Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Themes Schmemes

I have reached some sort of blog milestone in that I was halfway through writing a blog post about some writers focusing too much on the themes of their book in queries before I realized..... something felt a little familiar.

Then I realized: I'd written the exact same post before. Right down to the blog title. Whoops! Luckily I remembered before I unconsciously plagiarized myself.

Here is the original post, from March 29, 2007, which most definitely still applies, this time with feeling:

So you know how you spent four or more years in college learning about what books mean and how to analyze novels for hidden meaning, and where you learned that the best books are the ones with subtext upon which you can write a twenty page paper on the use of metaphor as an elucidation of the philosophical constructs of the protagonist's society?

Yeah. Forget all that.

I get quite a few query letters that sound like this (btw this is made up, I will never make fun of your query letter in this space, agent's honor):

"My novel explores themes of love and themes of passion. The protagonist fights against the evils inherent in our society and must come to terms with his inner sense of frustration and futility. But ultimately the novel is about how we as human beings must develop a sense of self and prevail in the face of society's obstacles."

No offense to myself for writing that, but that does not exactly make me want to read more of my own writing.

It's really the oldest writing advice in the book: Show don't tell. College teaches you to tell. It teaches you to look for subtext and it conditions you think you should pack your novel full of references and themes so future scholars will have a job. And then people write their query like it's a term paper.

I'm not (praise Tyra) planning on writing a twenty page paper on your novel, so don't tell me what your novel is about. Tell me what happens. And hopefully you've written a novel in which things actually do happen. Because I like novels where things happen. Happening is good.

To expand further on this topic, I recently attended a football game, (chronicled hilariously here by my friend Holly), and we were talking about how much some aspiring authors want to leave behind books with artistic integrity that they're proud of even if they don't sell, and I definitely respect this. (What else would you talk about on the way to a football game??).

At the same time, it got me to thinking: are writers artists or artisans?

I think the drive to write Literature/art sometimes leads some very talented writers, especially young ones, to write books that as an agent I can't sell because there's too much attention paid to the themes and the subtext and the meaning and other English-class-type concerns, rather than the narrative and the plot and the craft and other sausagemaking-type concerns. And this is reflected in how they think of and describe the work: these types of novels tend to correlate with queries that read like the aforementioned college papers.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But particularly in this day and age, the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment. There are definitely a few places that still are open to this type of writing, but they tend to be small presses/collectives and you don't necessarily need an agent to find them.

I also think that some of these writers have a bit of a mistaken belief about the books that are published these days that are instant Literature, like GILEAD and ATONEMENT and OSCAR WAO. These books have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there's so much to take away, but Robinson and McEwan and Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.

Please know that I'm not making value judgments about writers as artists vs. artisans - I love all types of books and they all have their place. But as an agent, I have to follow the market. If you want to write Literature and also be published by a major publisher, these days it's rare to find a book that just has deep themes in an otherwise impenetrable book. It also takes a story that people can't put down. While there are some exceptions, for better or worse mainstream literary fiction is increasingly found at the intersection of quality and accessibility.


Margaret Yang said...

I have no ambition to write quality literature. I want to write a novel that someone will read for entertainment. Really, really good entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. A novel that they'll read before bed or on the potty. I want to write something, you know, fun.

Suzan Harden said...

Hmmm...I guess I don't have to worry about such high-faluting things. I want to write something where a reader sends me an e-mail saying "Thanks for making me forget my problems for a couple of hours."

Charlie Pratt said...

This is stellar. A little realism to kick my day into proper gear. I hope Stephen King catches wind of this post; he'll absolutely love it.

David said...

Stephen King commented in On Writing that a writer shouldn't worry about theme because it's there whether you like or not. If you've done a good enough job getting the story down, and then revising it, you'll see a theme.
Now whether the theme is worth anything is a different story.

The Rejectionist said...

NONSENSE. Literature should involve SUFFERING. Of the READER, sirrah.

Kristi said...

I recently had someone read the first draft of my YA novel and this person is a SLOW reader which is why I gave it to them first. They finished it in one day because they told me they couldn't put it down and had to know what happened.

That's what I want - I have no desire to be Faulkner. I'd rather have teens read my work because they love it rather than reading it because it was assigned in English class for its literary merit. Some literary types may not find value in my commercial-minded writing but that's okay because I'm not writing for them.

JDuncan said...

Honestly, I think I'd prefer to be known as a great storyteller than a literary great. The real rarity of course are those writers who are both. I have no allusions about becoming a literary great. I do however, aspire to be a great storyteller, and with that I am more than content.

P. Grier said...

Thank you for making me laugh, once again. The mid-afternoon doldrums set in and I think the day will never end, and along comes your blog to lighten the day.

This: "My novel explores themes of love and themes of passion. The protagonist fights against the evils inherent in our society and must come to terms with his inner sense of frustration and futility. But ultimately the novel is about ..." Cracked me up. It must be the agents equivalent to the middle school English teacher's experience with the word, "nice," as in, just don't do it.

So, I say, what is wrong with just telling a story people want to hear? Good stories will have themes and metaphor and all those other things I spend my life teaching about without working so hard to make them fit into a novel.

Just tell the damn story, already.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree wholeheartedly that there are some amazing books being published by small presses right now. For the second year in a row, a small press book has won The Nobel Prize in Literature. After it was awarded, the prize boosted book sales for the small press.

J. Matthew Saunders said...

William Shakespeare's audience was mostly illiterate. Charles Dickens was considered a pulp writer during his lifetime. Today, they're works are considered among the greatest pieces of literature in the English language. There's no telling what people will consider literature a hundred years from now, so I don't worry about it. I just write what I would want to read.

J. Matthew Saunders said...

"Their works" I promise I know the difference.

Ink said...

But you didn't tell us the most important piece of information... did you have a corndog at the game?

Thermocline said...

... mainstream literary fiction is increasingly found at the intersection of quality and accessibility.

I'd take this another step and say it applies to all art. If I don't "get" a book/sculpture/play/painting (it is not accessible) then I probably won't think much of its quality. Same holds true for a creation I might understand but think is crap.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I'm not an expert in other arts, but this is my sense as well. I think in all levels of society it seems like we're seeing more democritization of just about everything and the relative devaluing of "experts." It's permeating everything from restaurant reviews to art and literature. Elitism seems to be on the wane, and mass appeal on the rise.

But the pendulum always swings. I think bringing literature too far down from its lofty perch would be a shame, but that's a topic for another day.

Mira said...

Funny post. Well spoken.

You can't control the depth of your writing. It's either there or it's not. I don't believe that trying to consciously make your writing reflect deep themes would work - the writing wouldn't live or breathe true. It would be too self-conscious.

The best way to write from depth, if it's not there yet, is to deepen who you are as a person. That will come out in your writing.

Fortunately I, personally, really don't have to worry about any of this. No way am I going to write great literature. My talent with writing is not with the beauty and artistry of words, but with the clarity of thought.

Now, I would like to write something that reaches people and makes a difference, but great literature....nope, ain't gonna happen. Which is fine with me - that's not my ambition.

On a side note, Nathan, your paragraph on what your novel is about could be a good opener for a YA novel or a humor piece.....errrr....well, I guess this is sort of a humor piece.

Never mind.

Mark Terry said...

I wouldn't even go so far as to call myself an artisan, but a craftsman. Or, perhaps even more accurate, a "word mechanic." I have my moments, certainly, when I'm aware of a theme and I think the language takes flight, but it's all subservient to the story, so if it ain't serving the story, Hasta la Vista, baby.

There are some writers, even some who appear to want to be commercial writers, who seem--to my mind and ears, anyway--to get over involved in the poetry/sound of their writing. It's lovely stuff, but it always reminds me of a yacht that's all decked out with chrome and teak and has no engine in it.

Bane of Anubis said...

Anything that brings down elitism is good (um, hypocrisy alert: Go Lakers), though I'm not a big fan of cow-rule, either (and, yes, that is a double entendre dig at The Kings :).

Malia Sutton said...

To bad there isn't a happy medium, between artistic self-indulgence and something that's entertaining.

Mira said...

Oh, I'd also like to mention, approp of nothing, that I don't like football, but I like pizza.

And I have no idea how to spell Condolezzy Rice. So, I'd fit right in.

And I'm free this Saturday.

You know. In case anyone was interested.

Maureen said...

