Would great writers get published today?
A wonderful writer friend sent me a note that read, in part, “Those of us in the industry tend to laud writers like Graham Green and Flannery O’Connor, but would anyone publish them now? No Whiskey Priest or Hazel Motes. It seems that, in both CBA as well as the general market, there’s no place for these characters; they have no appeal.”
I respectfully disagree, of course. Contemporary publishers would take both authors because they offered great craft. What would be interesting would be to see how religious audiences would respond to these clearly faith-infused stories.
But don’t misunderstand — commerciality still trumps craft. Good grief — nobody thinks of Left Behind as being great art, but the series sold 70 million copies. No critic seriously believes the Harry Potter series is great literature, but it’s now the best selling fiction series in history. That’s okay. People like commercial stories. And I shamelessly represent commercial stories. I’m happy to work with books that sell — and I also want to be doing books that make a difference in the lives of others. I don’t see life as an either/or decision. We want to create great art, AND we want to see our books sell. That’s the constant tension in working with writers.
So let me ask readers a question… Who is YOUR favorite writer, and why? Let’s have a conversation in the “comments” section on who you think we should all be reading.
My favorite writer? Among many, I guess I’d have to say James Lee Burke. His blend of beautiful prose and gripping storytelling is masterful and pointed. You have to reach people to move them, and that means them buying the book. Great art is pointless if it sits in the dark unseen, and Mr. Burke proves that you can do both.
Richard Llewellyn has got to be at the top of my list. I read his “How Green Was My Valley” when I was a teenager, and am still reeling from the effect. His beautiful prose and unique way of using words had a huge impact on my decision to become a writer myself.
In terms of speaking into my life? Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. Cried for days. Also Zusak’s The Book Thief. Cried for weeks. As far as commercial-ability? HUNGER GAMES, BABY! Also, I blew through that whole little vampire series, and I will not apologize for that on any level. 😉
Until recently I’ve read mostly nonfiction. Whenever I’ve started to have a “favorite author,” I begin to tire of his or her writing at the third or fourth book. It seems there is little new and they just rehash what was in their first book. (Note to self: don’t become that kind of author.)
Now I’ve begun reading mostly fiction, but haven’t read enough of anyone to have a favorite yet — and I’ll scan the comments for ideas. Thanks!
I’d say my all-time favorite author is John Gardner. Go read Grendel, and then The Suicide Mountains, and The Wreckage of Agathon. They’re beautiful, sad, hopeful stories about these brilliant, multi-faceted characters, and they’re written by a man who is steeped in the most human parts of ourselves, which, at our deepest levels, are so full of contradictions.
I recommend Peace Like a River by Leif Enger every chance I get. He employs the right mixture of literary metaphor, authentic dialogue and understated humor while telling a great story.
I loved that book. It was excellent. Whenever I think of it, I also think of Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, for no other reason than I read them back-to-back, and they were both wonderful, though very different. The O’Brien book is so long, I wonder if he had trouble getting it published. Definitely worth the read.
I’ll have to look him up, Robin. Mr. Enger should be coming out with a new offering before long. Although “before long” in the world of publishing doesn’t mean the same as in other worlds.
And why is my head all squashed down in my avatar? Or is it just me?
I heard Enger’s second book was different than his first and not very good. I haven’t read it, though.
“Island” is very different, but excellent. Mr. O’Brien is Catholic, and the faith elements of his story of distinctly Catholic. Starts when the hero is a child in pre-WWII Yugoslavia (I think–it’s been awhile) and carries the reader through to his death in the 80s. Gives a horrifying look into how the Communists treated dissenters, and how ignorant most Americans are about such things. Fascinating. And I personally loved seeing the tested but ultimately abiding faith of the hero.
As to your avatar, I think you have to sign into Disqus directly instead of using a FB image. At least that fixed it for mine.
I heard that about Enger’s second book, So Brave, Young and Handsome, but I’m glad I didn’t listen. Though different from PLAR, it was lighter fare and a thoroughly entertaining adventure. I envisioned the aging character, Glen being portrayed onscreen by Robert Duval.
I’m afraid Island sounds too raw and excruciating for me. I just quit one about a third of the way in for the same reason. Life is already too hard.
Good to know about Enger’s second book. I’m adding it to my to-read list right now. Lots of good suggestions in these comments.
Yes, the O’Brien book is definitely not light fare. It’s excellent, but very serious.
