My first new novel in two years is finally out this week. (Cue the trumpets.) It’s called The Opposite of Art, and I hope you’ll forgive a little boasting if I say right here in print that I think it’s my best work ever. I really do.
It has everything I love in a novel: strange and enigmatic characters, looming suspense, a love affair, beautiful settings, epic scale, more than a touch of the magical, and a persistent sense that there’s something important happening down below the words.
I know how bad it sounds for me to brag like this, but I don’t care. I just love this novel. I also predict it will be a commercial failure.
There are a lot of reasons it won’t sell many copies. 10,000 traditionally published novels out each year, for one. Not all of them can hit the bestseller lists. Not even most of them. In fact, just a fraction of them will come to any particular reader’s attention. After all, even if a person reads a novel every day, that’s only 365 in a year, which leaves 9,635 unread.
Plus there’s the fact that I hate all that marketing stuff the publishers have me doing, and it probably shows in poor execution. (Should I be saying things like this in public? I don’t know, which is probably Promotional Mistake Number One. And I don’t care, which is probably a Number Two. All I know is, like most writers I just want to write, and anything that interferes with writing is annoying.)
But to fully understand why The Opposite of Art won’t be a bestseller, you have to realize what it takes to satisfy a hundred thousand average readers or so.
If you’re reading this column, chances are you’re not one of those hundred thousand “average” readers. You’re more likely a published author, or a writer seriously trying to be published, or else one of those rare people so caught up reading that she wants to know everything she can find out about the art of writing. In short, you’re a true fiction lover, the way a gourmet loves fine food or a numismatist loves uncirculated coins, which means there’s nothing average about the way you read, which means if you want to satisfy that kind of reader, you have to work to understand them.
Begin with this: typical fiction readers seem to want all the loose ends tied up neatly in a novel. Every question answered. All mysteries dispelled in the end.
They won’t get that in The Opposite of Art. On the contrary, like most of my novels, it probably asks more questions than it answers.
When I was a little boy I annoyed my parents with the constant question, “Why?” Now I’m getting old, and I realize there are many questions nobody can answer. And you know what? I like it that way. I find asking questions without answers keeps life interesting. In fact, I can’t imagine how I could continue living if I knew the answer to everything (oh, the dreadful boredom of the gods).
Of course the major plot points are all brought together in the end of The Opposite of Art. I do play by the rules. But mysteries will also linger after the final page, because readers like me love loose ends. Most do not, but I do, so I’m okay with that.
On a related point, typical readers in the Christian fiction market in particular not only want all the questions answered in the end, they also seem to want the answers to include a message, a moral, or even (shudder) a clear doctrinal statement. You know: the way The Little Engine That Could teaches “don’t ever give up,” or The Cat in the Hat instructs one on the importance of tidying up before Mother comes home.
Again, I fear such readers will be disappointed in The Opposite of Art.
A certain kind of reader might encounter a few new ideas about the universe or eternity or whatever if they make an effort to think about the story while they read. They (you?) are the type of readers to be inspired, I hope, by the unanswered questions already mentioned. But I did my best to avoid writing plainly or overtly about Big Ideas. For those, readers must dig a little because above all, The Opposite of Art is a story about an artist who drowns, sees something he can’t begin to imagine, and comes back to life with a compulsion to paint that thing, even if it kills him. It’s a story, not a sermon or a parable, because I tend to think that’s what a novel ought to be.
Now here’s something strange: The very same readers who want a clear moral, or message, or doctrinal statement in a novel are usually the ones who don’t like thinking much about a novel. They want their Eternally Important Message, and they want a “fast paced page-turner” too, and they want it all in the same book!
I have never understood this, but it’s true.
Please don’t misunderstand. I enjoy page-turners as much as the next guy. At the beach, at the airport, or when I’m reading myself to sleep I think pulp fiction is great fun. I might even write a few pulp fiction novels one of these days.
And as you can probably tell by now I also enjoy literature, the kind of novel that makes me stop and re-read paragraphs just to savor the language or a thought. But both kinds of experiences in the same novel?
Thank you, no.
There mere idea of that makes me think of a restaurant where I had lunch recently. They were playing Ella Fitzgerald on the sound system, but I had a table near the kitchen and back there they were rocking out to Foreigner. Now, I love Ella, and Foreigner had some excellent material, but the experience of listening to both of them at once was absolutely awful.
While I do think The Opposite of Art will keep most readers interested from cover to cover, it is in no way intended to be a “page turner” in the classic sense. Instead, I wrote it for readers who want to stop, back up, and read some parts again. I love the kind of novel where the words themselves create a level of enjoyment in addition to the story that they tell, and I try hard to write the kind of novels that I enjoy. They don’t sell at newsstands, but writing that way makes be happy.
Every novelist has a thousand choices to make. Sometimes those choices are clear, and sometimes not so much. One of the first choices is probably the reason we sit down to write a novel in the first place. But even there, I’m okay without a complete answer.
I’ve never been totally certain why I write. I know only this for certain: I don’t write to answer questions; I don’t write to preach sermons; I don’t write to help my readers pass the time, and I don’t write just to tell a story.
All of which explains why The Opposite of Art won’t make me rich or famous. While that would be nice, there are about a thousand easier and more certain ways to get there so I’d be a fool to write for fame and fortune. Instead, I’ll just thank God for the (very) few people who truly love my work, and who are, of course, all geniuses.