Source: More on ‘quiet novels’
Last July, I posted a blog bemoaning the fact that agents (and presumably publishers) are so reluctant to ‘take a risk’ on what they call ‘quiet psychological novels’. And lo, three months later I discover author Stephanie Butland blogging “In praise of the Quiet Book” as a guest on Isabel Costello’s pages (see guest author ).
She defines the Quiet Book as follows:
- A quiet book is one not overburdened with sword fights, car chases, twists or uncanny parallels to whatever is currently preoccupying the news media.
- If you write a quiet book, publishers are less likely to buy it.
- If they do buy it, bookshops are less likely to stock it.
- Which means that readers are less likely to find it.
You’ll notice she said readers are less likely to ‘find’, not ‘buy’. Because it is clear there are many thousands of us out there who love quiet books, and Stephanie’s blog had a huge and enthusiastic response. We want novels that do not try to manipulate our emotions, but are recognisably about real people living realistic lives.
Furthermore, the conversations between readers and blogger emphasised the importance of character – just as I did in my recent blog ‘Truth and Literary Fiction’, supported by those who commented on it. So it would appear that the ‘quiet’ book has become equated with the ‘literary’. And I suspect that herein lies another of the hidden barriers to publication.
‘Literary’ to make money for a publisher means prizes. Short-list minimum. And how many of us writers ever dream (for more than a fraction of a second) of winning the Man Booker, or the Costa, or whatever? That’s not what it’s about. And yet, if a publisher (or agent) simply can’t see big returns on their investment in you, your novel will be rejected because ‘too quiet’ – however beautifully written it is.
Readers who love Quiet Books really do need to make their preferences known. Yes, we don’t like to make a fuss, do we? But my experience yesterday is an encouraging pointer. I took my latest paperback into our local bookshop Mostly Books in Abingdon, and had a warmly supportive chat with the owner, who loves and sells lots of Quiet Books; and then I went into the Library, where I chatted with Lynne Moores, the Manager, who recommended other writers of ‘quiet books’ that I shall try.
So we are not alone. Perhaps together we might make a difference..
Today, as I waded through a flood of emails from Books and Writers Groups, I stumbled upon a contribution I’d like to share with you. On a Linked-In discussion group, Jamaluddin Jamali, wrote:
“A ‘Literary Romance’ Shows the Mind of the Lovers, not Limbs… and Literary Crime fiction brings to us the victims’ unheard screams,,, and all else in the two genres is low pulp… This is how I think about fiction. What is your view about it? Wise people say, write pulp – only it sells. Does it?”
He is author of The Invisible Killers, which he describes as ‘a literary thriller’.
Not surprisingly, this provoked a discussion among writers, both those who have literary aspirations and those whose primary goal is to sell. And while few people actually embraced the term ‘low pulp’, the focus remained on the question of which sells better. Some reminded us that some literary fiction hits the Best Seller lists, and many that the smart writer writes what readers want. And what readers want does not always include literary quality.
Few seemed to consider the, to me, most important element in Jamaludden Jamali’s post: his analysis of what makes the difference between a literary romance or thriller and a romance or thriller that could not legitimately be labelled ‘literary’ (whether or not you choose to label them ‘pulp’).
As the writer of (to be published) love stories, I would agree that showing ‘the minds of lovers not limbs’ could, in principle, be taken as a defining characteristic of the literary. This is not because explicit sex is in itself non-literary, but rather that erotic writing tends to be exploitative, aimed at titillating and arousing the reader (see for example The Story of O), with participants’ personalities (if any) subordinated to some predetermined goal.
At the same time, literary writers do need to find a way to convey the glorious sensations of entwining limbs in a loving sexual relationship if we are not to find a major area of human experience barred to us – which would be absurd. Some writers have achieved this most difficult feat: Ursula le Guin (The Dispossessed) and Helen Dunmore* come immediately to my mind, but no doubt there are many more.
So what does differentiate the literary love story from the run-of-the-mill romance? What is it about pulp fiction that makes the literary writer turn away in horror? Barbara Cartland, pink and fluffy Romance Writer who made millions, eschewed all talk of limbs, but no one would ever label her works as literary. It does have to be something to do with minds.
The psychological truth is surely what makes the difference: and the difficulty is to define what psychological truth is. We tend to know when a writer conveys the truth (*see e.g. Helen Dunmore’s marvellous The Siege and The Betrayal), and it is quite different from the facile plotting and resolutions in the majority of fiction.
Psychological truth is difficult to achieve – and sometime difficult to read also. Truth, like old age, is not for the faint-hearted.
Psychologists (and I am one) love to think they ‘understand people’, but most of us know that we do not. We have a great deal of knowledge not readily available to everyone, but that only serves to emphasise how difficult it is to know what is going on in the mind of an other person.
