Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art Vs. Entertaiment

I'm just back from Palm Springs and a little gig at a library. Some sixth graders had read the second of the Shakespeare novels-in-verse (mine, not Will's) and had some questions and comments. Mostly they said the book was fun to read. Their teacher had to tell them things about the various forms-of-poetry and their response was basically, "Oh, okay. It was still fun." When they asked me if I had a good time writing it, I said that I did.

A few years ago my editor at Candlewick called me up and chided me about not writing the break-through novel. Mild interrogation didn't reveal exactly what that was, but she would know it when I submitted it. Somehow I needed to be elevated from the mid-list. I needed to break through; I'd gotten about as far as I could go with the novels I'd been writing. She didn't use the word "art" but I could feel it hovering there like an alien spacecraft, its probes greased and at the ready.

After the conversation I thought, "Oh, dear." Or some other word with four letters.
I could just feel the doggedness closing in. Many doggednesses. A pack of them. My editor was being so serious, and I am not a serious person. And art has always sounded serious to me even though I know better and even said in a lecture that the membrane between craft and art is very permeable, and God knows I'm a craftsman.

Basically I couldn't think much about the so called break-through novel. It was the famous wet blanket. Or wet diaper. I'd rather just bumble along and write what I wanted. I'd rather, in a word, be entertaining. Screw art and the unicorn it rode in on.

Advice nobody really asked for: take it easy on yourselves. Be light of heart. Good things often happen effortlessly.


  1. In the course of working on the critical thesis (on the invasion of the intrusive narrators) I found this quote from Philip Ardagh, a wildly popular British author (The Eddie Dickens series--sort of a Monty Python for the junior literary set): “I'm interested in the fun of language and the fun of fun….Fun is a serious business. I don't think people realize that.”

    I also found this diktat from Joan Aiken: "Another thing that children strongly dislike is confidential asides from writer to reader, a form of self-indulgence that Trollope, for instance, committed a great deal…
    A child reader would probably shut the book at that point. Children can’t stand such coyness, and it is impossible to blame them, for it instantly lowers credulity to a freezing-point. Trollope is such a great writer that we have to forgive him: he is playing a kind of a game with the reader, all that we are doing is just for fun, not to be taken seriously, we have agreed to suspend our disbelief. But children are not reading for fun; for them it is all deadly serious."

    Both writers are well-loved by their readers. But I think I know which one you would rather hang out with at the race track.

  2. Can't I be light of heart and still ride in on a unicorn?

  3. Ah, the breakout novel. A concept without the clarity even of porn. Not "I'll know it when I see it," but rather "I'll know it when it breaks out." My mom once heard that to break out a book needed a "hook." She suggested I go to sleep at night thinking "hook, hook." This had no effect on my sales but did help my closet reorganization.

  4. wait, is it break-through or break-out or break-in or break-up or maybe just give-me-a-darn (use other optional four letter word here)-break? And is it by hook or by crook?

    I spoke to 6th graders too, last week. 400 of them in a cafeteria with escalating acoustics and permeating aroma of tater tots. Was it fun? Was it art? Sure, something like that. Did it make me think of writing the next great breakout novel with a hook? Furthest thing from my mind.

    And, Anne could you come and reorganize my closet, please?

  5. Ron, thank you for the last line of your piece. Went right to the heart. Right where I needed it.

  6. Guys, you all can write break-out novels. You just need to throw in a couple of explosions as you write. Explosions are fun and make a lot of noise. Also, it is just fun to blow things up, and it doesn't hurt anybody.

    An epic tater-tot fight would also work.

    I don't know if it would be as much a break-through novel as it is a blow-up novel, but if we're going to have fun, why the heck not.

  7. Maybe those of us who write with teen characters should make sure they break out in hives--or acne--or some other plague?

    Meanwhile, an editor asked me recently if my next novel would be my break-out book. A friend in my writer's group, who has (to quote Ron) something of a potty mouth, had this to say: "Isn't it the [expletive] marketing department's job to make sure the book breaks out?"

  8. Breakdancing: that's where I draw the line.

  9. But on the other hand, why not shoot for writing a breakout novel? Think of Feed, of Looking for Alaska, of The Hunger Games, of Speak, of Absolutely True Diary, of Because of Winn-Dixie. They have voice, a gripping plot, plenty of tension and discovery. They don't even need explosions, for the most part. What if we used elements from these books as our models as we wrote? What if we ALL made breaking out our collective goal? I know I sure could use the money.

  10. Every novel I write is a breakout novel for me. As is every pic book a breakout picture book. Unfortunately the marketing and sales departments don't seem to know this (though I'm pretty sure my editor knows).

  11. I can see what you're saying. I have a finished novel that I'm shopping, and I love to read it, but I recognize that it's not breakout material. It's a character-driven story, but it's a little slow. No explosions, either. My raccoon stories aren't either! Arrgh! And they actually have explosions. The premise: Raccoons save the day from evil. Which is all right, but it's not much of a hook.

    The one I'm working on now might work due to its premise: Young girl drags older self back in time because seventh grade sucks, but then they must avert tragedy. But we must see whether I can carry it out or not.

    Really, though, the market is what determines whether a novel breaks out or not, and who knows what the heck the market is thinking! Every time I go into a bookstore, I look at all the books in the YA/MG section and think, My book will have to somehow rise above all these other books to get noticed. (Not to mention that there are a ton of books coming out every season that don't even make it to the bookstore shelves.) Then I freak out and run away! well, actually no.

    This is getting to be a really long Debbie Downer post! But I was thinking it would be really cool if some 1st or 2nd semester student who's looking for a 3rd semester thesis topic to consider breakout books: what characteristics unite them, the kind of marketing the author did beforehand (if any), and basically consider how these books got their foothold in the market. That would be an AWESOME paper.

    I'd like to look into that topic myself after I get my actual critical thesis out of the way. Hm, maybe I should be working on that RIGHT NOW. :p