Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, February 19, 2007

Great Writing: Hiding in Plain Sight?

First off, I had a great time at the San Francisco Writer's Conference this weekend. Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to those who waited in line during the pitch session for their chance at three minutes of fame, glory, glamor!! Actually it was three minutes to pitch to a very tired literary agent, but hey, same thing, right?

Also I'm feeling verrrrrry humble today because I "uhhed" my name in the Agent Q&A panel. As in, "Hi my name is, uh, Nathan Bransford," as if I had momentarily forgotten my own name. So before I introduced myself for the pitch session, I was coaching myself: "Don't 'uh' your name. Don't 'uh' your name." So what did I do? I UHHED MY NAME AGAIN.

So to everyone who attended the conference: I swear on my life I know my own name. Usually.

In other news it's a three day weekend, my girlfriend is out of town, and it's 70 degrees outside, so I've been living it up, getting a little crazy. Yes, that's right, I've been reading for pleasure.

One thing you always hear from disgruntled writers is how bad the state of literature is, how publishers only care about money and how there's so much crap out there. Just look at the bestseller lists, they'll tell you, it's full of crap. The other favorite argument of the downtrodden and cynical is that great literature would never be published today because publishers only care about the bottom line. Well, I'm here to tell you: NOT TRUE.

Last night I read Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, a post-apocalyptic tale about a man and his son trying to survive in the horrific aftermath of a worldwide disaster that blots out the sky and causes mass starvation and kills off basically everything, leaving the few remaining survivors searching for food. You don't find out exactly what caused the disaster (I'm guessing Britney Spears was somehow involved), but it's a bleak, bleak world and basic humanity is at stake. It's seriously an incredible read -- I read it in one sitting, and I was blown away by its power and immediacy. It made me think, it made me cringe... it's a masterpiece -- Literature with a capital L.

Oh yeah, and it happens to be a New York Times bestseller, written by someone who began his career writing genre fiction.

So now I'm reading the urban fantasy novel A KISS OF SHADOWS by Laurell K. Hamilton, the first in her Meredith Gentry series, and guess what -- another New York Times bestseller with incredible writing!! Not only does Hamilton craft an awesome alternate world, she is a seriously gifted writer. She is one of the best writers I've ever seen at describing people, her pacing is amazing, I can't stop turning the pages. This isn't a "guilty pleasure" read, this is just good writing.

What's going on here? Could it be that the people who are selling the most copies of their books are also some of the best writers alive?

Patrick Anderson seems to think so. Anderson is a Washington Post book critic, and he recently wrote a book called THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER, in which he argues that some of the very best writing is hidden in plain sight, in genre fiction and bestsellers. I haven't yet read the book (sorry Patrick, I'm busy reading about faerie private investigators), but according to this review by Chris Bolton, Anderson singles out George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, who write genre fiction, as some of the best living writers.

But really, hasn't this always been the case? Many of the great authors over the years have also been bestsellers. MOBY DICK wasn't a commercial success, but Herman Melville had big hit with travel novel TYPEE. F. Scott Fitzgerald broke out in a big way with lad-lit classic THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Few authors whom we now consider the great writers of an era were entirely overlooked during their own time.

At the same time, there are small, overlooked gems that are published every week. Some of my favorite books were not big sellers, and a great deal of good writing today is published by small presses, some of whom are even nonprofits. The midlist, once the home of talented writers who penned successful but not blockbuster books, is disappearing.

So you tell me -- on the whole is publishing overlooking great writing or is great writing hiding in plain sight?


brian_ohio said...

Hi, uh, Nathan. (okay, that was too easy)

Do you realize what you did in that entry? Probably not. You agreed with Stephen King! How, you ask. In his EW column Stephen listed the 10 best books of 2006. And #1 was The Road.

I haven't read this book, but after you both had such wonderful things to say about it, it's now on my list.

And I agree... great writing is 'right' there. Dan Simmons, The Terror, is another great example.

Nice, uh, post.

Dr. Hack said...

Great writing is lurking in the basement, waiting to push you down the stairs.

Also yeah, I'd have to say for the most part it's hiding in plain sight. Most of the great literature that's written, at the time the author didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write great literature and market it as great literature."

They just wrote a travel book, or a mystery, or whatever. Chandler's a good example of this. He was just writing good gumshoe yarns, but his personal style is what makes it literature today.

ORION said...

