In the throes of Hurricane Sandy, I feel like trying something new here on Mysterious Matters. For this one, we'll move beyond mysteries/crime fiction into the book world in general.
I recently met a tenacious youg man who told me that he was not going to let me out of his sight until he understands how I think. I didn't know whether to be flattered or call the police. I chose the former, because he wasn't so much fixated on selling me his work as he was in trying to understand how decision are made. I wished I could have given him a non-blabbering answer.
He shared with me a frustration that I'm sure many writers feel. To wit: He is forever reading junk, and he wants to know how it gets published while he continues to devote 26 hours a day to finding an agent to represent him.
So today I am going to look at the Amazon Top 100 list (October 29, 2012, at 5:00 p.m.) and I'm going to tell you about the best-sellers and whether or not I would have bought the manuscript. My ground rules for this exercise:
- I'm only going to comment on books or writers with which I have direct experience.
- For established writers, I'm going to base my decision on whether I would have bought their first published manuscript.
- I'm basing my decisions on the published work, which may be very different from the manuscript that made the rounds.
Maybe some of the thoughts below will provide those who are interested with some insight into how a publisher thinks.
Proof of Heaven
Absolutely yes - I would have paid good money for this one. In U.S. society, I see no greater split between those with faith and those without. And as a society we're perpetually arguing about the intersection of faith, business, and medicine. So, here we have the story of a doctor who believes he went to heaven during a coma. As fiction, it would be a hard sell for the mass market, I think. As nonfiction, I think it will achieve a level of credibility (as a result of its authorship) while also openly addressing a yearning that many people feel (but often leave unexpressed).
I never had the opportunity to reject a Grisham manuscript, but based on his early published work - A Time to Kill, The Firm - I would likely have passed him by. I have a thing against lawyers, and Grisham has never succeeded in making me like his milieu. Honestly - and here's where it's fair for everyone to question the judgment of those making publishing decisions - I am always surprised when a lawyer book hits the best-seller list. As a society, I think we thoroughly dislike attorneys, which should make us unwilling to read fiction about them. However, I do think some books are published for the dude-lit market, and Grisham fits in that category nicely. Guys can go adventuring with Clive Cussler, or they can engage in power fantasies with lawyer protags, which is why I think the Grisham books sell. And Grisham's protags have a moral center, too, which is helpful in overcoming the lawyer perception obstacle. However, there are still dozens, hundreds, thousands of other corrupt, awful people in the legal profession. Which means that they're usually the supporting cast, which makes me run for the hills.
Fifty Shades of Grey
E. L. James
At the risk of sounding snobby: Absolutely not. Never in a million years. Not if you were holding a gun to my head and threatening to pull the trigger if I didn't ink the contract. The problems here are the most basic problems you can get in a book: poor writing and a dull plot. The fact that it's a mega-bestseller doesn't change the basic truth about the book. Maybe if I'd read the manuscript I would have thought, "Well, she is tapping into society's simultaneous obsession with sex and its deeply conflicted feelings about it" - but then I would have thought, "No, I'm trying too hard to be open-minded." Of course, many will now write to me and tell me that this approach to books is what's killing the industry.
I would have bought it, but with a few reservations (which I blogged about a few weeks ago). Then I would have gnashed my teeth waiting to see what PW, Booklist, and Kirkus would have said about it. For Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects, I would have called to offer a contract the second I finished reading the manuscript.
The Casual Vacancy
I've never done children's or YA books, but I would definitely have passed on the first Harry Potter. I admit, I'm not a fan of Rowling. I find her to be mistress of the painfully obvious. I got through the first 100 pages of The Casual Vacancy and then put it aside for the same reasons I never liked Harry Potter. I can't quite put a finger on exactly why, but I have always found Rowling's tone to be somewhat condescending; it's like she takes herself much too seriously. This is probably why I'm not a children's or YA book editor. Clearly, younger readers like protagonists who are desperately earnest and serious, but as an adult I find such characters painfully dull to read about. The first 100 pages of The Casual Vacancy are an unpleasant affair, and if the author had not been J.K. Rowling, I wonder if the manuscript would have picked up an agent. I think it probably would not have, as the market niche for it would have fallen into the "literary" category, and yet it misses the subtlety, understanding, depth, and sheer wordsmithing of a literary work.
Winter of the World
While I haven't read Follett's earliest work (published under pseudonyms), I am a huge fan of Eye of the Needle, Triple, and The Key to Rebecca. Follett's plots are ingenious, and (to his vast credit) not so complicated or convoluted that I end up scratching my head. He's also a fine writer and good with character. So, yes, I would have snatched up any of those early books in a heartbeat. And then, when Follett told me he wanted to do a historical novel (The Pillars of the Earth), I would have said to him, "If anyone can move out in another direction, it's you."
Life of Pi
When the pitch from the agent (which I imagine went something like "A modern Robinson Crusoe is left stranded at sea with a tiger in a tiny dinghy") crossed my desk, I would have rolled my eyes, I'm sure. Animal books are often a safe bet, but I usually hate books that attempt to "update" literature or that feature great historical figures or writers as main characters. What could Yann Martel do in a manuscript that, say, Alfred Hitchock hadn't already done in Lifeboat? But the manuscript would have been one of those eye-opening experiences that made me change my mind by the fifth page. The book is magical and has stayed with me since its publication. I would have bought it and considered in one of my greatest acquistions.
I know I haven't been above taking potshots at Evanovich here on Mysterious Matters. But there's a reason for that. Like few other writers (except Patterson), she's succeeded in commodifying her work to such an extent that it has become completely empty. When One for the Money came out in 1994, I thought it was a very savvy piece of publishing. Evanovich basically took Sue Grafton's formula, screwballed it up, and made her character a dipstick. I don't think the book could have been published in a more ardently feminist era, but by the early 1990s feminism had begun to harbor some discontents. The world wanted to laugh a bit more, and Evanovich made that happen. So, would I have bought One for the Money? Yes, but I wouldn't have paid a lot for it. I certainly never would have predicted that the books would become what they are today (note that Notorious Nineteen will not be published until next month, and it is already #56 on Amazon's best-seller list).
I don't know the earliest work (which has been extensively republished), but I would have jumped on Along Came a Spider, which displays in all of what Patterson does (or used to do) very well, along with all of his flaws. With NYPD Red, though, we see that Patterson not only doesn't write his books, he can't even come up with original titles any longer. Readers who complain about the lack of really good books out there should help spread the word about what happens when readers keep buying mediocre books by writers who now phone it in, or just outsource it completely.
The Bone Bed
Cornwell's Postmortem was published in the early 1990s and represented the other side of the Stephanie Plum coin. For those enraged by Stephanie's under-utilization of her brain, we had Kay Scarpetta, a smart, independent woman who could hold her own. Moving the premise of Quincy, M.E., into the pages of a book, Cornwell tapped into what happens physiologically in murders, moving beyond the simple "whodunnit" formula and even beyond the "whydunnit" into a new world teeming with promise for fictional exploration. I'm pretty sure I would have bought Postmortem. Now, though, I want to know why Cornwell is confusing her positioning by using the word Bone in the title, a la Kathy Reichs?