Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writing outside of the box

Aline’s very interesting post of yesterday really got the little gray cells in my head agitated. I made the comment that a novel written where the hands of the puppet master/author were entirely evident (and that the characters knew what was happening) might make a very interesting novel. Over dinner, my wife pointed out that this was sort of the plot in the movie Being John Malkovich. I believe I’ll have to watch that movie again.

But all day my mind was moving in another direction: what if someone wrote a crime novel that had this idea as the basis of the plot? Now let’s also imagine that this novel is not written by one of publishing’s all-star crime novelists, but for all intents is a well-written and engaging piece of fiction.

What do you think might happen to it?

To give you a bit more background, consider this little experiment. Many years ago, in an effort to prove that the publishing industry really didn’t understand what it was doing, an enterprising man (one Chuck Ross) typed up a National Book Award-winning novel by Jerzy Kosinski, Steps, and submitted it to over a dozen publishers and literary agents (I forget the exact number, but it was a lot). All rejected it and none recognized it for what it was (I believe one recognized it as being “somewhat reminiscent of Kosinski”).

All in all, this is a pretty damning indictment of the publishing industry. If the people running it can’t identify something of merit that already has a track record of success, how can we writers expect them to recognize greatness that hasn’t had a chance at success? To be honest, it’s all pretty depressing. How many rejections from agents and publishers did JK Rowling have before someone took her on? Now this is not great literature, but for heaven’s sake, they can’t even recognize something that might sell a truckload of books!

The point here is that quite often it doesn’t pay to step outside the literary box we seem to all be put into by the industry. Many Type M words have been spilt about the boundaries of crime fiction, first and foremost of which is: write a series. Those of us who don’t write a series are behind the eight ball right from the start. Why? If someone were to write a ground-breaking crime novel, could they even get it looked at seriously, let alone published. I’d like to think so, but the track record, based on the story above, doesn’t give me much hope.

I can see someone spending a lot of time penning a terrific crime novel that is just too much out of the ordinary. Unless s/he is a star, would it be possible to get it published? Does quality trump expectation?

What do you think?


NL Gassert said...

Yes, yes, and absolutely. I’m a firm believer in quality over expectation. A great novel like that will find an outlet. It may not be with a giant NY publishing house; it may be with a smaller, independent publisher. Trends and tastes change, but I think there’s always a market for great writing.

academia-research said...
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Rick Blechta said...

I’m not so sure, as corporate bean-counters increasingly become more important in the publishing industry. Certainly you’re on target saying that a smaller publisher might take up a novel like I’m describing, but with their limited promotional resources, books often just don’t make it because the word doesn’t get out, and they just drift off to obscurity.

But boy, would I like to be proved completely wrong!

NL Gassert said...

Well, you didn't mention making it big :-) While I have no doubts that this great novel would find an outlet, I have to agree with you that chances are not many people would find it initially. The print run would certainly be smaller, too. Now the discussion becomes: smaller niche publisher vs mainstream commercial giant.

Rick Blechta said...

And with a vastly watered-down pool as e-books become more popular and the self-publishing of e-books becomes so cheap that it almost costs nothing, it will be even harder to find those hidden gems.

Thanks for the discussion!