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.