I love the Whisky Priest and Hazel Motes. There are certain novels that I find I have a pen in my hand and I’m underlining quotes and passages (LIfe of Pi was a recent one). I have to confess that I’m not as great a reader as I should be; my wife claims that she rarely sees me finish a book (although I do finish books, but not as many as I find I put down). I can’t say that there is any particular author that I gravitate to, but there is most definitely a particular type of story. I’ve memorized Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby Dick, Ismael’s concept of the Universal Thump. My copy of Moby Dick bristles with post-it notes from the pages. The Picture of Dorian Gray is favorite especially the introduction on art. The Seed And The Sower is one I go back to again and again, although I think Vander Post is a crackpot. I love Turgenev’s Fathers And Sons – that “. . . twilight period of regrets akin to hopes, and hopes which are akin to regrets, when youth is over and old age has not yet come.” I thought Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle to be a fine book. I’ve read Shogun through seven times and will, no doubt, read it again. I’ve fallen in love with Mariko (Clavell was not a great literary writer, but what a story teller). Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ann Pachett’s Bel Canto. Memories of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (if only I could write like that). Walker Percy is another.
I like Michael Chabon. Not a Jonathan Franzen fan. John Irving lost me with his later works (although he’s a fellow Granite Stater). Dan Brown . . . Dan Brown . . . well . . . he’s a fellow Granite Stater. Seriously though, how can you argue with tremendous success? Wish I was Dan Brown.
So then, who are the new Whisky Priests and Hazel Motes? I think Pi Patel could be one of them. But Bella and Edward? Robert Langdon? Lizbeth Salander? Although she is a great character. Ada and Inman maybe. Tyler Durden?
Large topic and I don’t have the time to put down all my thoughts.
You hit a bunch of my favorites as well, Tim. You want great characters in today’s fiction? Look at John Irving, Christopher Moore, Stephen King, Lois Lowry…
Elizabeth Peters. She makes me laugh, worry, fall in love, and stay up too late solving mysteries on Egyptian digs. Amelia Peabody and the rest of the gang are splendid characters and stay interesting and fresh through eighteen novels. That’s crazy talent.
If you like this setting, check out Penelope Wilcock’s “Hawk and the Dove” series. A wonderful British writer who is not as widely known, she’s created a fabulous set of stories about a monastery in medieval times. Not the mystery of Peters (hers are quiet stories), but great depth and characterization.
Thanks, Chip, I’ll check Penelope out. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to read!
Oh! So exciting to find another Peters fan!! She is absolutely brilliant, and her Amelia series will forever be one of my favorites.
Everyone should read To Kill a Mockingbird, of course. As for authors I routinely read in the Christian fiction market, I enjoy, and would suggest to others, literary authors like Chris Fabry, Lisa Samson, Gina Holmes, Mary DeMuth, and am looking forward to more from Julie Cantrell and Susan Schoenberger. That said, when I ask other readers what are their favorite books, I am often told I should read The Mitford Series or anything by Debbie MacComber. Reading choices are all about personal taste, but I can read a more commercial book and enjoy it as much as a great literary novel. Sometimes reading a good historical romance or mystery novel is just what I need to escape.
So I like Chip’s comment “We want to create great art, AND we want to see our books sell. That’s the constant tension in working with writers.” It resonates with me as a reader and as an author. I think we can have both. I think we need both.
Thanks, Tina. For those those who don’t know, Tina Forkner is a wonderfully gentle writer of books (two novels with Random House), who creates stories that stay with you.
Wendell Berry (American poet, essayist, and novelist), for his exquisite use of plain language. His novels set in rural Kentucky both seer and entrance my mind:
“He flung his Bible down at the feet of the horrified young preachers. He threw his arms wide apart, laughed a loud contemptuous laugh, and asked them whose church they thought it was. They thought it was their church, he said, but he reckoned they just might be a little bit mistaken: it was Jesus’s church. And when Jesus came back, he would fork the likes of them into Hell as quick as look at them, and he, Nightlife, at that time would enjoy hearing them sing a different tune. He laughed again and bestowed upon them several epithets not normally used in church.” –excerpt from Berry’s short story compiled in That Distant Land.
Love his prose, Robin. Thanks for that recommendation. I’m also a fan of Walker Percy for that same reason.
I haven’t read Walker Percy, so I pulled out my husband’s copy of The Moviegoer. Yes. Entranced from the first paragraph.
