do have a problem with, is when publishers try to copy the wrong parts of the books people liked and go too far, only to produce one note books that are just not what we wanted. For example: The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag. I don’t blame Natt och Dag for what that book ended up becoming. I blame whoever edited and published it. Reading it felt like someone told an author, people like really dark, awful things set in Scandinavia. Nothing about the society. Nothing about the detectives, really—just violence on top of violence. I can’t believe that almost the entire population of Stockholm circa 1793 were sadists.
Scandinavian noir has been big in the English language market since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo broke out in 2008. Since that book made it big, we’ve seen dozens of books set in the freezing north: the Inspector Erlendur novels, the Kurt Wallander books, the Harry Hole series, and so on. They tend to feature moody, troubled detectives uncovering awful secrets hidden behind the seemingly egalitarian and calm façades of Nordic life. The grumpy detectives are nothing new. We’ve had those since Sherlock Holmes. The setting is new and who doesn’t love lifting up rocks to see what’s hiding underneath? The best books in this sub genre are deeply appealing for their psychological depth. Unfortunately for me, The Wolf and the Watchman had none of the good things about Scandinoir.
Pity the poor readers who end up on the receiving end of terrible books like the Fifty Shades series (which began as fan fiction of Twilight) or all the books about teenagers required to kill each other after The Hunger Games came out. I might be more inclined to forgive if I hadn’t just finished a copycat book that got it wrong. What about you, gentle readers? Have you ever read a terrible book that seemed like to come straight from a focus group?
I suppose that Howard Jacobson’s recent interview with BBC Radio 3 make a change from authors lamenting the end of literature. Instead of blaming the internet, Jacobson blames readers. We just don’t have the attention for “serious literature.” Sian Cain writes:
Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.
I fully realize that authors have to walk a thin line that balances their creative expression and interests and writing something that readers want. Some writers strike that balance very well. I am entertained and enlightened by writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Kushner, Daryl Gregory, Anthony Marra, Ursula Le Guin, and so many others. When I read Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, I…didn’t get either of those things. I’m sure there are readers who like Jacobson’s work. I’m not one of them. I could write a rant about Jacobson. I’m really tempted to.
What interests me (rather than insults me) is Jacobson’s comment: “Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?” To me, this is a misunderstanding of why readers read. Sure we want challenges every now and then. Some of us take on Ulysses (not me, though) because it’s the Everest of books. But what most of us want is to be transported. We read for fun. I’ve had so many people tell me they don’t read because they had books pushed on them when they were in school that they’d didn’t like, didn’t understand, and just plain didn’t work for them. They were never given a book that gave them joy.
So when I see authors say that they want readers to work, to put books down because of the sheer labor of reading the book, I’m not surprised that writers like Jacobson are seeing their numbers dwindle. Authors shouldn’t be required to write “page turners,” as Jacobson sneeringly call them. But I do think that authors should keep their audiences in mind. After all, how will they communicate their great ideas to readers if those readers are not tempted to pick up their books? Books that don’t engage readers are doomed to gather dust.
An author I follow on Twitter posted the following quote and I immediately wanted to argue back:
My first thought was, “Of course you can! They’re characters you created!” My second thought was pretty much the same, but more elaborate.
There’s an image of writers as channels between the page and the land of imagination. My favorite version of this was created by Jasper Fforde for his Thursday Next series. The Well of Lost Plots is where characters, plot devices, and settings hang out before they’re put in a story. The problem with the notion of channeling writers is it’s not true; it’s a simplification of the writing process.
Characters, no matter how fully formed they seem when the author starts writing about them, spring from that author’s brain. The author can do whatever they like to that character and put whatever words they like into that character’s mouth and brain. This is why we keep running into preachy characters (I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton) or characters who aren’t plausible for a variety of reasons.
I don’t think my argument takes away from writers’ magic. Instead of some kind of writerly séance, I imagine writers’ subconsciousness as a real version of the Well of Lost Plots, where ideas, facts, memories, and thoughts swim around until the writer’s brain connects them into a coherent story. When a character starts preaching or falls flat, it’s not because the writer lost “control” of the characters. That’s not possible. It’s because the author didn’t spend enough time creating a fully realized character.
Here are some of my favorite characters I’ve read in the last year or so: