Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 9

Book Reports

If you’re submitting your manuscript for publication and don’t want to answer the question, “What is my book about?” I have good news for you: someone else will.  And even better, that person will most likely be a disgruntled, underpaid editorial assistant, or an intern doing the job out of the goodness of her own heart (and oh yeah, inexperience and career desperation), or – as in the case of a nationally distributed literary journal where I once spent some time – the high school aged child of a well-known writer, who doesn’t care to think up explanations for what he doesn’t like about your work, because “it’s just obvious.”

 Just hope it's not his judgment you're depending on.

My point is, some of the people reading your work will be idiots, idiots with power they do not deserve, respect, or fully understand.  There is nothing you can do about this.  Others will merely be tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  These are the folks in whom to place your hopes.

I hope I’m not an idiot.  But I am tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  And although I try to approach every manuscript (published or un-) I read with an open mind, I can tell you right now, reading bad or even just mediocre fiction makes me angry.  It makes me angry because, as William Shatner once told me via my ear buds, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re gonna die.”  When I read bad fiction, I am aware of the seconds passing, the slow internal decay of my guts, the dulling of my once sharp mind as I read sentences like, “Throwing womanly curves left and right, he realized she was a lady few could resist.”  When I am reading bad fiction for fun, I can assuage my anger at these moments by hurling the book to the floor and going off in search of immediate sources of pleasure, like a walk around the block or an entire keg of Troegenator, thereby restoring my faith that the world does yet have things of value to offer.  But if I have to read bad fiction for work, my only means of restoring equilibrium is to write a reader’s report.

A reader’s report is exactly what it sounds like: a report, usually written but sometimes oral, summarizing and evaluating a manuscript that’s under submission at a literary agency or publishing house.  Some editors and agents take a look at everything under consideration themselves – and kudos to them – but the vast majority rely on these reports to determine if it’s even worth cracking open the document the author sent.  The reader’s report represents an argument, pro or con, for doing so.  And the tenor of that argument will be informed by how angry the reader in question has become, how much of his life he feels you’ve wasted.

When I’m in this position, reading beautiful prose without finding formal coherence beneath it is the equivalent of listening to really rockin’ hold music: sure, that sounds great, but you’re still wasting my time.  Although I’ll be significantly less angry if a book at least tries to do things at the sentence level to keep me interested, my reader’s report will still primarily address not the novel’s texture and intricacies but its bones.  Is there a story here?  Do things that happen have consequences?  Do parts of it drag, and if so, could these draggy parts be excised?  What, at bottom, is the novel about?  Because the fact is, no matter how much I like a novel’s premise or style, and no matter how much time I’m willing to devote to helping the author edit, I cannot install an underlying structure that isn’t there.

The finality of this judgment – the idea that, at the end of all the years of hard work, writing, researching, rewriting, and doubting, a total stranger can read your novel and say, “Sorry” – is terrifying.  It’s so scary, in fact, that writers go to incredible lengths to avoid thinking about it.  And one of the ways they avoid thinking about it is by refusing to ask themselves the questions that, on some level, they must realize these strangers will ask right off the bat – questions like, “What’s the big idea?” 

 next up... write what you will
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice" AND reading down in the trenches of the workshop

No comments: