On the length of fiction

As writers, we often forget (until rent day or tax time) that we’re part of an industry that has supply and demand forces, same as others. We need to forget that to make art. But what happens when the art doesn’t fit the model?

This article looks at the novel and the novella and asks which forces decide which length it’s going to be: from perceived value to expense to pricing to format changes. A neat piece.

I have now written most of two novels as well as a whole bunch of short stories. Some of my short stories are very short, and some run to 40+ pages. But don’t worry, they’re not very good and I won’t publish them.

That said, the mainstream novel I started many years ago petered out around 275 pages, with an estimated 50 pages left to write. My fantasy novel that I was bombing along on until Covid hit is sitting in stasis at 400 pages, with probably 200 more to go. And that’s part of a trilogy. Why is one so much longer than the other?

Is it because I grew up reading fantasy trilogies and have subconsciously mimicked that in my fantasy book (along with 250-300 page “literary” books in my 20s being responsible for the other?) Or does the market just want those sorts of lengths? (Whenever Ms. Ninja edits my fantasy novel, she tries to cut, to speed things up, to make the book leaner and meaner, and while I get that impulse, I have to explain to her that fantasy readers WANT lore and backstory and digression to look at something cool “over there”. You seldom see a slender adult fantasy novel for a reason.)

And this leads to the question: is there still a place for more succinct pieces? No one really buys them, I suppose, so there’s no real rush to publish them.

The novel is an extremely flexible form. It can come out in countless shapes, include infinite content, and end up almost any length. Let’s call the lower limit of a novel 40,000 words. Long novels like Infinite Jest and The Stand are more than 10 times that length, and that’s not even getting into series or In Search of Lost Times type works that are published in dozens or more volumes. So why are most novels published in a relatively narrow range of 60k to 120k words?

Or to put it another way: why doesn’t anyone publish novellas in America? Novellas as a form thrive in many parts of the world. They’re very popular in Latin America and Korea, and hardly uncommon in Europe. Yet it’s almost impossible to find one in America outside of the translated small press shelf.

Tuesday newsday

The neuroscientific case for fiction

Salon lets a neuroscientist cum novelist riff for a bit on how the mind is affected by fiction and I find this stuff fascinating. Overfitted brains, dreams vs stories, swapping out inputs, etc. It’s the sort of thing I like to read then immediately ignore.

In the real world, the contents of another’s consciousness are inferable only from their actions — encased behind bone, minds are invisible, and humans are forced to live looking at the “extrinsic perspective” of the world. However, characters in a novel can be splayed open, minds made viewable, in a way that is metaphysically impossible for a real person, or even a TV character. By taking the “intrinsic perspective” on the world, novels can refer to conscious experiences as directly as they can refer to physical events. 

On “bookishness” and the book biz

This concept of “bookishness” is sort of weird to me. I suppose I get it. I mean, I have thousands of books on the shelves around me right now, but the idea of having a throw pillow celebrating reading is sort of weird to me. Feels like it’s just over-compensating for something, like the intellectual version of a Dodge Viper bought and displayed to show everyone how you identify (as in a midlife crisis). But apparently it’s a good thing to encourage in regular folk, because regular folk stuff seeps into celebrity culture and that feeds back to regular folk. So it does affect the nature of the bidnez, I guess.

Bookishness describes a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot. “This is what I describe as creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture, in modes that may be sentimental, fetishistic, radical,” Pressman said. It could mean anything from decorative pillows with quotes from Jane Austen or a studded designer jacket with Harry Potter’s face turned punk. Maybe a person decides to color-code their bookshelves, or maybe they embroider lines from poems. It’s all part of the phenomenon of bookishness.

Bookishness is a part of digital culture, but how is bookishness best reflected in readers and the publishing industry? “One of the biggest things for a single book can be a major celebrity posting about it on social media,” said Morgan Hoit, associate marketing manager of Avid Reader Press. From Oprah’s Book Club to Reese’s Book Club to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club Central, a book club with a major public figure’s stamp of approval has major effects both on sales and on the cultural response to a book.

Bookninja Interviews… a literary critic

In the third of the Bookninja Interviews… series, we talk to a notoriously strident literary critic about the art of talking books for the betterment of literature.

Whether Jason Guriel is considered famous or infamous in Canadian–and increasingly global–literary circles is a matter of opinion (and politics, for some). But whether or not you like it, his critical prose is by turns clever, thoughtful, and deeply cutting. (I’ve been on the sharp end of his stick, and I can tell you, it’s pretty fucking sharp.) Regardless of how you might feel about his literary bedside manner, he is an obviously a smart man, with many large opinions that get people talking–a critic in the vein of Carmine Starnino, Harold Bloom, and John Metcalf.

His work appears widely and his latest book is the remarkable Forgotten Work, a speculative fiction novel in verse.

1) You are known generally as both a talented poet and tough critic, but tell us a bit more about yourself and your accomplishments in these fields.

That’s already a nice, generous description. Why don’t we leave it at that?

2) What are the core aspects of a “good” book (*vs “bad”), critically-speaking?

It’s hard to talk about good or bad outside of specifics. Some books are bad because their authors are novices who don’t yet have a handle on their craft. See, for instance, my first book of poems!—though the novice is an all-ages phenomenon; I remember reviewing Jonathan Galassi’s debut novel, and wondering how the head of FSG, who’s supposed to know books, could’ve greenlit so many clichés.

On the flipside, some books are bad because they betray too much craft. The books are too clever or overdetermined. Then there are the authors who have a shtick they should think about shucking.

I’ve been toying with a global theory lately: a good book gives the sense of an author in control of their effects; a bad book suggests an author who’s lost their grip on their materials and is coming across in ways they never intended, as cliché or shticky or whatever. In good books, like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, there’s a confident intelligence behind the arras, making good calls, sentence by sentence, word by word.

3) What is your opinion on the general mediocrity in literature? Whose fault is it: the authors, the editors, the publishers, or the readers?

I’m less struck by a “general mediocrity” and more by a kind of virulent competence. There are so many competent poems and essays, a constant crush of them. I stopped writing essays for a time—there was such a deluge of online writing that I felt I needed to do something else, something harder, more baroque, something that couldn’t be pitched to an editor. I wound up writing a science-fiction novel in rhyming couplets.

But I’m not sure there’s anyone to blame. It’s probably the case that there will always be a general state of mediocrity or competence, whatever you want to call it. Really great books are rare, aren’t they?

4) What are the core aspects of a “good” piece of criticism, critically-speaking?

Criticism should be at least as engaging and entertaining as any kind of writing that aspires to be read. The criticism I like has a clear opinion, lively sentences, a sense of wit, even original metaphors. I don’t see the point of criticism that assumes a studious and somber attitude toward its source text, as if in monkish deference to the real writing. If criticism is going to illuminate anything, it needs a live current of its own.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself especially drawn to critics who have a deft way with irony. There’s a lot of strident culture writing out there, so it’s a relief to read, say, James Wolcott, who keeps the balloon wedged under an arm and lets the air out carefully: a controlled deflation. I suppose there’s a lot of irony on Twitter, but it’s the wilted kind. It’s sarcasm. 

5) Should authors be keeping their critics (future and/or past) in mind when writing?

I can’t imagine it would hurt for an author to picture, say, a very demanding reader. Kay Ryan has a great bit about how when she’s writing she feels that she’s at the “long, long desk of the gods of literature…I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There, I’ve said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write.” I like that a lot. It’s quite a lovely quote in full, actually; I wax on about it in an essay I just did for Lit Hub.

For my part, I’ve always found that I’ve really needed to write for a demanding editor. Christian Wiman at Poetry was always tough. You just knew he had a finely-tuned taste, and so you had to raise your game any time you were writing a review for him. Same goes for my friend Carmine Starnino at The Walrus. I liked writing for Chloe Schama when she was an editor at The New Republic. She had rigorous standards and airtight instincts. Writing for her made my writing better. Writing for any good editor makes an author better—the loftier the editor and their publication, the better. You just bring a different intensity to the keyboard. You have something to prove.

I don’t know how those concocting their own newsletters—who are self-publishing, basically—are ensuring quality control. A little bit of the old gatekeeping keeps you honest. I need someone to throw up a hand sometimes.

6) When pitching, how do you choose which books to review?

I haven’t written a lot of reviews in recent years. When I did write reviews, the books were often assigned. But sometimes I pitched. I’d usually pick a recent book by an author I knew I could get behind—like Daryl Hine, say—or an author I wanted to quarrel with—like Anne Carson.

Since my first book of criticism came out, I’ve pitched a lot of essays, and these are usually pegged to some recent event, like the reissue of Whit Stillman’s films, or a milestone, like the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Editors seem to want essays that are timely, so I’m always trying to find a way to write about the stuff I want to write about, while satisfying the editorial need to be relevant. There’s a particular movie I really love that finally turns fifty this summer, so I wrote a piece about the picture and managed to place it.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of essays with no obvious home or peg. This has been fun—writing something for myself, and then seeing if I can find a home for it.

7) What do you wish authors, who may or may not have been the subject of a negative review, knew about critics and the act of writing criticism?