Interesting interesting that I sent it to my daughter who is an English Major. She is in the midst of learning how to analyze literature for all those deep-seated meanings and some days it's just a lot of plowing through. I know her personal reading choices are varied depending on mood and amount of free time but most of all she likes to be entertained and the ending to be happy.

My favorite books are filled with interesting, quirky characters and that happy ending or at least a hopeful ending. As for my writing, I try very hard to have an engaging character to whom lots of stuff happens but one that follows an optimistic story line.

JHoward said...

I can imagine that those "here's-my-big-theme" query letters get tedious. But has there ever really been much of an audience for "deep themes in an otherwise impenetrable book"? In that sense, has anything really changed? Dickens was popular for a reason. People have always loved a good story (defined in many different ways) and always will.

TKA said...

Off topic, but happy Start of a New Season of Friday Night Lights day!

Nathan Bransford said...


David Foster Wallace.

Paul Neuhardt said...

Is there a part of me that would love to write a deep, complex and highly literate novel that tears at the heartstrings and intellect of the reader? You betcha.

Am I capable of it? Nosiree, not in my wildest dreams.

I think I can tell an interesting story, and hopefully do so in an engaging and humorous way.

Is there a theme in my current WIP? Maybe. I'll let you know when I've read the first draft and really examine it for what works and what doesn't.

I hope my sophomore English teacher from Monterey High in Lubbock doesn't read this. She was all about theme.

Lucky for me, I had teachers my last two years of high school and in college that understood that theme shouldn't get in the way of a good story. Enhance a good one, perhaps turn it in to a great one, but never stand in the way.

Yay, Nathan for making the point, making it well, and making it twice.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

Happening is good.

Haha. Nathan, for an agent, you're funny sometimes. ;-)

Anonymous said...

There is nothing more deadly than a novel with a blatant agenda.

The greatest novelists, the ones we all studied and analyzed in college and grad school, were able to create characters and settings and plots so effectively that the theme and meaning and subtext emerged as a byproduct -- let me repeat: BYPRODUCT.

Young writers who come out of lit courses thinking that great books must contain a lofty message in order to be great, and who, in turn, strive to embed those messages in their writing, have missed the point entirely. And if their professors gave this directive explicitly, then they were flat out wrong.

The greatness of any literary work's writing or subtext or theme lies in how subservient they are to the story, and how they manage to creep out behind the story and stay with a reader long after the book's cover has closed.

P. Grier said...

@Mira-- I am free. *grin*

Ink said...


Did you see that your Lakers will be playing a Clippers team sans Blake Griffin tonight? It seems dangerous to be a number one pick these days...

And tonight I get to see if the Bron Bron and Shaq experiment will work. Luckily they're only playing the, um, Celtics. That shouldn't be too hard.

Thermocline said...

Nathan -

I agree with you about mass appeal being on the rise. Take Oprah. She wouldn't be considered an expert on books but, man, can she bring in the readers when she endorses an author.

I think there is also a simple math component that can be an influence in this interwebs age. Pick any two similar items you're considering buying from, say, Amazon. If one has 10 reviews and another has 100, then then second one might seem to be "better" because more people have commented on it. Again with the mass appeal.

Nathan Bransford said...


Sadly the Cardinal don't serve corndogs at the football games. Hard to know how I survived four years there.

Kristi Faith said...

Whew, I am so relieved to read this post. I passed grammar, spelling and writing stories with flying colors. Analyzing said stories and grammar...not so much. :)

Thanks for the best bit of info I've heard since I began this crazy journey!

Bane of Anubis said...

Yeah, I couldn't believe NB talked about football (we're talkin' 'bout football! - though, yea for FNL) on opening day.

Nah, hadn't seen that BG was out (I smell trap game :)

Lebron's always fun to watch... The Cavs were already the most exciting team last year (if for nothing more than pre-game entertainment) and Shaq will make them combustibly fun... not sure how strong an addition he'll be on the court, but I'm sure he'll be a huge hit in Cleveland, nonetheless.

JHoward said...

Re DFW: That's an interesting case. Do people read him for deep themes or for the sensibility, for lack of a better word? I ahve no theories, never having made it through "Infinite Jest"--not enough of a story for me :).

Ink said...

No corndogs? No corndogs? What is happening with this world. It's enough to make you a Kings fan or something. Oh...

Ink said...

And I should mention it's my birthday tomorrow, and what do I get? Cavaliers versus Raptors. Someone is looking out for me.

Paul Neuhardt said...

I'm forwarding this blog entry to my teen-aged daughters, all of whom agree that the search for deep meanings and hidden themes in their lit classes rips the joy of reading right out of some otherwise great books.

I understand what they mean: In my thirties I made a concerted effort to go back and read all those books that had been examined to death during my school days. I have to say that while I can now appreciate the lessons I was taught and that they made me a better reader.

I also know that I didn't even begin to see the real mastery in the works until I could read them without the search for theme and meaning.

I have always wondered if the critics that insist on searching for deep, meaningful theme really enjoy reading. Methinks perhaps not.

Morgan Xavier said...

And here I've been feeling bad about my writing because I didn't think it was "literary" enough.

Good to know that an entertaining story is what counts. That seems more achievable :)

Mira said...

P. Grier - Cool. Sound fun. :)

I was sort of fishing in a different pond. But that is one tricky catch, I'll tell you.

A girl's night out would be fun, and we can try to figure out how to land the big one.

Um, I like fishing even less than I like football, but I like sushi almost as much as I like pizza, so it all works out.

Bane of Anubis said...

Happy B-day, even though you are a Scorpio ;)

J.J. Bennett said...


It's all about the it and the truth shall set you free!

Ink said...

And I think Shaq is going to bowl LeBron in the opening warmups.

Everyone else gets to be the pins. It'll be great. I'm sure the game will be okay, too.

Jacque said...

Hmm... that might be a harder one for me. I pride myself on writing things with meanings and themes to explore and have to use my writing group so they can tell me when to shut up because I am getting "too preachy." But on the plus side, I write YA and have been told that my voice is efficient and light-hearted enough to make for a quick read anyway. I never have my characters sit at coffee shops because having them be attacked by various evil doers is far more fun. So yeah, I shall have to see what I can do... assuming I ever finish polishing my current WIP. :P

J.J. Bennett said...

Oh, Bane.... Go Jazz!!!!!

Rick Daley said...

To theme or not to theme...

So it circles back to the old meme "it all depends on the execution."

WORD VERIFICATION: egusk. A gusk, but on the Internet. Now if anyone could kindly tell me what a gusk is, we'll be all set.

Dara said...

Going through four years of classes for my English degree, it definitely made me NOT want to write something analyzed down to the last quotation mark.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

This post came at such a great time for me! Thank you so much!

Marsha Sigman said...

My goal is to write commercial trash. If there is a hidden meaning...its purely accidental.

Anna Moore said...

i want to write what i like, but i know i'm not going to write as well as phillip roth or toni morrison without starting somewhere - with plot and characters and a storyline that is entertaining but lacks literary appeal - but maybe when i'm seventy, i'll have sold enough books so i can try and write what i think people should be reading

by the way, does anyone know how to do page numbers on all pages but the chapter pages? This is in ref to a previous post, but haven't gotten an answer to it yet . . .
i'm writing my first draft of my first novel ... very exciting!

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan,
This is a bit off topic (okay, way)but I love that your links in your blog posts open new tabs and I don't have to keep going back and forth to reopen where I left off for a quick or longer look-see.
(And often, htis "sets up" a whole series of tabs that I read over the week-end after your wonderful "This Week in Publishing."

Then I notice that in the comments section, if I want a quick look-see (at either the commenter's link or one they include to go look at or both) that I lose your blog comments page when I go.

Can you explain (if possible) how you do the first type of linking and how (if possible) to direct commenters to do so too?

I find it so helpful and so seamless.


Nathan Bransford said...


Unfortunately anon doesn't allow the pop-up links in the comment section. Sorry! I'm also not able to do it on my permanent links on the right side of the blog.

Liberal Cowgirl said...

Oddly enough, Mark Barrett over at Ditchwalk just did an entire "Theme Week" where he features several posts on this subject as well as an outstanding essay by Thomas McCormack.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation.

It's really cool all you do.

Davin Malasarn said...

Nice post, Nathan. LIke you say, this is a decision we writers must face. We have to know what we want to write and then be willing to face the consequences of that choice.

Jil said...

I happen to be listening to Stephen King's "Cell" right now and even though I see numerous things a good editor would correct, as well as lack of character development, I am thoroughly enjoying being swept along on the strong current of his story. Mind the Reader is very good and that may help. But when I am finished I will forget it.

