While I have previously tackled the perennial conversation topic/game/complaint Today’s Publishing Industry Would Have Never Publishing Such and Such Genius Old Book Because Everyone in Publishing Today is a Freaking Idiot, there is a component to these complaints that I would like to delve into just a tad deeper.
I find it curious that whenever this comes up, 99% of the time the “example” book that supposedly wouldn’t be published today happens to be a rule-breaking and/or idiosyncratic and/or conventional-wisdom-defying classic. Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury or Infinite Jest or Moby-Dick etc. etc. etc. And more curiously still, the thing that most of these books have in common is that they were written by an author who had already established huge followings and credibility the old fashioned way.
The Hits Before the Hits
J.K. Rowling did not start off writing 200,000+ word books for middle graders where important beloved characters, ya know, die. By the time she wrote Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, the longest in the series, she had the audience’s trust to delve extremely deeply into the world of her novels and to explore a deep emotional palette, deeper than may have have been possible with a debut.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a more conventionally told tale, before dropping the epic The Lord of the Rings.
James Joyce wrote Dubliners before Ulysses. David Foster Wallace wrote the relatively trim (467 pages) The Broom of the System and had a zillion short stories published everywhere that matters before he wrote Infinite Jest. Herman Melville wrote conventional travel memoirs before publishing Moby-Dick (which famously was a bust at first).
In other words, these writers built their audience before they tried to break all the rules.
The Keith Hernandez Rule
There is a classic Seinfeld episode where former Mets baseball star Keith Hernandez is on a date with Elaine, and he’s worrying about whether he should kiss her. Then he thinks to himself, “Wait a second, I’m Keith Hernandez!”
The Sports Guy calls this a Keith Hernandez Moment — when a sports star realizes, wait a second, I’m LeBron James, I’m going to score the next 25 points.
Writers who have achieved “I’m Keith Hernandez!” status haven’t just achieved the trust of the publishing industry, they’ve achieved the trust of readers, who will stick with them longer than they would have otherwise if it were a debut. They’ve earned the ability to delve in deeper into a world or into an idiosyncratic style than would normally be possible because they have gained the authority to do it.
This is why it’s dangerous to try and get too far out there before you’ve achieved Keith Hernandez status. Yes, there are occasional 200,000+ word debuts and yes, there are books that sometimes break the rules in advance.
But for the most part, if you’re going to take a journey with someone deep into the wilderness, the first step is convincing the other person that you’re a good guide.
Ishta Mercurio says
Meant to say, MOBY DICK broke the rules, AND it was a bust at first. See what staying up until crazy hours doing online conferences does to you?
Point, John Jack. I saw an animal documentary about males birds that stuff their nests with blue, flowers, human throw-away, you name it, anything they could find, because the females are attracted to blue. Awesome film, captivating. I think that is along the same lines as your point – an instinctual urge?
My original thought about your thought was half a joke about the fact my girlfriend won't let me watch The Wizard of OZ tonight even though Google claims today is the 71st anniversary. Has she lost her innocence? Does she know the man behind the curtain? Is celebrity contrived as Nathan suggests? Is it a corrupt activity? I don't think so. At any cost, hear hear! to good stories.
Bane of Anubis says
If Mr. Jack doesn't get comment of the week consideration, I might throw in the towel.
Brilliantly put. As my wife's med-school teacher used to say: positively elegant.
John Jack says
Okay, Jeff, I'll go with instinctual behavior, sanctuary and substistence and social instincts taken to illogical extremes of ostentatious display.
Behind the man behind the curtain is a farther horizon of magical and renewed innocent awe. Dorothy wanted to go back to Kansas. She made it so. She did return to Oz. L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen Oz novels. Dorothy is in a couple later ones. I'm partial to Tik-Tok of Oz. No Dorothy though.
You have me with the rest of the story. I only saw the movie. Your first statement in your last statement seems to be about survival, which is fear based. The birds and their obsession with blue ultimately create more life (wink,wink,nod,nod,say no more.) The man behind the man behind the curtain, also, with his mind, call it magic if you want, tried to create more life. I think it is a life we can only express in these strange stories. I don't have a problem with it. I think it is human nature to dream and dream big. So, if, physically, it looks like celebrity blocks out the light of the many, maybe there is some sort of purpose to that. You have to admit, it exists. Not everything that seems unfair is necessarily wrong. Now, I really need to cut out of this argument. You, John jack, have arced the light in my mind and now I need to stay up all night trying to figure out if there is an original story in this old brain of mine. Be good!