I don’t know. The question sort of presumes a subset of “pure” authors for whom criticism needs to be justified or even just explained. But I can hardly imagine the mindset of a novelist or poet who doesn’t also write the occasional essay or review—even if I know these novelists and poets exist.

I would hope that writers who don’t write criticism know that criticism is itself a vital art. I would hope they don’t need someone to tell them that criticism isn’t personal.

On rejection

How do you handle rejection? It’s interesting. I started out as brash and lucky: my first submissions of poems to literary magazines were all accepted. I sent the same five poems to five different magazines and none rejected me. One took two, and three others took one each. I remember thinking, “Gee, everyone made me think getting published would be difficult.” It wasn’t. At least that time.

Fast forward a year or two and I tried sending a magazine on the West coast known for mostly publishing West coast writers or big famous writers. Form letter rejection. Then another. And another. And…ooh, WAIT! This one has a personal note scrawled in pen: “Nope.” Sigh. Form letter. Another. Another. A total of 13 rejections in 24 months, with most of those rejected poems going on to be published at other journals. Couldn’t break in. Wasn’t Western and wasn’t famous.

Fast forward another year or two and I am publishing my second collection with what was at the time the nation’s leading poetry house. “Out of nowhere”, I get an email from an editor at said Western magazine: “We’d like to invite you to submit…”

So I sent back all the poems they’d rejected that hadn’t be published elsewhere with the note that I’d already tried, 13 times, and that if they wanted to relook, then they were welcome to have any one of these poems they’d already rejected.

You will not be surprised, dear reader, to find that I never heard from them again. I didn’t like the feeling of rejection, so I stopped submitting to most magazines shortly after that, though I still send out pieces when invited.

Yet years on, hanging at the cusp of my 50s with time eroding my body and white hairs sprinkling my once cayenne beard, I can genuinely say that sending that letter was both the WRONG move and one of the MOST SATISFYING THINGS I HAVE EVER DONE.

Anyway, point being: if you’re going to be a sore loser, try to be better than me and say nothing to anyone but your most trusted vault-keeping friends.

Most rejections come in generic form: “Thank you for your interest, but this piece does not meet our current needs. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere.” More personalized rejections with specific critique are a good thing — but it doesn’t always feel that way, especially in the beginning. Being told that your main character is unlikable can feel like a personal attack, when really it’s an opportunity to make the story better.

Every writer who’s sent out submissions has a few stories about the “WTF” rejections.  Like the agent who objected to my “main character’s Lesbian issue” (yes, she capitalized it). Or the one, back in the prehistoric era of snail mail, who wrote, “You could try workshopping this poem, but in its present form it is cliched and unoriginal” —  on the outside of the return envelope. (I resisted the temptation to write back when the same poem, unaltered, won $50 elsewhere. Publishing really is very subjective.)

And (despite some of my fantasy suggestions below), it’s unwise to ever respond to a rejection. The editor who loves your next story won’t remember that they passed on your last one. Unless of course you sent them a stinging email calling them “an infected boil on a troll’s butt, who wouldn’t know great literature if all nine muses used it to kill them with paper cuts.”

Deal news: industry insider scoops up huge advance from another industry insider… again?

Has anyone else noticed this lately? The number of insiders getting book deals for creative work? No? I am not present at watercoolers in the publishing world anymore, but I can’t help but notice lots of news where major, non-writer players in the publishing world (editors, publicity people, etc) are suddenly nabbing huge book deals from other major, non-writer players in the publishing world. Seven figures? This should be interesting. I mean, is the book good or will it just have the marketing-will that comes with trying to reclaim a seven-figure advance? Time will tell. (Or will it? Time’s so full of shit.) Anyway, not suggesting something organized is afoot, just that market forces seem to be favouring those who can already manipulate market forces. As usual?

In a deal rumored to be in the seven figure-range, Knopf editor Jenny Jackson sold her debut novel. Pam Dorman, who has an eponymous imprint at Penguin Random House, preempted North American rights to Pineapple Street. The book, which follows three sisters who are members of a wealthy family, is slated for early 2023.

Brettne Bloom at the Book Group brokered the deal for Jackson, a 19-year veteran at Knopf who has edited such authors as Emily St. John Mandel and Erin Morgenstern. Pineapple Street, which was heading for auction before Dorman swooped in, is, the publisher said, “set in late-capitalist New York,” and follows the daughters of the WASP-y Stockton family: Darley, Sasha, and Georgiana. Each sister has a different relationship to the family funds, with the oldest having been born into it, the middle sister having married into it, and the youngest eager to give all her money away.