So many new authors to try in this discussion! And I agree that commercial fiction can sometimes be just the thing you want.
“I don’t see life as an either/or decision.” Agreed. It can be a blend of both in so may ways.
I don’t see life as an either/or decision
I don’t see life as an either/or decision
I don’t see life as an either/or decision
I don’t see life as an either/or decision
Sorry. Not sure why that line posted several times. #gremlins
No worries. No Worries. No worries. :o)
Like so many others, Chip, I’m not sure I can choose ONE favorite. But let me throw into the discussion R.M. Ballantyne. I don’t know all his history, but I recently discovered his writing from the 1800’s when Vision Forum began printing all of his books. He was quite prolific with settings all over the world and real events from history woven throughout. It’s not necessarily light reading. A few times in each book I need to consult my dictionary…but I love that. And, I suppose, his Christian message could be considered preachy in some places, but it’s such an integral part of his plot that it seems to work.
Interesting. Thanks, Meghan. I don’t know that I’ve ever read Ballantyne. I’ll have to check him out on my Nook.
BTW, I think everyone, saint or sinner should be reading C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) and “Till We Have Faces,” All the books are literary and philosophical and I am so grateful they were published outside CBA.
Include me as “sinner,” Cherry. I loved that series.
I stumbled into a little small town used book store yesterday. Like a recovering alcoholic finding herself in a bar, I muttered, “I really shouldn’t be here.” “Are you looking for a particular type of book?” the owner inquired, “Or are you eclectic?”
“Eclectic,” I whispered while my eyes darted from bookcase to bookcase. And that is why I cannot name a favorite author. What are the parameters here? Living authors? If I say C.S. Lewis, do I have to qualify that? Is Jane Austen trite? Is George MacDonald too old school and Christian? And speaking of George MacDonald, does it matter who did the translation? (Yes). If ,”To Kill a Mockingbird,” changed your life and thinking, does that mean the author is your favorite? In that case, let’s throw in Laura Ingalls Wilder, because she educated me in pioneer home economics.
There are many authors today whom you can love, love, love for one book, one stellar chapter, and then grow weary of when they churn out book after book and series after series.
I agree. But there are also authors who create numerous fabulous books, and you only come to appreciate them when you read all their works, and get a feel for the big scope of their career.
The only book I seem to enjoy reading over and over is To Kill a Mocking Bird. But since Harper Lee only wrote one book, I have to agree with Carey, Dickens stories stick with me. My father read them to me when I was a kid, so I grew up with those characters. That has set the bar very high for me as far as other fiction writers are concerned.
Thanks, Ellen. Nice to hear from you!
I’m still stuck on Charles Dickens. His ability to create truly memorable characters who are woven together in a non-predictable plot is a wonder to me. Who doesn’t remember Pip, Mr. Dick, Mrs. Havisham, Amy Dorrit, and Mr. Panks? Some of my happiest joyous moments of laughter (when reading) have come from the characterizations of Dickens.
Me too! I’m a huge Dickens fan. My favorites include The Pickwick Papers and Tale of Two Cities, though Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield all make great reads. Here’s a suggestion: If you haven’t tried OUR MUTUAL FRIEND yet, give it a got. A fine story.
I’ve seen a movie version of Our Mutual Friend… very good. I need to get the book from the library.
Yep, Dickens for me, please! His characters are some of the most outstanding in all of literature, and without a doubt some of my favorites. He was truly a brilliant writer, and his stories have messages we can still use today.
Agreed Ashlee… a master, for sure.
I agree with Jennifer about Charles Martin. He is my most recent favorite author.
I also agree with Donna about the Harry Potter series. If Rowling had had an editor who removed all the -ly words and the unfortunate alliterations (every time Snape snapped, I cringed) the books would’ve been better, obviously. But the complexity of the story–over thousands of pages–that was masterful. The symbolism, even the names had deeper meanings. And like Donna, I was so sucked into the characters and their stories, I couldn’t put the books down. Read all 7 in 30 days.
All that to say, I haven’t read Rowlings two recent releases for fear I’ll be disappointed.
I think one of the best authors I’ve ever read is Anite Shreve. Unfortunately, she write these post-modern novels that are so depressing, I once told my husband that if I ever commit suicide, there’ll be an Anita Shreve novel in my night stand. Every time I put one of her books down, I swear I’ll never read another one. I’ve read five. (The Pilot’s Wife is the only one I can recommend.) If it’s true that a novelist’s job is to elicit an emotional response, then she’s very good. Of course, often that emotional response is the desire to whip the book across the room, but it’s a response.