If a book resonates with readers and provokes them to pass it on to their friends it is great writing.
The elitism and sour grapes of some writers would try to persuade you otherwise.

L.C.McCabe said...


I am glad to hear that you enjoyed yourself.

It was my eighth (!) writers conference that I've attended, but the first one where I've worked as a volunteer.

What amazed me the most was some attendees came from 31 states as well as Canada. Most everyone said that they felt it was well worth their time, expense and distance traveled.

That made me feel really good.

My favorite line from the conference came from Ted Weinstein. As I was checking him in, I told him that if he grew tired of writers schmoozing with him in the hallway that he could take off his name badge. He replied that he came there to schmooze and that he "trafficked in human souls."

From here on, I shall think of him as Ted "Mephistopheles" Weinstein.

Good luck sifting through all the submissions that will be coming your way!


Ryan Field said...

Here's one that has been just a thread away from the best seller lists and even the book of the month club: A WINDOW ACROSS THE RIVER, by Brian Morton. He's also written another that is supposed to be just as good. This guy is really good and fairly new.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I get something out of most everything I read. I might not agree with some treatment or another, or they might hit on a pet peeve (POV characters getting killed off, for instance) but I can still enjoy it.

Great writing is everywhere. I mean, I recently solicited two stories off blogs. There are many GREAT writers hanging out in cyberspace.

I guess I'm a capitalist. The market finds consistent writers and keep them selling.

KingM said...

Another thoughtful post, Nathan. Yes, there's a lot of crap out there, but there always has been. But if, as a writer, you haven't recently read a book that is so good that it makes you despair of your own writing, then you're not looking very hard. There's some fantastic stuff out there.

Dan Leo said...

All right, this is from someone who actually enjoys reading Proust, but when Donald E. Westlake writes as Richard Stark (I just read his new one, "Ask the Parrot"), no one alive can touch him. I also just read an early Patricia Highsmith, "Deep Water", and she's another one in a category all her own. Raymond Chandler? Another of the Untouchables. He captured place and mood and humanity as well as any "literary" novelist. (Oh, yeah, and "The Road" did rock.)

Michele Lee said...

I enjoyed the heck out of some A Kiss of Shadows. That said STOP NOW! Seriously, love it, enjoy it for what it is. The latest, a 100 page sex scene in a 200 page book...

Ever Read Cherie Priest? I'm about to start her Four and Twenty Blackbirds. After I finish Brian Keene's The Conquerer Worms.

What genre does Hamilton write in your opinion? Everyone seems to think something different.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks so much for the recommendations. I had thought that people call Hamilton's books urban fantasy, but have you heard something different?

Richelle Mead said...

Oh, you're opening a can of worms there, my friends. The whole urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre debate is still raging like crazy, with people forming armies on each side of the genre divide. Lines drawn. Blades sharpened. Grenades at the ready.

I do believe, however, that LKH is listed as 'urban fantasy' more often than not. Sometimes 'dark fantasy.' Things get tricky in bookstores because they don't have u.f. sections, so she does time in horror, fantasy, and fiction.

Bernita said...

Great fiction hasn't been hiding from the publishers - just the critics.

Demon Hunter said...

Uh, Nathan ;*)
Great writing is hiding in plain sight. As for Laurell K. Hamilton, I understand that she writes urban fantasy. I write dark urban fantasy. I write more horror, actually. I don't like to include sex scenes. If I have to include something sexual, I elude to it, and even then, its brief. Just me! I love Laurell K. Hamilton and Cristine Feehan.

Anonymous said...

The people who despair over the state of literature the most are often the ones who cannot get published because their turgid prose bores the pants off anyone who attempts to get through it.

Writing is art, and if you're being entertained by it, by golly that hack writer isn't fit to lick the boots of a real artiste.

Christopher M. Park said...

I think that great writing is definitely hiding in plain sight. And not hiding all that well, in my opinion. I don't have enough of a background in classical literature to know exactly when it was that people got this idea that "great literature" and "popular literature" were two different things, but I'd bet it was sometime in the 19th century (just my guess).

This idea has certainly persisted, but it's certainly based on some weak ground. A lot of the real classics--Homer, Shakespeare, etc--were immensely popular even in their own time, and moreover were often what we might now call "genre fiction," or at the very least religious fiction.

