Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 3: Vive la différence


One pillar of the temple of creativity, to get Greek about it, is that the boldest practitioners dare to be different.

And it takes όρχεις (as in cojones) to be different these days — or to be different enough.

In a book bazaar where the reader has to be pleased with the product or she jettisons it, an intrepid author takes enormous risk in even attempting to stretch the limits of that reader’s tolerance. Too much interior monologue, not enough action, not enough dialogue, too much jibber jabber, not enough sex — it doesn’t take much to piss her off. And the worst thing you can do as a writer is bore her.

Guess what. She’s easily bored.

Often it seems to me that some of the best — and even most popular books — of the past would never be published now because today’s reader is such a fussbudget. Maybe in the late ‘20s, when William Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury, readers were a more amenable bunch, but the challenges of that particular book would never be accepted today. Forget about James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein, or any writer who tried to expand the conventions of how language is used, as well as typography and white space on the page.

The intolerant reader is so plugged into the familiar that only modest deviations from it are acceptable. And if these deviations don’t at least refer to the usual, attention lags. The way the familiar is manipulated is much more ham-handed than it has to be. For instance, writers will feature a female hero, rather than a male, who slays magical dragons. Or they’ll set a thriller in 18th century Scotland instead of modern L.A. But the elements of the genre still rule the day, and our petulant reader will notice if you’re not honoring them.

As record producer and musician Daniel Lanois says, “If something is very familiar, we likely have had enough of it.”

It would be nice to imagine that talented writers who want to do something different could do it on merit alone, but for the most part the formulas are ingrained. Literary fiction is where most restless authors try new things, but this isn’t easy either because literary novels sell in such low numbers that publishers don’t invest many resources in them. Certainly not in decent advances or promotional dollars. The competition for precious few literary slots in each season’s list is ferocious, which, in turn, encourages most writers to hold back on real innovation in favor of trying to anticipate what the publisher wants. Most innovative novels come from a stable of established academic fiction writers — i.e., those ensconced in tenured professorships and MFA programs, represented by influential New York agents — or the occasional dark horse who happens to impress an editor at just the right time. Innovation is one thing, but if the publishers’ sales teams can’t figure out how to push it, there’s no deal.

Another facet of all this is that we often don’t know what is truly innovative until later, when perhaps it no longer has quite the shine. Innovations must survive long enough to influence the form, so flashes in the pan burn out and the train keeps lumbering along until something appears that really sticks. Much later, when it’s all analyzed and recapped, we understand that so and so changed everything when he [fill in the blank].

The question is how to innovate, how to shove the paradigm into the future, without sacrificing your reputation and chances for success.


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan


16 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 3: Vive la différence

  1. curtisbausse
    January 13, 2016

    ‘The question is how to innovate, how to shove the paradigm into the future, without sacrificing your reputation and chances for success.’ There’s no answer to that because there’s no paradigm any more (I’m not sure if there ever was one, except, as you suggest, through the lens of hindsight). But yes, what has changed is the mode of production and consumption, and innovation is indeed (in the vast majority of cases) incompatible with sales. Today’s production shows just how stultifying that is. As David Hare said, the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction.’

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 13, 2016

      Ha! I hadn’t heard that quote from Hare, but you get the feeling a lot of people see it that way.

      The funny thing is — and I mention this later in the essay — that publishers could find a way to sell innovative material if they tried. They’re just risk-averse and mired in old-think.

  2. 1WriteWay
    January 13, 2016

    Maybe for some innovation is not done for its own sake, but because that’s the only way the story can be told (in that writer’s humble opinion). It’s the “art” part of writing. But this assumes that the writer in question is more interested in the story itself (the art) than in its sales (the $$$). The democratization of publishing has led to more and more people reading a book and then saying, “Hey, I can do that!” They self-publish not because they feel compelled to tell a story, but because they want to “work from home.” They’re not interested in innovation because they don’t think it will sell and selling is all they really want to do.

    I don’t know how well Faulkner or Stein or Joyce sold. Even Woolf wound up self-publishing (although some of that I think was for authorial control). Were they bestsellers in their day? Not so much, but they were read and discussed and sometimes made a kerfuffle (hello, DH Lawrence) that might have boosted sales a bit. But they were artists, first and foremost (in my humble opinion). In this age of self-publishing and SEOs and “it didn’t happen if it ain’t on Instagram,” there may well be artists out there doing all kinds of innovating and we’re none the wiser because of this lovely democratization that left us with the lowest common denominator.

    (Perhaps I shouldn’t leave comments when I’m in a bad mood .. 😉

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 13, 2016

      I like your bad mood thinkings! Provocateef!

      Totally with you on the “I can do that too” people, and they’re clogging up the distribution channels with manure. We need a literary Roto-Rooter!

      I think you’re right, though, that “artists” are relegated now to small markets where they’re appreciated mainly by other artists. The niches are shrinking, the niches are shrinking!