But Shreve has a wonderful sense of style in her work. Not always upbeat… but then, life isn’t always upbeat, of course. And thanks for the note about Charles Martin, whose works I’ve loved. (Please — let’s have someone check on Robin… she was last seen reading an Anite Shreve novel, and we haven’t heard from her in more than 24 hours.)
For light reading lately I have enjoyed Lisa Genova and Kristin Hannah. Lisa brings her medical knowledge to bear on highly relational stories of struggle and adaptation. Her best work, Left Neglected, may not be as big a seller as her newest, Love Anthony, since the newest deals with a popular issue: autism. Kristin’s best work (in my opinion) is Winter Garden, where she brings rich history to life and weaves a story of generational growth and reconciliation. Her more recent, Home Front, will probably sell more as it deals with another popular issue, post traumatic stress disorder among our military. Both authors evidence of how the marketing aspect of writing may drive us to try to write “better, faster, cheaper,” though I’m afraid the “better” gets sacrificed to the throne of “faster, cheaper!”
Appreciate you sharing this, Joan. I’ve never read Lisa Genova, but will take your advice and download one of her books. I just recently was introduced to Susan Howatch, and LOVED her work.
Susan Howatch, just looked her up, family sagas, my interests. Also I should mention (shameless plug here, for she is my cousin), am currently enjoying Haverford House by Katherine Winfield: Apparitions, Murder, Politics, Mystery, all in a serene Chesapeake Bay small town setting.
I would like to think that I’m not in the minority to believe there is room in this world for ALL types of writing. While I would never presume I will ever write the “next great work of literature”, I DO know I am a strong imaginative storyteller. I am just as certain my stories will one day sit on the shelves next to other authors who wrote those books for the sheer love of creating and not so much with the thought to whether or not it will be commercially viable. THAT, Chip, I believe falls within YOUR area of expertise…;~)
Thanks, Donna. And you’re right — some writers are looking to create the Great American Novel, others to simply tell a fun story, still others to pen something fun or funny. Again, finding the balance between art and commerciality is a choice for each author. Good comment.
I don’t have a favorite writer. Charles Martin writes men better than most – flawed people who know what’s right, and try to go that way. I love Kate Morton because of the detail and historical mystery. I’m not a horror fan, but let’s face it, Stephen King knows what he’s doing. And he titled a book with a date and people still bought it. I did. Loved that one.
You know, I’ve got 11/22/63 on my Nook… I’ve yet to start it.
PS – I am not claiming Flynn is great literature, but I don’t think many recent national book award winners are either. My point is, just because something is good doesn’t mean it will be published, not today. Joe.
Mr. MacGregor, I’ve thought about this quite a bit, because you know what you’re talking about, but you may be a bit naïve. If you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, take a look at an interview by the late Vince Flynn with regard to his early experiences. We live in an intentionally ideological age, where lefties “intentionally” shut down opposing thought, whether its expressed in art, journalism or politics. I know this runs against your world view, but many are not as open minded as you. By the way, you rejected a proposal I submitted years ago, but encouraged me to continue. To show you how new to CBA I was, I thought you were just being nice! I’m multi-published now. Best wishes Chip. Joe
Well, who are you Joe, so we can read your books? 😉
I second Tina’s question! Joe, who are you so that we can see what you write! 🙂
I’m hoping that’s Joseph Campbell… or maybe Joseph Conrad, risen from the dead.
You know, I’m rarely called naive, Joe. :o) But I’d argue “righties” seek to shut down opposing thought as much as lefties (and I say that as a lifelong “middle of the road” guy, since I lean left on social issues and right on fiscal issues). All that said, I’m very happy to hear you are multi-published, and that I played some very small part in encouraging you to continue. It’s always gratifying to hear I encouraged someone, even in a small way. Appreciate you coming onto the blog and saying that, Joe.
Hmmm…I guess I’m no expert, but I happen to think the Harry Potter series IS great literature. I suppose it depends on what “great literature” you’re comparing it to and whether a person, as a reader, went beyond the simple act of reading them. In my opinion, J.K. Rowling is an outstanding writer. Her ability to weave such complex plots and subplots seamlessly over 7 books (each which hold their own), to make her characters truly “real” to the point that your heart will break if your favorites are harmed, and make you ache through the waiting of the next release, to me, is a remarkable accomplishment.
