Sunday, January 16, 2011

Branding Fatigue: The Problem with Populatr Fiction

Finishing the last page of Michael Connelly’s new novel, The Reversal, I couldn’t help thinking of a friend of mine, who met our local author at a party this summer. Elin Hilderbrand writes breezy romances set on our summer tourist island – stories of beach club staffers and waiters, unhappy vacationing wives, lusty locals, troubled families putting their lives back together among the mild Atlantic breezes and the clambakes. Her first books barely made a ripple, but she cracked the New York Times best-seller list with the last one, and it seemed like she had it made: a book-a-year professional scribbling about her home town, supporting herself with her words, vocation and avocation one, work as play for mortal stakes, just as Robert Frost described in his wonderful poem, “Two Tramps in Mud-Time”.

Turns out, not so much.

Actually, she’s kind of miserable. I know, I know – world’s smallest violin: you’re blond and rich and good looking and they make you write the same book over and over again – boo hoo. I’m painting houses sixty hours a week – let’s trade. But her predicament is real. She actually has to write the same book every year, with slight variations, of course. Still, it’s a whole book and you have to put it down on paper word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. That can be a slog.Those books started to bore me five years ago, but I don’t have to write them. The problem is, they’re starting to bore Hilderbrand, too.

And it shows.

She’s not alone, that’s the worst part of it. I remember a thriller writer from my childhood named Alistair MacLean. He’s most famous now (if he’s famous at all) for a handful of his books they made into movies: Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone. The last one of these was the beginning of the end … or rather, the sequel was. Force 10 From Navarone (It was Robert Shaw’s last movie and one of Harrison Ford’s first) was bad, but not anywhere near as bad as the book, which was clearly a sequel not to the original novel, but to the popular Gregory Peck film. I was fifteen years old but I knew a sell-out when I saw one. And Maclean’s books after that had a dreary, I’m-only-writing-this-to-pay-my-alimony feeling about them. Finally I just gave up. I didn’t understand what was going on back then, but now I do. MacLean was suffering from the exactly the same malady as Elin Hilderbrand. The plague was in its infancy at that point, but it has reached full pandemic status now: writers sell by branding themselves and reliably turning out a familiar product. The paperback of the last book comes out just in advance of the next book’s hardcover release, usually with a little teaser chapter at the back to spike the reader's interest: momentum builds, sales acuumulate, and the writer has deadlines to meet.

It makes me think of comedians like the Flight of Conchords boys, who spent years developing the material that comprised their hilarious HBO program’s first season Then they had maybe six months to throw together the material for the next one. Fifteen years … six months. Of course the quality went down, Bret and Jermaine had sense enough to cancel the third outing and get back to work at a more reasonable pace. As far as I’m concerned they can take their time – Jonathan Franzen spent nine years writing the follow-up to The Corrections -- and it shows.

As I struggle happily with a new novel myself, I’m encouraged to know that I’m not fighting against a deadline; as I make radical changes in the story, it’s nice to know that I won’t have to defend them to an irate publisher. I can dawdle and write as I like: that’s a luxury few professional authors can claim.

The problem is that the relentless schedule, the unappeasable expectations, begin to wear these authors down, even the best and most consistent of them. The last couple of books by Michael Connelly are showing a kind of metal fatigue (Maybe it’s some consolation to him that even metal gets tired): they groan and creak with familiar tropes and predictable twists. They exhale a gloomy sense of exhaustion. The characters are just going through their paces, now, like road show actors in some long running hackneyed farce. I don’t blame Connelly: it’s the system. It still works for some people – most notably Lee Child, who is happy churning out his Jack Reacher books; others escape into a different set of expectations, like Ken Follett, who has become the new maestro of the ponderous historical epic.

The mechanical quality of so much popular fiction (One thinks of the ‘novel writing machines’ in the Ministry or Truth that churned out cliché romantic pap for the Proles in 1984) comes from turning our best genre writers into machines. My agent is sending out a dark sexual noir thriller right now, and he said to me recently, “I hope you have a few more of these up your sleeve. Anyone who publishes this will want to know you can do it again.” It’s a conundrum: I’d like to be published of course, but I feel for Elin Hilderbrand when I think of being locked into writing an endless series of transgressive sexual thrillers, of being the go-to creepy noir guy, of being branded.

Branding started with cattle, a ranch logo burned into the flesh of a steer to prove ownership. It’s not that different now. I hear the feed is good (lots of corn), but we all know who winds up getting eaten.

As for me, I’m happy to run wild, at least a little longer. The grazing is skimpy, but I’m used to it. And I’d be happy to see Elin Hilderbrand and Michael Connelly out here with me, escaped from the feed lot, working at their own pace, living life on their own time, at last. Their lives would be a lot better.

And so would their books.

1 comment:

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