A really well written book will leave me thoughtful and silent at the end and i will remember it forever.

I would love to write the latter.

Terry said...

I like some of the deeper old novels. But I was halfway through my own novel before I even realized it had a theme.

Happy Birthday Ink!Have a corndog on me.

Lindsay Terris said...

Being a Cal grad (I love you anyway, I promise), I have to say that I was a bit surprised that all you had for your tailgate was wine and pizza. I thought Stanford tailgates were much more can find wine and pizza at Cal tailgates too. Maybe we aren't that different after all...

june said...

We must be on the same wavelength Nathan! I just wrote a blog post yesterday with a similar "theme" (smile). I discussed how different the skill set is between academic/scholastic writing and creative writing. Glad to know I'm on the right track!

Laura Martone said...

Unlike Margaret, I DO hope to leave behind quality literature that can be analyzed by English majors like me. While I hope to educate, I hope to do it in an entertaining way. Although it makes me a little sad, I realize that modern novels can't resemble those of yesteryear... unless it's historical fiction.

Hence the need for a revision. What can I say? I've always been a late bloomer.

Ink said...


I shall eat a corndog for every commenter on Nathan's blog today! I'm selfless that way. I mean, the things I do for people...

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, you're definitely right that the normal Stanford tailgate is fancier. I would be ashamed, only that's some insanely good pizza (from Applewood's).

Laura Martone said...

Oh, but, of course, no offense to Margaret and others who only hope to entertain with their work. I can fully appreciate that - and I love plenty of books that do little more than entertain. I guess I'm just hopeful that it's still possible to multi-task as a modern-day writer.

I'm naive, I know. :-)

writingisablessing said...

We must be on the same wavelength Nathan! I just wrote a blog post yesterday with a similar "theme" (smile). I discussed how different the skill set is between academic/scholastic writing and creative writing. Glad to know I'm on the right track!

Kelly Bryson said...

I like my novels to have some depth to them...but subtle depth. Entertainment AND enlightenment. The books I love best do both.

I'm talking about Harry Potter, TLOTR, Cry The Beloved Country, Narnia. I've enjoyed some Faulkner, too, but never Hemmingway and never Steinbeck. Bleh.

Emily White said...

I think that the first priority of any writer should be to write a good story. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting your story to follow a certain theme, but it shouldn't be to the detriment of the story itself.

Do I want students to some day analyse my book and find the hidden meanings? You bet! But for now, I want readers to be entertained.

Laura Martone said...

Geez, Bryan, how many corn dogs might that be? What a great way to kickstart your birthday!

Oh, happy B-day, BTW! I'll send you a case of Pepto Bismol to celebrate!

Lindsay Terris said...

Well Applewood is a different story. It's no Zachary's or Cheese Board, but it'll do in Cardinal territory...and now I'll spend the rest of the afternoon missing Berkeley's pizza. Regardless, it sounds like you'd do just find at our tailgate. You are more than welcome, just ditch the red shirt first:)

Ink said...


How can you go wrong with corndogs?

And Pepto Bismol.

Sara Tribble said...

Good indeed! Nice re-post! =D

Anonymous said...

Where Plot is a train track, Character is the train, Setting is the train era's milieu, Theme is the train master organizer. Without a theme a story is a meaningless ramble. But a theme doesn't have to be so complex that it's impenetrably dense, though few really are in well-crafted stories. A theme can be as simple as the poetic justice one inherent in the currently fashionable action-adventure spectacle genre. Good will triumph and be rewarded, evil will fail and be punished.

Theme is one of a multitude of indivisible but distinguishable literary elements that comprise a well-crafted story. However, by itself theme doesn't make a story.

And when a story is lauded as a work of art, it's not the writer saying so; it's an audience consensus saying so. A writer can no more force a meaningful work of art than any artisan.

I wonder why there's a "grumpy" discourse in the realm of screening readers toward writing program writers, the so-called MFAs. It's one approach to writing that has no more and no less greater potential than another. So why is it singled out as a less than worthy route? Perhaps a bit of academically directed envy?

Franzine Kafka said...

Nathan, I agree with your point about storytelling, but I am curious as to your take on writers like Aimee Bender, Yannick Murphy, Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill. Gaitskill's "Veronica" is told in short bursts, jumping throughout time. Her strength is truly in her manipulation of language. The storytelling is not gripping. Off-kilter writing is sold to large presses all of the time. Maybe we are speaking about different shades of gray here.

Would you say that less accessible/traditional writers must develop a readership through literary journals or perhaps study under a successful writer who will endorse them? What are the paths one would take to publication if writing more like Lorrie Moore than Wally Lamb?

While I am on the topic of the high-brow, I am curious to know what you think of m.f.a.s. These programs seem to cultivate stylists, not necessarily storytellers. In one sense, this seems like a disconnect to the publishing world. At the same time, it seems that "high-brow" writers are able to legitimize their work by either hooking up with already established writers, or simply through pedigree.

I know many agents claim that m.f.a.s don't matter, but wouldn't you receive Nathan Englander's manuscript differently knowing that he is a graduate of Iowa and recommended by so and so? If it came into your inbox cold, his manuscript might seem a lot less marketable and the storytelling might seem flawed.

Are there two different paths to publication for commercial fiction and literary fiction, or does the traditional query process work just as well for both?

I am always seeking more information on how a literary writer can break through (other than by publishing in journals first), so your thoughts are appreciated.

Nathan Bransford said...


Those are all very good questions that I don't have any easy answers for. I do wonder if it's harder now for very literary and unconventional writers to break out than it used to be, now that major publishers are shying away from risks and particularly risks in literary fiction. David Foster Wallace was paid quite a lot of money in the past decade, mainly on his potential. Would that happen today? I don't know. I don't know that it's more difficult for the existing "names," such as the ones you named, but I do tend to think it's much harder for those attempting to break in.

On the MFAs, I'm of two minds. On the one hand I appreciate that there are institutions that cultivate writing as art and as an ideal, and I know many writers who appreciated the time to incubate and focus on their writing. On the other hand, if the goal is to train writers for the marketplace they are going to face upon graduating and have any hope of repaying the cost of the program through their writing..... well, I don't know that many are succeeding at that.

And yes, I do think that "branding" and credentials, whether from a prestigious MFA program or through publication in prestigious journals, are very important for a writer hoping to publish literary fiction, especially short story collections. It seems to me that publishers increasingly want their literary fiction authors to be a name even before they're published, and as an agent I have to respond to that. It's hard for writers to make themselves a "name" even before they're published, but there are so few slots for "breakout" literary writers that it's just kind of the way it is right now, at least in my experience.

AM said...

The message has to ride the story.

If the story drags, the message stops - no matter how nicely it’s dressed.

susiej said...

This post reminded me of the hilarious I Capture the Castle. The American visitors tell Cassandra that professors in America still lecture over the themes in her father's novel. When she tells her father, he just laughs having no idea how they came up with all that stuff.

Anonymous said...

You're preaching to the choir here in wannabe genre-writer land! I'm guessing a lot of 'em never even made it to the AP English level.


Amber Argyle-Smith said...

I'm with you, Nathan (and I'm not just sucking up).

The best novels are balanced novels. They need a strong plot, characters, voice, language, etc.

I strive for the kind of balance.

Anonymous said...

Every good story has at its heart the theme of revenge. In the end, there are no other themes. I will get you; oh yes, I will get you.


Susan Quinn said...

My crit-group friend with an MFA once told me she thought it actually "held her back" from writing the stories she wanted to write. Not that the time spent learning the craft wasn't well spent - it was. But that the emphasis on dark, brooding themes, just wasn't the writing she wanted to do - and she didn't really write well until she had freed herself from that stricture.

And Happy day of birth, Ink! Maybe the City of Windsor will name a day in your honor. :)

Anonymous said...

To me it's not "craft" or "art," it's just work. I don't wait for "the muse" to hit me, I don't have writer's block ever because there's no time for it. I've got more stories outlined than I can ever write in my lifetime.

I call myself The Worker. that's really how I think of myself, craking out 1 widget after the next for a paycheck. Yeah, it makes me hapy that people do obviously get some enjoyment out of my work, but hey--people get enjoyment out of fast food workers' work, too, right? And auto designer's work and a sewing machine operators' work.

In the end, it's just work, and if you don't think of it that way, you prpobably have a dayjob.


Anonymous said...