I think many unpublished authors are a fairly bitter lot, looking for any excuse to prove that only the finicky ways of the publishing industry stand between them and infinite success…
Your post makes complete sense. It's that way in every other field as well, so it's too bad that writers must be reminded.
Normally, I think you're spot on. But….
It seems to me that you insist on defending the publishing industry from what, to me at least, seems to be fair criticism.
You use the Harry Potter example, and yet 8, yes 8, publishers passed her over. Precisely because "conventional wisdom" said that kids won't read a gazillion-page book where characters actually die.
Who even knows if an American publisher would've seen past obstacle.
Look, I realize that as a professional author and agent who's an integral part of the system, I realize you won't bad-mouth it.
But really, I'm sorry, publishers get it wrong. Many, many times. And there's nothing wrong with admitting it.
Dan Holloway says
Very very true. As you know I'ma self-publisher and love being one, but it drives me NUTS when other self-publishers point to books like Eragon, or go on about Mark Twain, as though they were somehow good examples to follow. Exceptions are not good role-models. The best role-models are the middle grade jobbers most people have proably never heard of who have a steady income stream ticking over.
Patrick Neylan says
I was just thinking this when I reviewed Kate Atkinson's latest for Amazon (UK) the other day:
"Early on, the novel does demand slightly too much faith from the reader that all the disparate characters will come together to make a coherent story… But Atkinson's readers have learnt to trust her, and that trust is rewarded."
Sheila Cull says
Wait! I'm nobody yet. But I can't stop myself from trying.
Kate Lacy says
Excellent salt and pepper advice! Sometimes we beginners don't see where to go and we think readers will find us as quickly as the book is put on a library shelf. But everyone's reputation is worth the events that build it. So you are dead-on this morning! Thanks.
wry wryter says
john jack and jeff
You guys think to much.
Nathan, what contest?
I'm afraid I'm more familiar with the Bill Buckner rule.
Nathan Bransford says
I've tackled that one too.
Nathan Bransford says
Oh – also the first HARRY POTTER was a pretty conventional length for a middle grade novel, and as far as I can recall the only person who died was an evil teacher.
Terin Tashi Miller says
Nathan: I agree with you that most folks won't, and shouldn't, go into the wilderness without a proven guide.
Ulysses would never have seen the light of day were it not for Sylvia Beach, who published it because others wouldn't.
And there are other examples you managed to avoid: Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Hemingway had 2 short stories out and a few poems waiting at German newspapers before Robert McAlmon, his friend at the time, decided to become a publisher and published first "Three Stories and Ten Poems" in a very brief run. He had not, at that time, published any Hemingway stories before.
Then, another Hemingway collection, of previously unpublished short stories, "in our time," made it to Boni & Liverite in New York after McAlmon published it in another short run.
B&L decided to publish it for a wider audience essentially as an experiment, and paid Hemingway a $200 advance.
Fitzgerald, whose debut at 20 "This Side of Paradise," a novel that started as "The Romantic Egotist" when he was 18 and first rejected by publishers, including Scribner's, thanks to being accepted by Maxwell Perkins, put his own name on the map.
And he established his short story audience AFTER the novel's publication. And went to Paris. And met Hemingway. And got Hemingway's "in our time" in front of Perkins.
Perkins then accepted Hemingway (don't know the advance) only AFTER Hemingway broke his contract with Boni & Liverite, which he managed to do (I believe it was for first right of refusal) by presenting his first New York publishers with "The Torrents of Spring," a terribly "snarky" satire of his friend and mentor Sherwood Anderson's own somewhat experimental prose. B&L were Anderson's publishers.
To publish "The Sun Also Rises," often incorrectly considered Hemingway's debut, Perkins and Scribners had to agree to publish the terrible "Torrents" first.
I urge anyone concerned with "bad" debuts by young, not-yet-established writers to read "Torrents." You'll see why "The Sun Also Rises" is considered Hemingway's literary debut.
Last word on this for me, I promise:
Hemingway did not even have a short story following in the U.S. when he published "In Our Time" with B&L. Yet, he is considered a master of the short story. Now.
Sometimes, you gotta trust the guide who shows up to help you in the wilderness, whether you know anything about him or her, or not.
It does help, though, if the guide appears to know what they're doing, or something about where you are. But it's not like you could google "good wilderness guides" and KNOW if the one you found will help you. That only comes AFTER you've successfully reached your intended destination, or the comfort of your own bed.
