Friday, September 22, 2006

Style gets published, substance goes live?

A bit late to the game here, but Laura Miller posted a short piece about the style over substance debate, and I got to it through a few other bloggers (first this one and then this one). The part being quoted is really the only substantial part - pardon the repetition here - so I'm going to quote it as well:

The editor suggested that if a writer doesn't have a "voice," or a pleasing style, right out of the box, there's no point in persevering. I argued that bookstores are already overflowing with novels by people who write beautifully but have nothing very interesting to say and that once you got past all the forced stylistic pirouettes, Pessl's novel actually makes you care what happens next. He said "you can't teach voice," while I insisted that Pessl could and should be encouraged to stop tapdancing and streamline her style, and that this would make her a writer to reckon with.

Most of the comments then reflect on the idea of teaching "voice," which is of course a big issue, especially in this day and age with MFA programs in creative writing everywhere and places like Grub Street, etc.. But I was more interested in Miller's criticism in terms of the publishing industry. She doesn't name the editor, or the house where the editor worked - both points are worth noting.

But I think the editor's response speaks to the larger issue of marketing. I don't edit fiction, but I do know that whenever I have an author that wants to market him/herself largely based on literary merits, I have to talk them out of it. Literary merits alone, in today's over-crowded marketplace, will not sell too many books. If an author doesn't have a track record, I focus on the issue on which they're writing. If I was working with a novelist who was not jumping off a societial or cultural issue, how would I pull out something to market, besides their literary skill alone? How would I distinguish this new novel from a largely unknown novelist from the other 500 novels by new novelists being published by other major houses?

So then editors play up the style, which is marketable. The book in question, in Laura's post, is Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (which my partner bought last night), a book I have not read. This book has received a lot of media attention (and blogger attention - very meta) based on its style. I would imagine there are many literary people out there like me who know only that this book has been called Nabakovian in its style. The packaging certainly indicates as much. So of course the editor worked that angle in editing this book - and that process may have involved a watering down of the plot or some other element of substance (ie character development, poetic description, etc).

So many up and coming novelists, coming up against this Great (Style) Wall at big publishing houses, have every right to feel deeply frustrated, and deeply pessimistic about publishing. "Literary skill alone can't get me in the door, much less get my book READ?!" So they look for alternatives. One such alternative is simply posting it online somehow and getting people to merely click it. Low overhead, low level commitment from the reader, saving some trees in the process - I can totally get behind this concept. John Updike et al might cry fowl and say its denigrating literature everywhere, but I would say this is a fine way to get past a hurdle that Updike et al jumped years ago: the slush pile.

But while doing this, these young novelists must remember this initial hurdle (unlike Updike), and work to make it easier for others. If you post that novel online and get attention, and get a book deal for it or for your second, help a brother (or sister) out. Be smart in making your career decisions, and remember solidarity. Go to a house that supports new, bold writing that you yourself enjoy, rather than some corporate monster that will edit your novel for style over substance and then market the hell out of it. Because if there is one misstep - an ad that doesn't pay off, a print run that doesn't sell out, etc - you'll be off the list in a heartbeat.

The internet can be used like zines, like small indy literary magazines, but I can't believe it's a permanent solution. You can use it to get in there, but I hope authors can still respect The Book enough to aim for it and help preserve it when they get into that privileged format. If we let these marketable-style worshippers take entire control over books while the more literary work goes online, the book will be ruined, just an advertisement for the publishing house rather than a work of art.

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