First off, I had a great time at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this weekend. Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to those who waited in line during the pitch session for their chance at three minutes of fame, glory, glamor!! Actually it was three minutes to pitch to a very tired literary agent, but hey, same thing, right?
Also I’m feeling verrrrrry humble today because I “uhhed” my name in the Agent Q&A panel. As in, “Hi my name is, uh, Nathan Bransford,” as if I had momentarily forgotten my own name. So before I introduced myself for the pitch session, I was coaching myself: “Don’t ‘uh’ your name. Don’t ‘uh’ your name.” So what did I do? I UHHED MY NAME AGAIN.
So to everyone who attended the conference: I swear on my life I know my own name. Usually.
In other news it’s a three day weekend, my girlfriend is out of town, and it’s 70 degrees outside, so I’ve been living it up, getting a little crazy. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been reading for pleasure.
One thing you always hear from disgruntled writers is how bad the state of literature is, how publishers only care about money and how there’s so much crap out there. Just look at the bestseller lists, they’ll tell you, it’s full of crap. The other favorite argument of the downtrodden and cynical is that great literature would never be published today because publishers only care about the bottom line. Well, I’m here to tell you: NOT TRUE.
Last night I read Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, a post-apocalyptic tale about a man and his son trying to survive in the horrific aftermath of a worldwide disaster that blots out the sky and causes mass starvation and kills off basically everything, leaving the few remaining survivors searching for food. You don’t find out exactly what caused the disaster (I’m guessing Britney Spears was somehow involved), but it’s a bleak, bleak world and basic humanity is at stake. It’s seriously an incredible read — I read it in one sitting, and I was blown away by its power and immediacy. It made me think, it made me cringe… it’s a masterpiece — Literature with a capital L.
Oh yeah, and it happens to be a New York Times bestseller, written by someone who began his career writing genre fiction.
So now I’m reading the urban fantasy novel A KISS OF SHADOWS by Laurell K. Hamilton, the first in her Meredith Gentry series, and guess what — another New York Times bestseller with incredible writing!! Not only does Hamilton craft an awesome alternate world, she is a seriously gifted writer. She is one of the best writers I’ve ever seen at describing people, her pacing is amazing, I can’t stop turning the pages. This isn’t a “guilty pleasure” read, this is just good writing.
What’s going on here? Could it be that the people who are selling the most copies of their books are also some of the best writers alive?
Patrick Anderson seems to think so. Anderson is a Washington Post book critic, and he recently wrote a book called THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER, in which he argues that some of the very best writing is hidden in plain sight, in genre fiction and bestsellers. I haven’t yet read the book (sorry Patrick, I’m busy reading about faerie private investigators), but according to this review by Chris Bolton, Anderson singles out George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, who write genre fiction, as some of the best living writers.
But really, hasn’t this always been the case? Many of the great authors over the years have also been bestsellers. MOBY DICK wasn’t a commercial success, but Herman Melville had big hit with travel novel TYPEE. F. Scott Fitzgerald broke out in a big way with lad-lit classic THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Few authors whom we now consider the great writers of an era were entirely overlooked during their own time.
At the same time, there are small, overlooked gems that are published every week. Some of my favorite books were not big sellers, and a great deal of good writing today is published by small presses, some of whom are even nonprofits. The midlist, once the home of talented writers who penned successful but not blockbuster books, is disappearing.
So you tell me — on the whole is publishing overlooking great writing or is great writing hiding in plain sight?