Amazon is willing to take a risk with non-established writers. I suggest, because of its world-wide distribution capabilities, Amazon just became (with Kindle and Encore) the premier publisher of unknown, and possibly ground-breaking, literary lions of the future. Because they are willing to take the slight risk to their bottom line, which might, in fact, earn them a ton of money.
Kathryn Packer Roberts says
We, as beginning (unpublished) authors would like to think that we know enough to do anything, try anything new or innovative. Along side what Nathan said, not only must we establish an agreeably sized audience, but there is a learning process as well. What is it that we still don't know? (for example). It surprises me each time I learn something new, or think of something in a different light. When I know the rules, understand them perfectly, then I will be a place where I can make up NEW rules.
i have fans, 3 or 4, but guess that's far from any kinda 'literary status'? :O lol
so-called 'celebrity writers' have hernandez profiles and think they can do no wrong… takes a tad more to become a writer….
Julia Rachel Barrett says
I guess George R.R. Martin is my Keith Hernandez moment. I'll wait forever…
His older works are great too.
This is my favorite topical metaphor since your Wu-Tang post way back when. Short, sweet, hilarious.
Ben Campbell says
Your right, my mother-in-law cannot dislike anything written by Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson. For reading, she never puts the cart before the horse.
Joshua Peacock says
Awesome post Nathan!
The Hobbit was written in a much more modern voice, with inner tension and character development. The Lord of the Rings is the marriage of the epic poem with the novel format; it contains some inner tension and character growth (an example would be Sam) but it's more subtle than in the Hobbit.
Hope Clark says
What a brilliant post, Nathan. Thanks a bunch.
(Do you really read all these comments??)
I just…never thought of it this way before.
You picked the wrong analogy. Instead of talking about authors who are such giants that they can break the rules with huge books you should have picked an analogy from Rocky III.
In this case the publishing industry is the cocky out-of-shape Rocky who is about to get its ass kicked to hell and back by the lean & hungry Mr. T.
Nathan Bransford says
lol, anon. Rocky beat Mr. T in the rematch at the end of Rocky III. Guess publishing isn't down for the count after all.
Dayana Stockdale says
Very fascinating post. I have always thought about this in terms of length, as in better make that wannabe debut small cuz no one really cares yet, but it is also important in terms of complexity. we ya fantasy writers need to remember to simplify as much as possible!
Marla Warren says
It is interesting to note that Keith Hernandez has published a few books (though he has always been paired with a real writer).
One title, If At First…: The Exclusive Inside Story of the 1986 Championship Season, sticks in my mind because of a wonderful column by the late great Chicago writer Mike Royko.
Royko was a die-hard Cubs fan, and many Cubs fans were hostile towards the Mets because of the 1969 season.
The publisher of If At First… sent a copy to Royko and asked him to review the book, which he did in the column Read On, Gluttons for Punishment:
I will begin my review by saying that this is a very solid book. The moment I opened the package and saw what it was about, I threw it against my office wall as hard as I could. Then I slammed it to the floor and jumped up and down on it. I beat on it with a chair for several minutes until I slumped onto my couch, emotionally and physically spent.
Although slightly scuffed, the book was still intact.
Royko concludes his review:
The fact is, I have found this to be a useful book.
I have been tearing out the pages and crumpling them into little wads.
When I have about 30 or 40 of these wads, I put them in my fireplace under the kindling and light them. They’re excellent for getting a fire started.
Then I pour myself a drink, lower the lights, sit back and stare at the crackling flames.
And I pretend that I’m looking at Shea Stadium.
Regarding Hint Fiction, there's an anthology of those stories being released this November from Norton. It's gotten some good blurbs, too. I saw Jodi Picoult called it "a must-read for anyone who is or wants to be a writer." Should be interesting.
Mr. Bransford, in describing the work of J.K. Rowling, you wrote the words "…to explore a deep emotional palate…"
By "palate", do you mean "the upper surface of the mouth that separates the oral and nasal cavities"? Or do you mean "the part of the mouth that identifies flavor"?
Or do you mean "palette", which is "the board upon which an artist mixes colors", or "the range of colors in a given work"?
I have never heard of an emotional palate, whether deep or shallow.
Nathan Bransford says
Homonym mixup, anon, meant "palette." But if you're mining my posts for typos you're going to be here a while.
Moses Siregar III says
I had that baseball card.