Good observation Anonypalooza. The biggest misconception among the newbs haunting the agent blogs is that being a published writer is some kind of glamorous achievement. It really is just work--it's genre fiction, not Pulitzer Prize winning literature!

Also, many don't realize that to stay in the game and write books for a living, you may even have to write stuff you yourself don't even like! Happens all the time! But you know you'll get paid for it, so off you go back to the 'puter again. Sure, it's nice not to have to show up at an office at a certain time everyday--I'll give you that--but that's about the only difference. Besides that it's a business--tracking expenditures, profit, taxes, promotion, manning the "assembly line" of new stories to meet deadlines and satisfy contracts. It's a far cry from the romantic image of some 'artist" wiling away the hours in some forested glade pontificating about the meaning of life or the human condition.

Ooops--gotta go pay the cable bill or I won;t be able to update my social nets with the next book release date. Ciao and good luck with your themes!


Disgruntled Bear said...


Thanks for the link to Holly's blog post about the game. I did a total spit-take at the Mama joke you put in her comments!

Now I have to clean my keyboard.

Scott said...

A very smart post that made me a little sad. Maybe it's because I fear we're all overjoyed with literary cheeseburgers, and that it's perfectly awesome for everyone to want to write something easily consumable that no one will ever want to read twice. Weee.

Nathan, you refer to "right now" when putting existing trends in context. I wonder, do you think "right now" represents a decline in significant literature onward to shelves full of memoirs and beach books or do you think it's just a blip caused by the surge of immediate technology? In other words, do you think we as a society are interested in important fiction anymore or has that imagination and depth been veritably replaced by the glut of easily accessible reality in all its forms?

Aw hell, let's just make everything a talking graphic novel aimed at newspaper reading levels and get on with, I guess.

pjd said...

Many years ago, I used to try to build stories with a deep, meaningful message that would make people Think. About Things. Important Things. It always resulted in contrived, stilted, soulless writing.

Then one day I realized I could start with a story and draw the theme out of it through the writing. Resulted in better stories, yeah, but the more important effect was to make writing fun again.

Nathan: You are hereby officially invited to my Big Game viewing party... that is if you're not already planning to attend the game in fancy VIP seats. You can wear red, too. (As a bonus, I just found out that a local high school near my house is offering swine flu vaccine that day.)

@Lindsay Terris: Go Bears! You can come to my party, too.

Anonymous said...

Shakespeare was the Stephen King of his day, right?

But as time went on and 1) more and more people learned to read and 2) the world pupoulation mushroomed, it meant that the reading level for the public had to be "dumbed down," as it were; this, combined with the natural language changes and colloquial shifts that occur across multi-generations, and you have arrived at the current literary landscape.


Donna Hole said...

I had to go back and look over my query to be sure I didn't harp on the theme. There is only the one line, in the closing. There is something happening in the query.

I am, however, someone who hopes to write the next great Literary Novel. (sighs)

Oh well, maybe in 20 or 50 years people will again want to be moved by a story. Or I could ghost write someone's memoire . . .

Thanks for the insights Nathan.


Anonymous said...

It's all about the LCD, baby! the lower the common denominator you can appeal to, the more copies you're gonna sell. What does EVERYBODY love?! The more complex and "highbrow" it gets, the smaller the audience gets. Whoa re you writing for? everybody? Only Americans? Only American romance readers between the ages of 21-55? Only the Nobel Prize Committee?

That's what slingin' books is all about. Knowing your target audience and delivering to them. The lower the LCD, the bigger the audience. Put another way, The LCD is inversely proportional to the size of the audience. The lower the CD, the greater the audience.

-Anon without a cute anony-name

Anonymous said...

Well then I guess what everbody loves is kids in wizard school and secret societies. And vampires and zombies.

...cue joke ideas to end up in NanoRiMo about books featuring all of the above...

Pat Fogarty said...

Thank Nat for taking the time to share some of your knowledge. Any advice on how to present the driving question ina short story?
Pat Fogarty

Nathan Bransford said...


My feeling on "right now" is that it's a combination of economics (literary fiction was never very profitable to start), competition with other media and a decline in the number of people willing to devote their concentration/time to an inaccessible literary novel, and a cultural pendulum swing toward democratization and accessibility away from elitism (not meant derogatorily) and the esoteric.

Jen P said...

Hear hear. Thank you Nathan. Let's hear it for sausagemaking. This is one of the most useful yet simple pieces of advice I have heard in the last couple of years and consciously remind myself from time to time, to 'just write!'. I got hung up for ages because I knew I shouldn't let prepositions hang....'the book he spoke of' became 'the book of which he spoke', type of thing, to ensure my writing was 'correct'. It was awful. And slowed down the flow something dreadful. Then I just realised I needed to write a darn good story and fix the bits that got in the way later.

Jenny Tyler, Publishing Director at Usborne told me last year, "Don’t get too precious about what you’re doing. Unless it’s War and Peace, don’t forget there’s lot and lots and lots of people who want to write, and who do write, and not many of them make it.”

She meant the same thing - stop trying too hard.

Anonymous said...


A high school football game between 2 arch-rivals is to be played on Halloween. As part of the festivities, one team will dress for the game as zombies, the other as vampires. Unbeknownst to the players, the head coach of each team belongs to a secret small town society called The Lions Club (oh wait, no..The Gladiators Association of York).

As gameday approaches, a dyslexic math wizard uses his iBook to hack the opposing team's playbook...

Anonymous said...

"Elitism" is a great way tp put it. Because., let's face it, why should reading only be for those who can understand it because they could afford years of expensive schooling whilst not having to work? In a way, "literary" writing is a form of discrimination--it alienates those from poor backgrounds not priviledged enough to have been able to educate high enough.

swiftj777 said...

... mainstream literary fiction is increasingly found at the intersection of quality and accessibility.

This is where my biggest dilemma lies... I am having the hardest time putting my book into a genre due to it's story and the breakdown of what each genre entails...

I eventually just settled in to calling it an Upper Young Adult Mainstream Literary Novel...

Then after reading this post I have no idea what that jumble of verbal diarrhea gives off to the reader and agent...

I know, let the story speak for itself, but it's hard to get someone past the query and onto the story if they have biases towards the label of the story...

I guess I said all that to say "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO!!!" HAHAHAHA...

I would love to just have people pick it up, read it, enjoy it and if they find a deeper meaning "GREAT" if they simply find a pleasurable passing of the time story "GREAT"...


(Yeah this is my first comment, so I don't really know the protocol just yet) hahaahha

Terry said...

Ink - You truly are selfless, but I suspect you'll appreciate Laura's Pepto.

Francy said...

The blog seems to have loosened up/Is someone calling me. Nate you never bothered to answer Danielle's request to read our synopsis. I know it's not what you request but I already explained that I'm too lazy to rework a query. Couldn't you bend a little/or am I being too aggressive and you have not gotten to it yet/I hope that's the case. This subject seems roughly ethereal/why does someone put themselves through the process/how defined is the commitment/can the individual writer do any thing else (serious joy of wood-working),does the person want to meet other intellectuals while they keep their day jobs. I reserved myself to be an actor/met my husband/in 1970/was getting cast primarily in soft porn/print work in "Sexology", a popular Times Square journal,at that time I was not interested in doing plays without pay/though I had the union cards/(act-the way an actor gets experience)and I didn't have the money for the required head shots and resumes/I only worked once after that in 1979 with Don Knots/a bit part. After four children and a move from Quebec to Atl.,Ga- I defined myself as a poet/serious and committed taking on the oral tradition and the competitive desire to be the strongest poet in the land/an expert/a diva/ "Qualified"/Nurtured and paid. First they threw tomatoes at me/then I evolved into a working poet/now it's my time to give back/to share what I know.

Anonymous said...

"I eventually just settled in to calling it an Upper Young Adult Mainstream Literary Novel..."

dude, do yourself a favor and don't call it that. Just call it "YA" before you call it that.

Anonymous said...

Harry Potter is as much a literary work of art for its theme and message as Michelangelo's Pietà is for its theme and message. Will Potter be as timeless is a matter for the future to decide. L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic with a similar audience appeal. The rest of the Oz series, not as much.

The central Potter theme is a simple one, that of a loss of innocence, coming of age orientation conventional to young adult literature. Potter's an orphaned young person striving to forge and own his emerging adult meaning space in the absence of parental guidance. The story's message so subtle that it's subliminal, and timely: No one, not least of all adults, have all the answers, it's up to young people to forge and own their own meaning space. Same for writers. Qué el metafique.

