I just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which took her 11 years to write and me almost as long to read. Not really, but it was the worst kind of book to take on when you have a lot of books to read — one that will occupy you for several weeks, when you could read six or seven other books.
I took a break in the middle and read Donald Westlake’s The Ax.
Both are crime novels but neither are correctly captured by whatever you assume by that label. Both are more than that. Literary, interestingly written, believable characters, interesting voices, social critique.
The Ax is a much shorter book. The characters are less complete, but the social critique is devastating. I never underline (I’m kind of against it, for some reason), but there were many lines that ventured out of the story and served to comment rather brilliantly on society. It’s also the kind of book that is easy to describe — you can tell people what it’s about in a couple of sentences, and if they read it they will find it is exactly about that, and little else, and every scene serves the central premise. It’s what they call “high concept,” in the industry, which sounds confusingly like the opposite of what it is. High concept means, premise-driven. Easily sold. The kind of book, when people hear what it’s about, want to read it.
So The Ax is about a man who is laid off at work, and in order to get a new one, finds the job he wants, and kills everybody who is a good candidate for the job, including the man who currently holds that job. Luckily, he has a rather specialized job that only a handful of people can do. Oh, and he finds them by posting a fake job ad for the job he wants, to get resumes from all the qualified people. Bang. Great idea, wonderfully executed, and if you read it you will enjoy it and find that it’s the book I described. You’ll read it in a couple of hours.
The Goldfinch is an opposite kind of book because it is hard to describe (Tartt herself has said the hardest part of being a writer is explaining what her books are about), and even if you do, you feel like you will be misleading people. Since the book is formidable and has been getting good reviews, I’ve seen people ask “why should I read this?” and they want the high-concept answer — the pitch — which not all books have. I would never be able to pitch East of Eden or The Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn, despite those being my favorite novels. I cannot pitch The Goldfinch. It is about a terroristic attack and a stolen painting, but that makes you think it’s a Westlake caper, and it ain’t. Tartt is way to deliberate with her characters, far too interested in their inner lives and milieu. The characters are fully developed, their interactions fully explored. Theo, Boris, Pippa, Hobie, Tom Cable, Andy, Mrs. Barbour… I will remember their names for a long time, as if they are people I know.
Both are great books, but they represent aesthetic poles. I can appreciate both. I don’t even know where I fall as a writer except somewhere in between. I have not written anything as tidy as The Ax or as memorable as The Goldfinch.
I was interested to see two essays get a lot of links recently among my writer pals. One is by Eliot Schrefer for the New York Times.
The essential difference between writer and imagined reader splits open the “by me, for me” feedback loop that caught me in that second novel, and instead prioritizes the reader’s experience over the author’s own nagging grandiosity. That’s not to say that literary, harder-to-access fiction isn’t pleasurable or important (though I do think that it’s all too easy to mistake obscurity for profundity), but the explosive growth of Y.A. as a genre can and should lead all authors to some soul-searching about whom they’re writing for in the first place.
The second is by Paul Harding for Publisher’s Weekly
Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the worst of both worlds. I write lyrical, introspective, experiential books concerned with consciousness and perception. If a reader wants to know what my protagonist’s insurance policies are, he’ll be better off curling up with a nice cup of chamomile tea and an actuarial table. Similarly, don’t write your books for bad readers. Your books will suffer from bad readers no matter what, so write them for brilliant, big-brained and big-hearted people who will love you for feeding their minds with feasts of beauty.
Maybe Eliot and Paul are boon companions and don’t consider themselves to be at odds at all, but I see these as opposite advice — write for yourself, vs. write for the reader. I have been wondering where I want to be on that continuum, possibly since I wrote my first story. I certainly relish certain selfish amusement in each book (the otters in The Winter of the Robots comes to mind) but I also think of readers, and (to be honest) I think of editors and reviewers.
I think I’m like a lot of writers, in every genre, who aren’t really literary but certainly aren’t bestsellers, and begins to think: should I give up any literary pretense and give myself all out to page turning action and intrigue? Or should I stop trying to have a pitch for my books and just wonder the corridors of my soul, in hope that the journey will lead to higher honors? I fantasize about doing one, then the other, and write yet another book that falls somewhere in the middle.