  3. John W. Howell
    January 13, 2016

    I guess the moral is to write what you want.

  4. Parlor of Horror
    January 13, 2016

    Imagine my shock..I figured with the internet and a thousand different media functions, readers would like shorter and shorter works, which I have gotten really good at writing in the past 10 years. To my surprise what is really selling is the story that doesn’t end…trilogies, serials, sequel after sequel. I just realized I’m the one with attention deficit. I’m going to have to learn how to write longer stories, lol. Just a little thought about yesterday’s future and my misfire on it.

  5. Dylan Hearn
    January 15, 2016

    The emergence of serials is really a throwback to the past. Most of Dickens’ novels were published as serials in penny magazines. It was done to give him the best chance of reaching the largest audience as few could afford books at that time. Producing ebook serials is probably the biggest innovation to hit writing in recent times. It is driven by writers looking to maximise revenue but it is also driven by changes to readers reading patterns and method of consumption. I’m not saying it has improved the quality of the writing but for many readers it has improved the quality of the reading experience.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2016

      Exactly! But it’s ironic in a way, because people can afford books these days. And one difference between Dickens and today’s serialists is that he was creating a structured, complete work that was dished out in parts.

      Readers are definitely changing, though. I agree. They’re starved for ongoing tales that don’t necessarily have to end…

  6. Audrey Driscoll
    January 17, 2016

    Following from your comment to Dylan, I wonder what Amazon’s KENP, where the author gets paid according to the number of pages read, is doing to writing (aka the “product). That’s totally new.
    I think this section of your essay nailed the divide between popular genre fiction and literary fiction. The road to success in the latter so often begins with the MFA and the personal connections established while in that program. Success with popular fiction seems to be a combination of following the formula and getting attention through social media. You haven’t specifically commented on the fact (I think it’s a fact) that romance is by far the most popular genre in the indie world. Romance authors on Smashwords are the most successful. And romance is utterly formulaic.
    These posts have certainly stirred up a lot of interest and generated a real discussion.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2016

      I’ve been wondering about the KENP effect too, in that some writers might learn how to finesse it so that readers won’t bail early in a book. That’ll squish a lot of literary fiction, which often takes a little time to build a foundation.

      You’re so right about romance too. Nothing new that it’s so popular, I guess, going back decades, but still don’t get why so many readers tend to read only one kind of book! And formulaic ones at that…


  7. Vonclair
    January 17, 2016

    In order to figure this out we must cast ourselves into the dark and seemingly endless abyss of the question “What does it take to become a successful author”. When we have that figured out we may yet find a way to innovate.
    What kind of innovations are we talking about though?
    Innovating the story structure? The types of stories that are told? Or perhaps getting creative with the POV?
    I believe that the most important thing is to capture the reader, that is what I believe to be the most important part of mainstream art. No number of formulas or old pop stories can hold a truly charming and entertaining book.
    But… What does it take to write such a book while keeping it innovative?
    The answer to that, we might never know, not even those who manage to do it.

    I might however be seeing this all through rose tinted glasses, as I am new to this world of writers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2016

      I’m going to contemplate the idea of “mainstream art” for a while.

  8. cinthiaritchie
    January 22, 2016

    So true about the boredom factor. I’ve noticed that eBooks are kind of like online dating, which I’ve never actually done but I’ve hey, I’ve browsed. I think that it’s hard to be satisfied when you know that there’s another book waiting at your fingertips, and another, and another. Online life has altered us in ways we can’t begin to understand. I read that the average person looks at his/her smartphone 134 times a day. 134!! Attention spans have shrunk down to almost nothing, and writers need to fight against not only other books but other distractions. If someone pauses while reading your book, checks her phone, links to something amusing, which links to something else amusing, there’s no guarantee that she will return to your book.

    Before online life, there were less distractions, and readers could happily expect to sink down inside a book. They wanted to sink inside a book. They looked forward to doing so. Now, readers want writers to amuse them (as if books were video games or apps!). They want writers to entertain them. No, they demand that writers amuse and entertain them. Not all readers, of course. But a large chunk of them.

    And, OMG, just for fun I read some of the Amazon reviews for “The Sound and the Fury.”

    This one is priceless:

    “It bothers me when people recommend a book because a bunch of people 100 years ago thought it was good. If you like confusing and difficult writing then this book is for you. Faulkner has been known for making messes on paper and some people like it- to each its own- but I wouldn’t recommend this book.”

    Hopefully I’ll one day make as big of a mess on paper as Faulkner.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 23, 2016

      Ha! I looked at Amazon reviews for “Crime and Punishment” a while back, I think, and got similarly tickled.

      It troubles me that books are forced to compete with multimedia platforms that mainly dazzle the eye. Some people pretend that video games have literary potential, but as far as I can see they don’t engage the same part of the brain. Books are so often about empathy. Games seems narcissistic to me…

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This entry was posted on January 13, 2016 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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