P.A.Brown said...

I always hated those classes. They ruined many a good book for me. It was a long time before I realized that the truth is, the authors of the books now seen as classics and full of themes and symbolisms and all, didn't set out to do that. They wanted to write a good story, to be enjoyed by their readers. In their day, many of them were looked down on as common, with no social status.

When I write the only thing I want to do is write something worth reading. Something that tells a story, pure and simple. And you can find all the meaning you want in it, but please, just enjoy the book.

Ink said...


I'm not holding my breath...

joelle said...

This made me think about something I've come across in the acting world. Some of the best ad most uninhibited actors tend not to have studied theatre at all, but something similar. Like music or dance. And I've noticed how many writers have theatre degrees. It's kind of a joke amongst us that we couldn't get any work so we took to writing (a so much higher paid and easier profession! Haha), but I'm starting to think that all that script dissection and learning how to create characters translates well to writing without all the English Major baggage. I can pick out a theme, but I don't really care much about it!

Karen Dietrich said...

Interesting post...and comments. Just saying de-lurking to say hello.

Ink said...

I must say (on topic for once) that I actually quite like that intersection over there at the corner of Quality and Accessibility. Some very fine establishments, and lots of parking, too...

Diana said...

What I don't understand about the literary fiction crowd is why they want to write deep meaningful prose that very few people understand? What is the point of spending all that time and energy putting one's thoughts on the deep meaningful theme if the majority of people can't understand it or fall asleep while reading it? Seriously, if you're going to do that, you might as well write it in gibberish.

On the other hand, why does this have to be an either/or? Why can't a story written for the commercial market also explore those meaningful themes? It seems to me that a really powerful story would meld the best of both commercial and literary fiction.

Diana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josin L. McQuein said...

You shouldn't have to try for a theme. If there is one, it should flow naturally and sneak in under the radar. All those theme papers in school took analyzing because they're so obscure you miss them if you don't go looking.

If you try and force a narrative into a thematic mold, you're going to compromise the story. It'll show in the reading the same as it would if two different people wrote it and fused it together. It'll alter the voice, too, like someone giving a lecture they wouldn't want to sit through, much less deliver.

Thematic writing makes the characters puppets and lends itself to author insert scenarios where the characters don't make sense because they're acting on the writer's motivation rather than their own.

Wakai Writer said...

The best books, in my opinion, are like layer cakes. On top is a delicious slathering of plot, some flashy, interesting characters that when you bite into them have a surprisingly complex flavour, and a pretty design that makes you want to pull the book from the shelf. On bottom is a solid foundation of not-too-heavy, not-too-light writing--solid enough to support the delicious bits on top but not so thick as to be the only thing you can taste.

Literary value is the fudge between the layers that is only there on the best cakes, and often not discernible beyond "My god what is that delicious taste?" unless you're really looking for it.

But you can't make a cake out of just that layer of fudge. Indeed, getting the portion right is half the trick.

Cat_d_Fifth said...

So no themes in queries. Got it. But what about the 'hook'as described in another one of your terrific posts? Should a one-liner hook be included in a query, or should we trust the agent's judgement and IQ to pick up the hook from the brief 3-sentence synopsis that tells you what happens in the novel?

And can we write 'thirty-something' in the query? LOL

PS I think you've also picked up on the dichotomy between publishing as a business and writing as an art. You can write the best darn literary piece of the millennium, but if it's not going to be published anyway... And agents, of course, are in the business of publishing, so, hello!

Anonymous said...

Write. Sell. Repeat...Write. Sell. Repeat...


Adam Heine said...

I was gonna say something meaningful to add to the discussion, but J. Matthew Saunders expressed my opinion exactly:

"There's no telling what people will consider literature a hundred years from now, so I don't worry about it. I just write what I would want to read."

blueroses said...

As someone with AD/HD, it was all I could do to read college (and high school for that matter) literature. After reading the same sentence fifteen times, I began to worry that I might never graduate. I also worried about my desire to read, or lack thereof.

But thankfully, along came Janet Evanovich, Donna Andrews, Dixie Cash, Sue Grafton, and several others who made reading fun. Shallow? Maybe. Fun? Definitely. But I no longer read one sentence fifteen times--unless it's for the spice!

I still like the "deep" stuff, but I save the brain cells for that in non-fiction.

Maybe it just all depends on something as simple as what mood we're in.

Giles said...

I think the idea of, "you can't truly understand the work because you are not the author" is really a snobby attitude to have. In my experience, that "impenetrable" concept is more about making the author feel good about them self rather than sharing something with an audience. It's their way of looking down at other people so that they can prove that they are "better" in some way.

Then again, I learned a lot of literature from an elite poet who believed anything "mainstream" was considered crap.

Nathan Bransford said...


I guess over the summer Mike Brown didn't take the time to learn a play other than "everyone stand around and let LeBron shoot/drive into 5 players."

P.A.Brown said...

Define a great novel. Is it great because no one reads it? Or because it's too grand for any of us mere mortals to understand? I am not a stupid person by any means, but most of the crap that passes as 'great literature' isn't. Being accessible does not make something hack work anymore than making something so obscure no one but the author knows what it means make it great. Literature has to be read to have any meaning.

Nathan Bransford said...


If you don't want to sell your novel you don't need agent.

Ink said...

Well, that Shaq and Big Z lineup matched against KG and Rasheed was, uh, interesting.

But those come from behind blocks sure were nice!

Man, my Cavs look huge and... not so fast. They're going to pound some teams... but they still can't match up with teams like Boston, Orland and LA who have skilled, mobile bigs. And any chance at a title will be through those teams. Mid-season trade?

Mira said...

Gordon - Nathan's preference is literary. Anyone who hangs around his blog can see that. But he also needs to be practical.

Laying out the reality of the market isn't killing literature, it's just being practical. Alot of great literature, btw, never made a dime when it was written.

Now, on a different topic, I am very interested in the underlying theme of this post: food. Sausages, pizza, sushi, corndogs.

I now have an inexplicable craving for cake.

I would like everyone who is reading this blog to stop bemoaning the end of literature as we know it, and see the greatness unfolding before your eyes.

This post, this very post, has deep themes and contexts hidden from the naked eye

What does the sub-text of food on this post really mean?

Why this post? Why not yesterday's post? Or last week?

And why was this post almost written not once, but twice? How does the first post differ from the second (hint: check the food references)?

And finally, what is food? why do we eat it? And most important of all, what type of cake is the best and how quickly can I get some?

Please submit a 10 page analysis of this post by Friday. Extra credit if you submit it with a slice of cake.

Preferably birthday cake! For Ink! :)

Ink said...

A pumpkin pie wouldn't hurt, either. Just sayin'.

Mira said...

Okay. Double points for pumkin

Triple if you spell pumbkin correctly.

Ink said...

And I have a feeling that Bron is going to put a hurting on my Raptors tomorrow. He likes Toronto... career high 56, for example. And I was in row 10 once as LeBron put up a 28-14-14 triple double on 'em. That guy is monstrous fast in person.

Mira said...

Okay, I have one last thing to say, and then I'm going away for the evening.

If I ever write a book, I have no intention of having a subtle theme. I want the type of theme that hits the reader over the head with a sledgehammer.

That's right. Just try to get away from my theme. You may dodge it in Chapter One, but it will be there waiting for you, ready to leap at your jugular in Chapters Two through Twenty Nine. The same darn theme over and over until you give up and surrender - surrender to my THEME.

College students won't parsec the subtle intricacies of my work. They'll tell war stories of how the THEME managed to get them in the end. "It hid on the last page of Chapter 5, and then it GOT ME." "That's nothing. The THEME entered my dreams and wedged itself into my brain stem." "You guys are wimps. I first met the THEME in the womb, and it's been with me ever since, waking and sleeping, and will following me to my dying day and beyond."

Yep, that's the type of theme I want. A theme with bite. Literally.

Anonymous said...

I'm a baker, writer, candlestick maker. The favorite cookie I make for festive occasions is a crisp shortbread sandwich cookie with lemon, lime, and orange zests. Little confetti-like flavor bits in the cookies and the fillings, yum. See, they taste like lemon drops but they're sugar cookies. Simple but zesty, thematically complex, tedious to make, but ever so popular. Not universally loved though, so I usually make dark cocoa shortbread sandwich cookies too, with just a smidgeon of peppermint in the fudge filling for zest.

