Sweating the Exception: An Exhaustingly Bad Idea

A worthy hit

Today my friend Michael Larsen, probably the menschiest literary agent on the planet, and I were talking about The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  That book, published by the admirable Little, Brown, was a buzz book last BEA.   A first novel acquired for scads of money & published with great enthusiasm–but both Mike and I were underwhelmed by the read relative to the ransom.  Mike pondered:  What does this mean? Is character now less important?  Are readers’ or editors’ tastes plummeting?  

While I can, and do, worry that the need for speed in journalism and publishing may lower writing standards if we’re not vigilant, that’s not yet a reality.  I think what this means is exactly:  nothing.

Sometimes hyped first novels wow (as in, the breathtaking The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, or The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht).  Sometimes–not so much.  

Headline Headaches

“First novel by unknown writer sells for an advance of $500,000!”

“Self-published wunderkind sells series to publisher for a million bucks!”

“Famous author jumps from Big 6 publisher to self publish!!!”

“Major publisher cancels contract of author over e-publishing!”

Instant information is extraordinarily stress-provoking.  Our technological age not only offers real opportunities for instant wealth and fame–it also spreads the word about such successes (and crashes) from the New York conference room–where such events more easily are placed back into context–to the Kokomo bedroom–where such context is missing–faster than Superman’s jet stream.

Being hit over the head with other people’s successes can make a person feel bad, mad and inadequate.  It’s true for the 99%ers occupying Wall Street; it’s true for the folks trying to navigate social networks without much tech experience, and it’s particularly true for the jillions of writers still writing queries, and whose Kindle books aren’t selling more than a few hundred copies.

Check in with Reality

The thing is–these head-shaking events are exceptions.  

Sometimes the hype and excitement doesn’t match the product.  This does not mean-in itself–that standards are slipping.  It does not mean only books with big advances will get attention.  It is not a pattern until it is a pattern.

Amanda Hocking’s sale does not mean all Kindle authors will achieve major publishing contracts.

Joe Konrath’s stridency notwithstanding, neither his nor John Locke’s successes mean all authors should self-publish.

And the quality, or lack thereof, of any hyped novel provides no lessons for anyone about the next.  Publishers will (and should, I hope) sometimes let their enthusiasms blind them.  Hyped books can pay off beautifully (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese?  Oh. My. Goodness.  What a book.)

Craft is still king.  Hard work will still rewards.  Editors still mostly make good decisions.  

And those of us not generally making the exceptional headlines must continue to talk with one another, ground each other in reality, and soldier on.


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