Until the 6th book (Half-Blood Prince) was released, I wasn’t deeply analyzing the series—I was reading for enjoyment. Once I got involved with the theorizing and DEEPLY analyzing virtually every aspect of the characters, plots, etc., did I realize how brilliant the books and their author were. During that process, I reread the series specifically to analyze, then a third time prior to the release of the last book, “Deathly Hallows,” to refresh the many details in my mind before reading the series’ conclusion.
I read the LEFT BEHIND series and was not overly impressed (mostly because I wasn’t able to get past many bible prophecies being depicted literally) except for one of the books, it having been written to be more suspenseful and exciting. The HARRY POTTER series is a completely different ballgame; the only similarity being they are each a series and both series being huge bestsellers. I simply have to point out that the HARRY POTTER books may not seem to be “great literature,” probably more due to the subject matter, but with further examination, it is very likely many people would change their opinion.
I loved the Harry Potter books, Donna Marie. I think they work as stories, were well-told, and kept me reading. I wouldn’t consider them great works of art (that is, they didn’t really deal with the human condition — they were entertainments more than ideas), but just saying that makes me sound like a snob, so I’ll put down my canape and glass of sherry, set aside my copy of Proust, and act like a mortal… :o)
My daughter and I are currently reading the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s wonderful! But, I doubt it would be published today. There are 1243 pages and parts of it move too slowly for most modern readers.
Ha! Yes! After completing the original, “Phantom of the Opera,” I concluded there are some works better digested as movies.
Try reading Hugo’s LES MISERABLES. Wow. 1300 pages, including roughly 200 that describe the Paris sewer system in detail. I kept wondering when Anne Hathaway was going to show up and sing to me.
I read the condensed version and enjoyed it immensely. I’m sorry to say (no sherry and canapes here) that I couldn’t finish the 1300 page version. As good as the book was, I enjoyed the play more. The movie was breathtaking. What a beautiful contrast between living under the law and living under grace.
I love the book. It’s my favorite classic. I love the movie and musical too, but the book came first.
I’ve often wondered about this very thing–if classic authors would be published today. I read many older, obscure books and my opinion is that in general publishing standards are higher today–writing is tighter, less indulgent. Would MOBY DICK make it to print without losing thousands of words? I doubt it. Even my revered Jane Austen would no doubt be whacked with a great deal of editorial slashing. As for recommending an author, I like to point people to Pearl S. Buck, who is largely forgotten these days. Her prose is delightfully tucked in at the edges–like a neat garden. There’s wonderful variety, color and texture in the work, but it’s all carefully within the hedges, it all belongs, there’s nothing extraneous. Yet despite her exquisite control, her writing could never be called simple, much like Hemingway. Buck was the only woman ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve never picked up anything by her that I did not find myself traipsing through with effortless ease, carried along by the sheer buoyancy of her prosaic rhythms. (And EVERYONE should read The Good Earth at least once!)
World War Z by Max Brooks (the book – I’m yet to see the movie) was the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time. Brooks understands how to reach his target audience, both in style and structure, and he does so with an astounding amount of wit and intelligence. If you’re interested, he posted a free short story online a few years ago that is incredible: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/01/14/max-brooks-original-zombie-story-from-world-war-z-author.html
I’m currently on a Sherrilyn Kenyon kick. I may be the last person in the world to pick one up, because I only found her back in March.
She head-hops quite a bit, especially in her older stuff. Some of her world-building in The League series isn’t as fleshed out as it should be. But you know what? I don’t care. She’s a master STORYTELLER and she sucks me in, grabs me by the throat, and won’t let go. If I want one of her books to last me more than two days, it has to be over 600 pages. It also doesn’t hurt that she writes my absolute favorite type of hero.
I don’t even know how many times she’s been on the NYT’s list, or how many millions of copies she has in print. All of that says I’m not the only reader out there so sucked into her imagination that I can’t get enough. I want to write like that. I want to tell stories that capture the hearts and imagination of my readers, the way she’s captured mine. She’s created a world of wonder filled with characters you can’t help but love.
Is she a great master of literature? No. She doesn’t write about grand themes or try to “say something” with her books. But in everything she writes you can still find the most important theme of all, that every person alive can identify with. When you find something worth fighting for, fight for it with everything in you.
Exactly what I was looking for, Rachel. Thanks for this!