Deeply satisfying flavors, textures, and aromas with aftertastes that pleasantly linger. That's the kind of story I like to read. If I could just get those flavors to come out in words.

Giles said...

Will someone please explain to me the overwhelming desire to suffer for art? Why does literature have be obscure for it to be considered "Great"?

In my personal opinion, Harry Potter was "Great" by some of my literature class's standards: It broke common rules of writing, like how to describe a scene and what sentence structure should look like; it contained many interwoven plots and subplots with engaging characters, uncommon dialogue, and even made up words that are now in the Oxford Dictionary. But because it's a commercial success, does that mean it's no longer "great"?

I just don't get it. I want to be a full time writer, but I REFUSE to let my family starve to death for my work. Does that make me less of an artist? Does that invalidate what I want to do?

Cat_d_Fifth said...

OK, so comments from the vast majority show that they enjoy writing (and reading) novels for the sake of the pleasure they derive from these activities. Then there's the infinitesimally small minority who are willing to 'suffer' anonymity and poverty (not to mention verbosity and obscurity in their reading) for their art :-)

Which reminds me of this quote:

"What distinguishes the artist from the dilettante? Only the pain that the artist feels. The dilettante looks only for pleasure in art." -Redon, Odilon

Hi. I'm Cat, and I'm a dilettante... anyone else out there care to join Dilettantes Anonymous?

Not that there isn't quite a bit of pain that comes with the pleasure of writing, even for 'happy' writers. There's pain of rejection, for one...

But as Nathan eloquently put it: "If you don't want to sell your novel you don't need agent". True enough... self-publishers don't need agents. So best of luck to Gordon and Kindle...

Meanwhile, I gotta finish this query letter...

Josin L. McQuein said...

If you can't sell a single agent or publisher on your book, good luck selling a mass audience on it. It's not like there's some conspiracy out there trying to make sure good books don't get published. People buy what they like, agents and publishers know this, so they buy what people like.

D. G. Hudson said...

I'm not much for elitism, but I also don't want to read every book that's proclaimed to be a bestseller.

Literary books lift us out of our ordinary life, and sometimes teach us something. Genre books are pure entertainment, and many are well-written.

I think that's the important part - that we enjoy what we are reading. That can vary for different people based on education, region, background, etc.

Didn't see this post the first time, so thanks for reposting.

wendy said...

Nathan, what you've written is so interesting. I've noticed over the years that mostly it's the most simplest writing but with an endearing, fascinating and fun story that grabs people's interest - not so much the prize-winners. Many children's novels have become great classics. Some examples: Watership Down, The Wind in The Willows, Peter Pan and, er, Wendy and The Wizard of Oz as they had what it took to tell a compelling story, simply. Today we've got Twilight and Harry Potter which also fit this structure. When I was growing up, like many children around the world, I adored Enid Blyton's stories as she focused on simple story telling - with emphasis on fun and excitment but which prob. had no literary merit what-so-ever.

However, maybe I get a bit preachy-teachy in my stories. But I want to share ideas and speculation as much as plot and characters.

Anonymous said...


Yes, it certainly does.


Anonymous said...

"The publishing industry will never again produce a Stephen King, not in its current form."

Disagree. The form isn't that different than it was 10 years ago, when the first e-books came out and everyone said OOOOOOOOH traditional publishing is dead! But here we are...And it's not even that different from 100 years ago when it was still hard to get published. No matter the time period, it's a tough business.


Tristan Bancks said...

Thanks for this post and for the interesting comments. I think, as the discussion attests, we all crave books in the lit/plot pocket. It is sweet justice when you find that novel at the 'intersection of quality and accessibility'. I've been reading Jasper Jones by Australian novelist, Craig Silvey, and it was such creatively rich and honest Lit Fiction and yet it had a plot that never let you go. I think Markus Zusak and John Boyne's stuff sits at this intersection also.

Richard Lewis said...

Here's a pretty simple technique to add story: give your main character's friend or sidekick or mentor, somebody your MC knows inside and out, a secret that he or she isn't telling the MC.

This isn't the main story, of course, just another story element.

Readers have a psychological need to find out what this secret is. That's why this works, and it will work for pretty much any story anybody is working on without a whole lot of revision. (Just don't resolve it too quickly).

It's a trick, really, but it's interesting how a narrative trick leads to story

Giles said...

Gordon, I'm not writing for fame and fortune, but rather to educate young people, much in the same way Lemony Snicket tried to with his Series of Unfortunate Events. I also wish to entertain people, which is the point of art (look at the renaissance in Venice). On the other hand, if fame and fortune come my way, then I'll accept it graciously.

Anonymous said...

We are all dancing at the crossroads! Right at that 'intersection of quality and accessibility.'
The trouble is, the traffic(i.e. market forces) makes it a very difficult place to be - but we dance on, bravely, and perhaps with grace.

J said...

This was a depressing and sort of surprising post.

I know some people--a lot of people--read just for entertainment. But let's not denigrate the value of a truly great work of art. When you've read a great book, you weren't just entertained--you might even have been changed. Maybe your worldview is bigger, maybe you've questioned your own assumptions about something, maybe you are less likely to assume the worst about people of a different race, religion, nationality, etc.

A good story won't preach that stuff to you--it will show it to you in a convincing and beautiful narrative. You won't necessarily know what's happening until you finish, and think.

Why is there so much resistance to actually having to think?

Sometimes you want to watch You, Me and Dupree or even Caddyshack, right, but sometimes don't you want to watch Schindler's List or Driving Miss Daisy or The English Patient?

So sometimes you want to read Twilight, but I hope you also want to read The Namesake or A Free Life or The Unbearable Lightness of Being or The Poisonwood Bible or The God of Small Things.

Literary writing is not about picking the most obscure way of saying something--that's just pretentious writing. Literary writing is writing about things that matter, in a way that matters and with a reverence for the art of writing.

And we should not celebrate its demise so readily and casually, as if it doesn't matter, as if somehow the masses have won and beaten those "snobby literary jerks" who had the nerve to pen something that you actually had to approach with purpose and thought.

Shannon said...

Thanks for this very helpful post.

P.A.Brown said...

I agree there's nothing wrong with aspiring to great writing. My issue is in who defines what is good and how it's done. Judging a book to be crass or commercial and therefore not of literary value just because it sells a lot of copies is wrong. In the same vein, not being able to find a publisher for your masterpiece does not mean it's a literary gem. A lot of garbage gets published by New York publishers. I dare say a lot gets self published too.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

I write what makes me happy. I can't control the voices in my head (ha, I sound crazy). I love good literature, but it's not something I'd ever pretend to write. I'm 19, which means I hardly know enough about like to write that kind of book.

Anyway, I can't write too much cause I'm about to pass out again. I had all four wisdom teeth pulled yesterday and man it hurts. have a great day, nathan!

bigwords88 said...

Glad to know that showing, rather than telling, is back in vogue. Just so happens I'm starting a WIP with killer robots, explosions aplenty and a down-at-heel detective. There are too many 'serious' books out there already, and pretending to be writing about Big Themes is stupid when all I want to do is tell my story.

I love this blog.

Scott said...

Thank you, J. Brilliant post.

And thanks Nathan for your reply. If you don't mind, I thought I might do a little editing to a piece of it:

and a cultural pendulum swing toward democratization and accessibility away from elitism (not meant derogatorily) and the esoteric.

- elitism
+ intellectualism

Let's hear it for the culture of declining education!


Anonymous said...

That's why the U.S. is getting its poopah stomped by many other coutnries when it comes to art. We want instant gratification. Something that we can latch onto when we read on the toilet. A plot we don't have to think too much about. That's why James Patterson is so popular now. I'm not saying you're wrong Nathan, I'm saying your right, and we have only ourselves to blame. What's terrifying is that this lazy attitude bleeds into all other aspects of our country, including politics.

/idiocracy, here we come.

Ink said...


I don't think Nathan's suggesting the death of literary fiction. I think he's suggesting the market for obscure, difficult and inaccessible literary fiction is currently very small (not that it was ever large). And the big houses aren't really interested. So, if that's what you write you should take that into consideration... and small presses willing to take a risk might be the way to go.

But literary fiction is much larger and more encompassing than that. Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, is not inaccessible. She's very clear and precise and literal and tells accessible and easily followed stories. That, likely, is part of the reason she sells. She's writing Dubliner's more than Finnegan's Wake.

