Working on my own novel, it’s a selfish curiosity that compels me to buy and read (and be jealous of) emerging authors’ first novels. I read these books differently, I know, than I do other books, and perhaps not in the right spirit to engage literature, trying to suss out what these authors have that I do not (besides, obviously, an agent, contract, and, one would assume, readers). I do have a novel, but I’m not yet a first-time novelist for the simple fact that my novel is not available to be read. So, why not?
The biggest thing that, say, Karen Russell or Tea Obreht (whose first novels, Swamplandia! and The Tiger’s Wife, respectively, both came out this year) have that I don’t, of course, are publications in such industry stalwarts as The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Tin House—all of which have politely declined my work. So there’s that. But what about Erin Morgenstern, whose The Night Circus just came out and will hopefully earn many devotees? Unlike Russell and Obreht—MFA darlings—she studied theater and studio art, and as far as I can tell, has no swanky bylines anywhere (although she does admittedly have a kick-ass book, which must help). All three of these writers, too, dabble (or mostly wallow) in the fantastical, but I’m not in a position to speculate about how that might contribute to their successes. I do write fantastically—in my opinion, at least. Is it because I’m not a woman?
But there’s Chad Harbach, author of the hugely hyped The Art of Fielding, former copy-editor and current (unpaid) editor of the hip literary journal n+1 who made a big opinionated splash by comparing the NYC literary world to its MFA counterpart, but what overshadows all conversations swirling around The Art of Fielding is how much money he was paid in advance—well over half a million—for a book that, while good, hits what Harbach himself calls “the middlebrow” right between the eyes. It’s a good story, sure, and the pages practically turn themselves, but that’s mainly because The Art of Fielding does nothing to slow you down. There are no complicated motivations, ambiguous characterization, or sticky plot points that force you to stop reading for a moment to think, that get in the way of storyline. I’m not suggesting The Art of Fielding isn’t good—it is—only trying to rephrase what Harbach himself says large publishing houses require when, at the very least, taking on a book, or at the most, tossing around big money for something many people might never buy.
While discussing Harbach’s sizeable advance, Simon and Schuster editor Jonathan Karp recently claimed that all authors should write in a major key, which inadvertently asks a difficult question: how close should my novel resemble an arena-ready rock anthem? Karp might not be encouraging innovation in literature, but he does frame the conversation in market-driven terms. A publishing house is a business and wants what it can sell. If it happens to be a book that will sell to HBO, all the better. Harbach said the same thing in his essay, and his book—out now for only a couple weeks—has been optioned by HBO. So, now I must ask, is my book HBO worthy, and if not, how is HBO worthiness attained? As far as I can tell—not being able to afford HBO, myself—it means lots of T and A, coupled with an often overly dramatic and easily digestible storyline. Maybe I need more graphic sex (or opportunities to depict it) in my novel, then, and to write chapters that might readily fit into a 60-minute screenplay.
Big money always denotes broad appeal, of course. Karp asks New York Magazine “why anyone would want to write a novel and not want everyone to read it?” and the market is dictated by readers, or rather, what paying readers pay for. Karp’s missing an important point, though: I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t want everyone to read their book (although I’m nervous what my mother will have to say if she ever gets the opportunity to read mine), but most writers dream of everyone reading their book on the book’s terms, not the market’s. Broad appeal, after all, keeps Jersey Shore on the air and the gratuitous sex, violence, and absurd plot lines True Blood’s lurid calling card. Weezer still fills stadiums (and, recently, a yacht), despite the lack of a decent song in over a decade, due to their marketing of major keys.
So—what the hell am I trying to say? Perhaps nothing more than that Harbach touched a nerve when he suggested that MFA programs are designed to squelch large writer-ly ambition by making it acceptable that no one (outside of the MFA bubble) read my work, then proved it by making it rich with a book he claimed could make one rich (in book writing terms, of course), but I would ask Harbach, if I were to meet him (not likely, seeing as he’s now a NYC writer, which he claims means he won’t be fraternizing with the likes of my redneck ass), what will happen if (and probably when) his novel doesn’t pull in enough profits to justify his huge advance, and he eventually starts shopping around his second novel.
Of course, if someone wanted to pay me a half mil upfront for my novel (which, at the moment, doesn’t have the slow-ride-take-it-easy nature of Harbach’s—but this is not something I’m bragging about), why would I not take it? Would I really say, oh no, not all that money upfront, please—I wouldn’t want to disappoint you? No: I’d take the money, but I will wonder and perhaps worry about a couple things: 1) If sales aren’t huge on the first book, will I ever find a publisher for my next one? And 2) have I written a book that gives people exactly what they want? If so, is that a good thing?
Sean Conaway’s work has appeared in Arcadia Magazine and the American Fiction Anthology. He’s currently working on a novel that he hopes one day you will read.