Minds are rather like the weather, but infinitely more complicated. Understanding and forecasting the weather has become enormously sophisticated, but we know that we can have no control, and surprises frequently happen. Perhaps it feels as though people should be easier, but long experience as a psychotherapist, consultant to the Family Courts and as a human being surrounded by people I care about, I don’t think so.
It is writers of fiction who give us insight into how human beings tick. And it is writers of literary fiction, whatever the genre, who are most likely to get it right.
More than a month now since I took time off for reflection, and long enough to realize I shall be impossible to live with if I don’t write those other **!?** novels cavorting in my head.
It’s an odd situation, really. feeling pressured to publish books that few people are going to read. Why not leave them in their draft form, gathering dust on my shelves? They are written. And I enjoyed writing them in the first place. Why bother to dig them out, go over old ground, work on improving something I produced years ago?
Truth is, years ago, I was a Kept Woman and for three glorious years, wrote every day and produced four novels, several plays and a special book for my daughter. During that time, I found an agent, who tried to sell my first novel When the Bough Breaks, but alas, without success. Apparently, all the publishers said, “Difficult times. Do let us see her next.”
So I kept going. Unfortunately, she didn’t like the next, The Man with the Key, so I found a second agent, who did. But responses here were lukewarm too: “Too difficult to sell these quiet psychological novels. If she would write a best-seller, we could sell this then.”
A best seller? How do you write one to order? Some people apparently know, but I was completely baffled.
My time as a Kept Woman came to an end, and the realities of making a living seemed to dry up the creative juices. I changed tack. If I was writing “quiet psychological novels” without realizing, perhaps it was time to study psychology properly? When my children all left home for university, I decided to follow – and became a Mature Student at Oxford University, studying Experimental Psychology.
Not exactly what I had expected. In the early Eighties, scientific psychology was so restrained by the need to prove it really was an objective science, one might have thought the mind, the psyche, did not exist. But disillusion did not last. Extraordinarily ingenious experiments were devised to demonstrate the operations of the mind, and I discovered that this science was the most exciting and illuminating anyone could study. Which perhaps explains how it came about I was invited to stay on and do a doctorate in what was known as social psychology. Relations between people. Just the thing for a secret would-be novelist.
Actually, not. My novelistic ambitions faded into the background, and I became a psychotherapist instead – dealing with real people with real problems. It was only when I retired, after nearly 40 years as a scientist turned therapist, that I again felt that powerful urge to write my own versions of reality.
I still have no idea how I am going to deal with the need to publicise these books if I do publish them. I shall fall off that bridge when I come to it. First, I must finish The Porcupine’s Dilemma, my next “quiet psychological novel”.
Time now for a break from my current obsession with The Amazon’s Girdle. Almost all the reviews I’ve seen are five star, which is wonderful, and I am so grateful to everyone who posted on amazon’s website, or on Goodreads. Thank you, thank you.
But I feel worn out!
This publishing game is better played by the young, I think (though this thought may be only temporary). There is little point in publishing a book if no one knows it exists, so publicity appears to be as important as the writing was in the first place. I can’t say I am happy about that, but so it is. Apparently these days, even if you are published by one of the few Big Publishers, you are expected to initiate your own publicity – unless you are one of their chosen top five. Random House didn’t tell me that when they published Stop Dreaming, Start Living (a self-help book that really works), which explains why it never became a best-seller. It gets starry reviews, remains in print, and I even receive fan letters now, eleven years since it first appeared in 2004. But I did little to promote it then, and things have got steadily more difficult. These days you need to be a whizz on social media.
I realize I am not good at social media, because I don’t really understand how they work. No doubt, this is because they came IN around the time I applied for my pension and bowed OUT of the workaday world. I understood publicity, because I had done lots of it as a working woman (for other people, of course), but this was the old-fashioned kind – press releases, newspapers, magazines, occasionally radio. What else was there? But now…
Now it seems I have to start learning the trade all over again, and I’m not so sure I want to. I am painfully aware of the indisputable fact that the time available to me now is growing shorter. So I want to write all those novels clamouring to get out of my head while I still can, not spend precious hours of an ever shortening time trying to tell people how wonderful I am. Who cares? Only my family and friends, and they don’t need me to tell them stuff on a website. We talk!
You are writing this, you may object. And it is true that I enjoy blogging from time to time, finding something to say that seems important to me and may interest or entertain others. I like writing about books I have been reading. And I rather enjoy have a moan about the travails of an Old Dog in a Brave New World. So this is a piece of self-indulgence – as well as a whimper of despair.
I am taking time off to reflect.