Great artistic achievements can be reached through many different literary styles and modes... but certain of those styles and modes currently have a very small audience. And I think it's valuable to know that. It doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't write in such a form... but it might help with writerly expectations and with how a writer approaches the search for an audience.

My best,

Anonymous said...

Question for Nathan.

I have a 70-something (sorry, she's 72) MC but I was thinking of submitting the story as YA. Will the characters age be a huge deal?

Beth Terrell said...

After reading the posts by Gordan and J, I went back to re-read Nathan's post, thinking I must have misinterpreted what he was saying, but now I don't think I did.

J's examples of Schindler's LIst, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Poisonwood Bible (not to mention such classics as A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird) are exactly the kind of books Nathan was praising--books that tell wonderful, rich stories. The language is beautiful, yes, and the themes are strong, but none of them would have worked had they not been great STORIES as well.

It seemed to me that Nathan was not saying, "Hey, y'all, write me some crap," but that he was saying, "Don't sacrifice the story in an attempt to write great art."

As David pointed out, if you write a great story, the theme will take care of itself.

MedleyMisty said...

I currently write a Sims story that I share for free. But hey, if one day I write a straight text story and get paid for it that's cool. I don't think that money is really the issue here.

My story, based in the Sims game though it may be, has themes. It has ideas. It has metaphors and symbolism. True, I had no idea of any of that when I started it and I've found most of it by looking back and thinking about it after the fact, but it's there.

While writing the last update I spent a good few hours looking for one word, one word with the right sound and length and meaning to fit in with the rest of the update.

I am aiming to write quality literature. I see writing as art. I admit, I identify as a writer and as an artist. Honestly yesterday at work I was thinking about writing the end (which is quickly coming upon me) and started shaking.

The majority of the audience for Sims stories are teenagers.

My feedback tends to be along the lines of "I just sat at my computer for three hours and read the whole thing. I couldn't stop." and "How many updates are left? I don't want this to end!" and "This is my favorite Sims story." and "Generally I'm not into metaphor and stuff but I love this."

I was quietly proud the day I looked through the post history of a high school boy who said "Sweet Jesus this is good." and found him whining about having to read Jane Eyre for school in another thread. Jane Eyre is my favorite book. ;)

Why does it have to be either/or?

I don't think that you guys are really arguing against literature and art. I think that you're arguing against pretentious crap. And there is a difference between good writing with ideas behind it and being pretentious and snobby.

And the classist assumptions in the comments are amusing.

My parents were factory workers. I went to a working class rural high school that only had four AP classes. I have a two year degree in information systems. I took creative writing twice in high school but I'm certainly no MFA.

How does that make me stupid and unable to understand or enjoy great literature? I don't recall a gate on the classics aisle that would only let you in if your parents made x amount of money.

I would argue that literature that doesn't have mass appeal cannot be called great. I'm not sure it could even be called literature.

Sorry - I just had to stick up for those of us who see writing as an art. Art is not elitist. Art is not pretentious. Art is universal. That's what makes it art.

Nathan Bransford said...


Happy Birthday, and yes, that is what I was saying. (also agree with Beth that some of the books J cites are at that intersection of quality/accessibility).

Although I have to say, I mostly agree with J. I agree that challenging works of literature should be celebrated rather than denigrated by the masses. I cringe every time someone says an author like Faulkner sucks because the language is difficult to understand. To each their own, but just because it's challenging doesn't mean it's bad.

My tastes have a definite literary lean, so I didn't intend to give ammunition to the "mass appeal is all that matters" crowd. I'll be posting more about this on Thursday.

Mira said...

So, on topic, this is partly the economy. People want more escapism when times are rough.
When things ease up, people will want more thoughtful literature again.

So, Bryan, good morning!

I looked all over for a cake that said "Die, City of Windsor, Die" because I thought that was a lovely birthday sentiment, but oddly enough I couldn't find one.

I'm sure that's what he's saying though:

Happy Birthday, Bryan!

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

Gordon has a point.

If you accept Nathan's own argument then he's pounding the nails into the coffin of his own profession. If we no longer need agents to screen for quality and simply judge works based on "sell-ability" then we only need publish those works that pass a "democratization" standard.

And we don't need agents to do that. With instant feedback via the web, one can find works of popularity instantly. Take Urbis as one of many examples where works can be posted and read for free and "rated."

Agents have relinquished their own value in that they have become nothing more than gatekeepers of their own tastes, which has increasingly become monolithic in its triteness.

Linnea said...

Glad you said that. I hadn't given theme a second thought - until my novel was published. The book is read primarily by students who have to write book reports. They asked me what my theme was. After lengthy consideration I discovered a theme and a motif - whew!
I suspect theme often emerges as the story unfolds but I have no intention of making theme a starting point. Thank you very much for your thoughts on this.

Nathan Bransford said...


You're taking what I said way too far. It's not that everything has become debased and that publishers no longer care about quality. They do - they care immensely, and I think the intense competition to get onto the bookshelf is resulting in superior books overall. Ever read the pulps of another era? They're almost laughable by today's standards.

People always think that everything is getting worse - I don't think they are getting worse. They're just changing.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Everything Just Makes Me Laugh

I remember when I was getting my MFA (in poetry) - I had a job in the art department. One of the people running the art department commented, re: painting, "everything that can be done to a canvas has already been done." And I had a friend who was an MFA student in painting - sitting right there, and I saw the look on his face - hurt? shock? disappointment? - what was that expression on his face when he heard those words?


Has everything that can be done to a printed page (or a Kindle screen) already been done?

*** (guess I'm in an asterisk-y mode today)

And then, I think when people criticize "literary" fiction, really, they are talking about "academic" fiction - I mean, just think of the thousands of people employed (that is, getting paid) right now! at this moment! to deconstruct, recontextualize, interpret, obfuscate, and in general analyze "literary" texts - at universities across the country - and in this particular line of employment, obviously, you're going to gravitate towards really complex texts, sans plot almost, because that's how you can best demonstrate your analytical chops, and get more money in your paycheck!! Woo-hoo!!

Well, I don't want to sound completely cynical (sure, why not!) - but definitely in poetry (which NB does not represent, and I assume the major reason is, there's no PAYING audience for it, in sufficient numbers), because it is so embedded in the analycentric (that's analysis + centric, although the word does seem to inadvertently reference an anatomical nether region) - in the analycentric "academy," narrative and plot are way down the list of admirable qualities in a poem, and complexity, even incomprehensibility, are way up! Because that gives you something to write about in your papers for literary journals, AND something to "teach" your students in the classroom.

Nature abhors a vacum!


Yes, this is the kind of comment that pours forth, when you have orange-flavored dark chocolate for breakfast.

Well, to boil it all down - there's a small market for obscure literary fiction (and poetry) within the "academy." That's where the (small amount of) money is for that kind of fiction/poetry. Luckily for fiction, there's all other kinds of stuff that people will pay money for. Poetry, not so much (although I loved the Pushkin-flavored Golden Gate poenovel...poemovel? Rhymes too much with hovel...)

Anyway, that is my chocolate-flavored opinion this morning (er, noon).

Wanda B.

Anonymous said...

Superior? In what regard?

Perhaps according to YOUR tastes and those of your profession.

Unlike most of your minions here on this board, some people still like a little depth and meaning and !GASP! buy those books.

Why? Because life is more than just about titillation, clever short-lived gratification, though there's nothing wrong with those ends in moderation.

Some of us actually think that in order for life to be full and whole that we need some things that are provocative, inspiring, and involve a little elucidation of life's quandaries and, yes, "themes".

We are 5-10 years away from the death of the publishing industry as we know it. No, not just a changed industry, but actual dodo bird, pony express extinction.

There will come a time very soon where we can all explore our own tastes (rather than peruse bookshelves filled with the tastes of agents) and pick and choose what we want and obtain it instantly.

Robena Grant said...

I don't think it matters if you're writing literary or commercial fiction, theme has to come out of character. And should always be subtle.
As a writer, you don't consciously choose a theme. You put well drawn characters into a story idea. The main character has deep issues and beliefs to explore through the story narrative and those explorations will (if written well) be left in the mind of the reader at the end of the story.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon (or should I say Gordon)-

If your criteria for the excellence is that more books are published than ever before and readers get to decide what they want to read... guess what. More books are published than ever before every single year.

But hey - I agree, the industry's in for a major reckoning. Information can be delivered a lot easier when it's not bound in paper. The newspapers are figuring this out now, people will soon migrate over for most books too. It's going to be wildly different.

And I wouldn't fixate on agents - it's not our tastes that are on the shelves, it's publishers' tastes. I've said it once, I'll say it again: I can't force a publisher to buy anything.

Anonymous said...

Title of an MFA CRW thesis: It's a wooden leg, Ishmael, get the literal meaning down and the figurative will follow. Ahab's peg leg is a whale bone.
Not all that long ago the Big Six publishers still accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Agents weren't gatekeepers. (The Six Sisters, transnational publishing corporations, Bertelsmann, CBS Corporation, Hachette, News Corporation, Pearson and Verlagsgruppe. The Big Six U.S. conglomerates, Random House, Inc., Penguin Putnam, Inc.,
HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, Time Warner,
Simon & Schuster, Inc., circa 2008) Not all that long before the big houses stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts, literary agents were few and far between. Thousands now. It wasn't all that far in the distant past that writing workshops didn't exist. And not too terribly long ago, there weren't any book publishers as we know them today, just job shop book printers and binders. The advent of mass market and trade paperbacks in the early 20th Century changed the literature landscape. Technology changed the process markedly in the 20th Century. The one certainty of the future is change.

1947 357 publishers
2009 90,000 publishers with active ISBNs.

Chuck H. said...

All very interesting. As often happens with me, I find myself on the fence. I would like to sell a million copies but I would also like to be remembered a hundred or two years from now. Which want is wrong? Either? Neither? This could give a guy a headache.

I have signed up for NaNoWriMo (first time, wheeee!) and the novel I have in mind could easily lend itself to dense and inaccessable(?) but I hope the speed at which I will have to write it will force me to take a lighter and, hopefully, more readable path.

Anyway, good thread. I'm off to lay in provisions for next month. Must have coffee and munchies.

Word Ver: wignoc - Is that anything like a Gibbs slap to the back of the head?

Anonymous said...

The publication marketplace is diffusing toward digital delivery of literature, but I think that's just a passing fascination trend with prestige and convenience appeal. The real strength of paper publication is it delivers the most personal, intimate, individual reading experience available, what makes reading meaningful to begin with. Digital publication technology creates an added degree or two of reader alienation from a text.

Anonymous said...

Correct. I should use the term "agents" and "publisher" interchangeably, given that they are really cut from the same cloth. I actually wonder how many agents came out of a background in the pub houses originally. 50+% at least I bet, so what's the difference, really? I mean you're basically selling a colleague who is like minded.

And no, I am not Gordon. Obviously he has no problem posting his very candid opinions under his own name, so it makes no sense to assume that anything I have said is anymore candid requiring anonymity were I him. Grief! Seems you would do well to read something a bit more demanding intellectually yourself.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 9:24:

You are assuming that I refer only to digitally available media.

Quite to the contrary, there will come a day when one can peruse, sample, and choose online one's own tastes directly from authors and consortiums of authors, then if one chooses, order and instantly on demand printed hardcopy book be sent directly to you, all sans agents and trad. pub houses.

That will be a blissful day!

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not sure why you keep denigrating my tastes since they run toward the literary, and all of my upcoming titles skew literary, even the ones that are genre fiction.

As I said further up in the thread, my intent wasn't to celebrate mass appeal over everything else. All I'm saying is that the current trend in culture and in the industry is moving toward accessibility over the esoteric. Don't conflate that with my own likes and dislikes.

Anonymous said...

Authors, lets all imagine what exactly I have envisioned as actually occurring:

What it would mean is that you would "query" and "pitch" your work directly to the consumer. You'd provide a query and sample and still be blurbed by others, basically all self marketed totally. Authors would be categorized and combined by genre etc etc etc. Just imagine it.

The success of your work would be purely a function of the quality and appeal of your own writing and your own efforts to market it.

Talk about "democratization"!

Oh, BTW - I am a current "traditionally" pubbed author sick of pub house BS.

Anonymous said...

By 'BS' I mean that the industry's narrow mindedness has become so pervasive at all levels that it now has a bizarre personality cult feel to it.

Its revolting and totally counter to an environment where artists and art can thrive.

So my final advice to aspiring artists is ignore the admonitions of agents. Read prolifically first and decide what you like and want to write, then write what YOU want and write everyday.

If you desire to write commercial, fine, then do that, but don't let anyone tell you that's your only option if you desire otherwise.

good luck

Ink said...

Anon 9:51,

I feel your pain, but... what you're talking about is a massive, unregulated slushpile full of millions of titles, much of which will be terrible. And the general customer (who is not a hardcore bookperson) does not want to wade through millions of titles trying to find one good book to take on vacation... they want to snag a book off a bestseller's table on the way to the local GAP store.

I mean, who's scanning through all the Lulu titles looking for their next read?

Just my take.

Mira said...

Hey, so I was sort of skimming the Anons above. It all started running together in terms of: angry person who thinks publishing sucks and isn't really interested in what anyone else is saying. But then I noticed something important:

I'm a minion.

Awesome. That is so cool.

I've always wanted to be a minion. I don't know exactly what a minion does, but whatever it is, I want to do it.

So, what are my job duties? What's my first minion-like assignment. I'm ready to be brain-washed, bring it on.

Also, sorry to bring this up so early in my new minion job, but do minions have health insurance? Because I have this weird feeling in my toe. I think I need to have it looked at.

(Note: If this post is deleted, I shall accept it like a good little minion, who is feeling playful.)

Anonymous said...

If you didn't give a ____ what people thought, you wouldn't respond to them or post at all.

Anonymous said...

I have observed some interesting responses in my crit group.
The group is eclectic and all are smart, educated, well read, informed, and open minded.

The esoteric writing is admired in pieces and rarely understood as a whole. The typical response is that it makes the reader work too hard.

The enthusiasm in the group for someone's writing seems to escalate when there is a fast moving, followable plot AND the writing is delicious, conveys the writer's voice well, AND–like the plot should be–is also followable.

i.e., If it reads like a beautifully filmed well-timed, strongly plotted movie.

Do you lose yourself in it and come away breathless?

The theme is the juicy stuff you take to the coffee house afterwards. I love the underlying levels, but the plot is what carries everything. (I have been learning how not to hide the plot!!)

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

Wow, I was debating just this thing in my head. Thanks!

Laura Martone said...

Holy Bejesus! Did I ever miss a fun debate yesterday?!

That'll teach me to have work to do.

Cushnoc said...

The first thing I write every morning, before working on my novel or a short story or whatever, is a message on my whiteboard: "Artisan at work." May seem corny, but it helps put me in mind to create something that others can also appreciate.

I guess I don't see it at odds with "literary fiction"--but neither is it "artsy."

Chris Redding said...

I'd love to print your blog out and give it to all the English teachers my kids have now and have ever had. They can easily kill the love of reading for kids.
Was talking to my son's tutor this summer. My son will read To Kill a Mockingbird this year. The tutor went on and on and about the symbolism of it. I loved that book, but only because it was a good story. And I identified with Scout.
And yes, I'd rather write something people want to read.

Richard Sutton said...

Hmmm. Great question: Artist or craftsman?

Artists create. Writers create.

Artists' creations are self-expression. So are writers' creations.

Artists' work may only take a moment to experience, but writers require a commitment of time from those who would experience the work. Writers have to hone and plane down their work to the point where it will hold the reader and involve them on a much deeper level than the work of visual artists.

On the other hand, owning a fine set of tools and skilled hands may not guarantee good results when the medium is words. The finish may be smooth and clean, the design may be attractive, but if it doesn't do anything, it might as well be ... craft.

There is a range of skill and application in writing as there is in any of the human arts, with hacks on one end, and artists on the other. It takes skillful manipulation and handling to turn a story into art, but it also takes spirit, which is the spark that may or may not be learned. In the exact same way that not every stroke of color from a brush is art, or even creative work. Some is just paint.

ros said...

Is this where I admit that what I secretly want is to write an extraordinary novel which will only be discovered and appreciated as it deserves to be after my death? I just think that is the epitome of the Great Artist's Journey - to be misunderstood, overlooked and rejected, only for people to recognise your genius when it is too late. Plus at least that way you never have to go on any daytime TV talk shows.

Tammy said...

I aspire to write literary fiction. I love reading works that leave me thinking about them for years to come, works that teach me something or show me a world unknown until that moment. Sometimes, I do like to veg out in front of something mindlessly entertaining, but my mind needs to be engaged to remain sharp. I am so grateful to authors who write literary fiction. Thank you.

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