Saturday, May 19, 2012

Strong Opinion

I guess I won’t be moving into that chateau on Lake Como next door to George Clooney anytime soon.

I mean, I’d sure love to have genre writer James Patterson’s money. But I doubt I’d enjoy having to keep up his fertility rate. When I think about his huge output, I hearken back to my early years spent lugging fifty-pound boxes of paper around San Francisco law firms. O simple joys of youth!

Those of you who read The New York Times may have seen the article last week describing the new paradigm for ultra-super-bestselling genre authors like Patterson. Nowadays, writers are now being pressed to produce—I might not call it writing, precisely—two books a year. Plus short stories.

“The culture is a great big hungry maw,” said Lisa Scottoline, another mega-best-selling thriller writer, “and you have to feed it.”

(Full disclosure: I haven’t read either Mr. Patterson’s or Ms. Scottoline’s work.)

This requirement is said to be a feature of the e-book era. With readers now able to download anything, anytime they want, it’s believed that an author has to stay in the reading public’s pupil 24/7. This is based on the theory of signal-to-noise ratio, which, in a certain frame, makes a good deal of sense, at least economically.

This has led me to think again about what kind of readers I want to reach.

Most habitual genre fiction readers want escape, clean and simple. Perhaps they’ll tolerate a thematic nod to their value systems, whether “conservative” or “liberal,” and some pop-psychobabble, but beyond that, the vast majority of genre fiction readers want nothing thematically challenging, innovative, or overly offbeat, no matter how entertaining it might otherwise be.

Then, there is an apparent minority of picky readers, like me. As someone said to me, there’s reading to escape and there’s reading to grow. And while I prefer novels that take me into other worlds, I like it when the journey not only alters my sight and gives me new perspectives, it illuminates the world I’m in now, that touches on the “human condition.” I read to both grow and be entertained.

Most genre novels and stories aren’t nearly so ambitious as to bridge those two landfalls, but a remarkable number can. I count John le Carrê, Peter Straub, among others, as examples. It takes time to write books like these. That’s the table I want to sit at as a writer. And so, I can’t hope to write two books a year. At least good ones, as I understand them.

Back in the old days, of paperback originals and hardcover novels that would made their real big score in paperback editions, genre masters like Rex Stout and Luke Short would craft a book a year, maybe two if they were feeling frisky or the butcher was giving them the hairy eyeball. Maybe they weren’t Hammett-level innovators, but they were unmistakably talented, gifted writers, who nevertheless, must have grown bored churning out the same book with the same formula or characters year after year.

Believe me, at times, I can hear Rex Stout’s fingers falling like a lead hammer on the typewriter keys and his heavy sighs as he types “The doorbell rang” for the one-thousandth time; I can sense when the champagne rapport between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin loses its fizz; or I’m almost sure that Stout used almost the exact same mystery plot ten books ago, except the murder weapon was a pitchfork instead of a harpoon and . . .  well . . . .

After a while, an understanding develops. No writer—literary or genre--writes only good books. All my favorite writers have written novels that fall short for me.

One critic—I think a New Yorker writer--recently wrote that when we say we love a writer, what we mean is that we love, at most, fifty percent of his work. So long as you sense an author’s always striving to be his Best Self, that other fifty percent--well, no one’s a genius all the time and those valleys can make the peaks look all the grander. And if that fifty percent dross starts drifting toward ninety, you gently close the door and search elsewhere.

Snobby as I am, I’m also a literary anarchist. By this I mean, I can like anything . . . so long as it’s good, whether it’s the best Luke Short western or the eye of Vladimir Nabokov’s young poet opening to the world while gazing out over 1930s Berlin. The reality is that there are more good books than I will ever be able to read.

So, I’m wondering, just what is it that fans of Mr. Patterson and Ms. Scottoline expect to get with their high productivity demands? I’m not talking about literature, either. Having to grind out two full novels a year, means there’s hardly enough time or space for craft or professionalism. Whether you’re Lee Child or Thomas Pynchon, it takes time to write a decent book. Followed by a nice vacation.

Remember the hubbub over the length of time George R.R. Martin took to finish his latest Song of Ice and Fire epic, Dance of Thrones? Some of Martin’s “fans” were--no “upset” is too mild a word—pissed off with scalding, flaming vomit that the next book had failed to be completed by their timetable. “We demand that you pander to us! We demand a stinking, unreadable tower of shit!”

Neil Gaiman was right: “George Martin is not your bitch!” I second that motion, as do most of us writers. The only sin is writing lazily, writing badly (and releasing it), writing like you don’t care, writing to keep your “fans” from condemning you on Facebook.

Now, James Patterson fanboy, come sit on my knee so ol’ Grandpa can dispense some advice: You know, while waiting a year or so for Mr. Patterson to write and publish another novel, why don’t you take a breath, broaden the ol’ horizons and read some other genre writers?

There are plenty of worthwhile books worth your time. I will even boldly suggest you read my (IPPY prizewinning) Dragon’s Ark, while you wait for Mr. Patterson to write a good book. I mean that’s what you really want, isn’t it? A good James Patterson book?

I know I don’t want, for example, a bad Peter Straub book. I know that if I start sleeping on the doorstep of his Manhattan brownstone and fire-bombing his Twitter account with demands for Ghost Story XXII, he’d be well within his right to tell me to go have airborne relations with rolling holed pastry.

I don’t say this because I worship the dust around Mr. Straub’s feet. I say this because I do what he does. And it’s hard to do well. I can do it badly, I can publish a napkin a day, but I don’t want to and the kind of readers I want—those fussy readers--don’t want me to either. They’ll want the best I have to give and that’s what I’ll try to do, even though I fully know I won’t always be able to.

I took four years to write (IPPY Award Winning) Dragon’s Ark. I’m first to admit that’s too much time for such a book. Happily, I’ve absorbed the lessons I learned so that my next book Butchertown, started in August of last year, is galloping like a thoroughbred and should be out by the end of this year—a little more than a year and, even more importantly, done with my very best effort.

While you’re waiting, look at that long list of writers on the side of this page. They’re good writers, all of them. Some of them are Olympian highbrows, some of them first-rate entertainers, writing artful, sophisticated tales of adventure, suspense, and hair-raising horror and thrills. New or old, they deserve your valuable reading time. There’s no hurry. You’ll never read all their work and you don’t need to.

As for James Patterson and Lisa Scottoline, I hope they have time to enjoy their chateaus, wherever they are.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

That reminds me of a recent editorial written to the Washington Post suggesting that colleges need to cut costs by squeezing more out of college faculty (i.e. teaching more classes). He also suggested they are overpaid which is ludicrous.

In short, within any field, greater quantity has a tendency to bring lesser quality.

Unknown said...

Was it 15 years that it took to write Gravity's Rainbow?
I have several novelist friends, published and prolific, and not one of them writes more than one novel a year, if that.
I don't get the "more is more" idea. A novel takes as long as it takes. And I respect that. I am not a novelist but my limited edition prose books can take a year or more to come to fruition.
So the instant gratification crowd will never see my work. Fine. Not my audience.
And clearly a great summation of the perils of such a demand.
Thanks Thomas!

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks Julie: What is worse is that people seem to be accepting this. There seems no pushback against it. I would think some of these authors would have made enough money to retire to Tibet . . . but who's to say? All the rest of us can do is to maintain our standards.

Hey Unknown Person: Thanks for your comment! I'm not sure about that 15-year figure on "Gravity's Rainbow," though I recall reading it somewhere.