I don't know, maybe I'm way off base here, but this seems like a relatively recent pretension. On the other hand, maybe it was simply the case that the mainstream ideas on mythology were simply different in the distant past. But either way, the works that have survived until this day are the ones that were popular, for whatever reasons.

My blog on writing

CMonster said...

To be fair, Laurell K Hamilton has been publishing for like 10 years now- her books really took off mid Anita Blake series. They're actually going back and republishing her earliest books in hardback, since they were only available in paper back the first time around. Let's hear it for the slow starter!

Jennie said...

"Good writing" means different things to different people. When I first read A Kiss of Shadows I thought it was a terrible book - in fact I was shocked by how bad it was, perhaps because I enjoyed LKH's earlier books and had my expectations too high. But I think most of the problems were with the characters and plotting, and not so much the writing. When people say XYZ is written badly, or written well, I take it with a big grain of salt.

You'd think with all the rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation that it would be easy to puzzle out the pattern for "good writing", but I haven't found that to be the case.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a very good point. I know there are people who find writing very boring unless it has extremely intricate prose, other people need things to happen. It's amazing there is even a consensus at all on past "great" authors, let alone the living.

Gerri said...

Good writing = stuff that keep people reading. David and Leigh Eddings, J. K. Rowling, and Robert Jordan "break rules" right, left, and sideways.

The Eddings are as fluffy as it gets and use quite a bit of stereotyping. And then there's the "sin" they share with Rowling: non-said dialogue tags.

Rowling also is in need of a serious copy editor to fix all of her comma splices.

Jordan's prose roams freely over the line dividing great prose from purple prose, and we sooooo won't talk about his pacing problems. *holds head in agony just thinking about it*

Are their books great writing. The numbers say so.

Tolkein's works wouldn't get printed in this day and age. He wanders all over heck and high water with his plots, has total sections that are completely irrelevent, and oh, the poetry that grinds things to a halt. His works take up an entire rack in almost all the B&N's that I go into.

Great writing is what keeps people reading. Can't be made any simpler.

Michele Lee said...

>>I had thought that people call Hamilton's books urban fantasy, but have you heard something different?

Actually I heard it best from someone who said the Merry Gentry series was urban fantasy and the Anita Blake series was dark romance. They do have somewhat different tones. I always thought of it as cross genre, one of the first big ones. Horror-romance-scifi (alternate world) perhaps. some people are starting to think it's all erotica.

Despite my growing problems with it, she did sort of blur the boundaries of the genre I write. She does have beautiful prose. I also like Anne Bishop for lovely worlds.

geoffreycrayon said...

Of course, Melville committed career suicide with Moby-Dick. The previously successful writer of travel/adventure novels wound up working as a customs agent in New York. His novel Pierre, published after MD, will give you a good sense of how he felt about it.

No Country for Old Men is better than The Road. McCarthy's best so far, however, is Blood Meridian--and it's an homage to Melville in many ways.

To take a rather different view than Mr. Park or Gerri above, great books are not necessarily popular, nor necessarily unpopular, at the time of their release. They simply hold up to repeated readings. I read Blood Meridian again last year, and I didn't think, "Oh, this is so 1985." Great books endure.

Anonymous said...

Question go back to Econ 101:

- “are publishers overlooking great writers” implies they may not be, i.e. all great writers are in print. Simply can’t be true if for no other reason than economics of industry and nature of the book market. Industry acts as pipeline between writer and reader. It tries to find and publish what their best intelligence and tastes suggests will sell. As such, the industry must sometimes pass over what some reader/book buyer market segment would pay for and read if it came to market. Only in a “perfect” market where books of all kinds are available irrespective of publishing industry actions, and where there is easily available information on each book, would we be comfortable saying there are few if any market segments left out, including one looking for “great” literature. Econ 101.
- “are great works hiding in plain sight” is flip of same issue, implying publishers have done their job. All market segments, including those looking for “great” are served. If not, it is customer/reader problem since information is out there too. In fact, not only may not all market segments be served because publishers not writers determine market content (as above), but information about what is out there may be imperfect, hard to access, hyped and slanted by industry in attempt to reach certain segments.
- In sum: imagine a Farmer’s Market not allowing all local farmers in, but only those it deems as suitable for market segments it thinks are in vogue and potentially profitable. Consumers now have choice limited by arbiter. Classic imperfect market. No question some "great" peaches meeting someone’s preference and willingness to pay are not getting through. Econ 101.

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