WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Play mystique for me

I’ve just made my annual skim through the New York Times list of 100 notable books. Same as it ever was.

In the spirit of The Disappointed Housewife, I always hope to find something new and paradigm-shifting, but alas. None of the capsule summaries mentions anything about ground-breaking innovations in storytelling, or even attempts at innovations in storytelling. Everybody’s playing it pretty straight, it seems.

One striking thing I noticed is that, by my count, twenty-one of the fifty fiction/poetry books are set in exotic locations or foreign countries. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just leads me to think that the publishing business thinks that readers see “something different” as “something foreign.” In other words, they create the illusion of innovation, or at least the excitement of something different, by featuring works set in unfamiliar places. At least two of the books are set in Greek islands. Great Britain, Rome, Turkey, Israel, Kenya, Japan, Korea. And often the writer isn’t from those places. Often it’s an American writer maybe trying to game the system.

A couple of the books sound interesting in terms of their imaginative conceits. One is Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. Another is called The Power, about women taking control of society when they acquire the ability to shoot some weird electrical wave from their bodies or something. Count me in! At least these ideas strike me as fresh, and we don’t have to sit through more luminous description of Greek isles.

Of the majority of the other titles on the list, I can’t say they’re not worthy, but I’m certainly not jazzed to read them. They take us into the usual territories, they’re “compelling” and “dark” and a lot of them are “powerful.” One or two are “disturbing.”

I don’t know. Each year I hope to learn that publishing has turned a corner and opened up the field to real creativity. Instead, it’s always discouraging to see that our gatekeepers think creativity is found only in the plots and settings and not in the actual writing. As long as that’s the case, writers are going to be inclined to write novels that hew to the average.

And, ironically, the more exotic the setting, the more average.

8 comments on “Play mystique for me

  1. Priscilla
    November 27, 2017

    Ooo, what an interesting topic! I had to honestly ask myself if I’d read something creatively out of the box, or would I pass it off as bizarre and say, “That author doesn’t know what he’s doing”?

    I did read a book once about someone who wrote an out of the box book, but now I can’t remember the book!:-) Something about none of the published books being like another, yet they all contained the same words and were readable. Hmmm.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 27, 2017

      Ha, I guess there’s a fine line between doing something different and seeming not to know what you’re doing. Like Picasso’s stuff (though we all know he could draw!).

      Readable’s always a nice touch, though. 😉

  2. pinklightsabre
    November 27, 2017

    Yeah, The Power sounds kind of awesome!

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 27, 2017

      Yes. Chicks who shoot electro waves. What’s not to like?!

  3. Diana Jackson
    November 27, 2017

    Hi Kevin. Just finished Buddhada which is set in exotic Glasgow 😉 You have to be able to hear the local dialect though. It helped having lived in Fife for two years. Ann Donovan is Glaswegian. A great read. I think publishers are straight-jacketed by the book buying industry (apart from Amazon). They like their tried and tested categories. …. wo betide anyone trying to break free. ‘We like your novel but we just don’t know how to categorize it. ……

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 27, 2017

      Thanks for that perspective, Diana. Excellent point, since a book set in Glasgow isn’t exotic to Glaswegians! I imagine a book set in Tucson, Arizona, feels exotic to Ann Donovan.

      You’re so right about the book-buying biz. People become addicted to their genres and binge on them, so publishers fall into the old “Let’s give them what they want” mode.

      Once in a while though … something new comes along that changes the game.

  4. kingmidget
    November 27, 2017

    A few years ago, I embarked on a project to read all of the books in one of these lists. I made it through a handful and gave up for many of the reasons you describe here. Just so much MFA meandering angst a guy can handle, you know?

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 27, 2017

      I think I remember that effort of yours. I was going, “Don’t do it!!!!!” but you forged ahead.

      These lists, I think, mainly come from publishers’ hype … like Oscar nominations.

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2017 by in Publishing and tagged , , .
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