Thursday, July 14, 2011

Frankly my dear, you don't give a damn.

People are always asking me what my favorite books are, and for some reason I feel like answering that today.

With certain exceptions, I dislike books where the author has ever posed with a cat.

He who resembles Hannibal Lecter


Ye Olde Windbag






Anyway, I don’t usually ask about favorite books unless I’m curious about the individual. Or if someone recommends a book that I fall in love with, then I’ll ask them for recommendations later, but mostly to see if, by some miracle, our tastes match up on more than one title. Tastes are so subjective, it’s crazy to think that someone could like all the same favorite books as me – or even all the same books.

And yet…

Some books just appeal to a high percentage of everyone, even if a lot of them won’t admit it. (“Yes, I read the Da Vinci Code. SUCH bad writing. How on earth did he get published? I mean, the clichés! I almost couldn’t get through it. But it was interesting!”)

Anyway, I’ve also had this discussion a lot lately – what makes a bestseller? I don’t mean paperbacks where the girl gets the dream guy and the CIA nabs another terrorist and two weeks later you can’t remember a single character. I mean books that get HUGE and turn into cultural icons, like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code and George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – or going further back: Clan of the Cave Bear and Lord of the Rings and the Wizard of Oz. Books that not only sell millions of copies but which also inspire a kind of dogged, even twisted loyalty. People read these books because they’re in vogue, but then they fall in love with them and talk about them for years. It seems like everybody and their mother loves them, has read them, is talking about start to feel that they'll never go away. You know what I'm talking about. What makes that kind of book?

Some random answers from various conversations:

1 - Most of those books are fantasy. They involve the creation of other worlds that readers enjoy inhabiting – worlds you wish were real and that you could be a part of. So it takes a fantasy novel to make people fall in love, kind of like it takes airbrushing to make a Victoria’s Secret model….

2 - Corollary to the above: there’s something hardwired in the human brain that makes people appreciate fantasy. Witness the fact that every culture’s main artifacts are their myths, and we still listen to – and tell - and in some cases believe those stories today.

3 – Another corollary: Someone claimed that this was Tolkien’s answer, but whatever: that there’s something about the modern world that is essentially offensive to people’s souls. We live in the realm of the Lorax and we want grass and trees, so we look to novels or films to provide us with gratifying dramas set in magical landscapes with stories that involve the destruction of worlds and the desperate struggle to preserve those worlds. 

4 – Each of these novels did something unique and fresh. (My personal argument here is that each of these novels did MANY things unique and fresh, as well as many things OLD AS HELL, but they did them with alchemical intelligence. And I'm not sure how much of that was even conscious. If you're following me this far, you'll understand when I say I want to write a book called "Breaking Dawn: or When the Author Accidentally Shows that They Had No Idea What They Were Actually Doing." And one for screenwriters called: "Lost.")

5 – Each of these writers was slightly mad and had a gripping, all-consuming passion for their art. And everybody knows that tortured artists are better. (When they're dead.) Which I think is not even remotely true.

there has to be a key!
6 - Number one answer I hear from anyone in the publishing business: this kind of book is never made, there is just a magic conflux of events that blessed their literary souls: proper timing, cultural readiness, and good storytelling. And if anyone could please figure out the recipe for that magic conflux, please notify my publisher.

7 – Sheer dumb luck

8 – Voodoo

9 – A conspiracy of dumb readers, peasants with disposable income who could never be expected to appreciate the true genius of David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell or ye, any author named David (apologies to Sedaris). You know, those authors who say “screw you!” to basic ideas of, I don’t know, plot and character. If more readers appreciated this kind of butt-crack-of-the-bell-curve fiction then there wouldn’t be enough space left for books like Twilight to infect the planet.

(I think, as punishment for their vanity, all the Butt-Cracks who make this argument should be forced to sign their favorite authors’ books at Walmart in hell for however long it took each dissatisfied reader to grapple their way through the tedious fiction.)

10 – I’m sure I left something out.

I think the whole idea of a mystery series is that it's the long road to this phenomenon. For example: Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovitch. It’s like, if you write enough pages about this guy, or that girl, or this small town, then eventually you will have a full-scale fantasy novel on your hands – an utterly complete world that someone can slip into and stay in for years and know every nook and cranny of. One Lee Child book is fun, twenty is...hell, by then you’ve developed a frickin relationship with Reacher. 

You know how there are 5 or 6 flavor receptors on the tongue? Well, I feel like there 5 or 6 taste receptors in the storytelling brain, and apparently fantasy is a big one. Sometimes you taste the finest thing in the world, but if you have too much of it.... You people who are into zombie romance right now, you're like the Big Gulp gang of the literary world. You need to stop. 

Let’s say some of the above ten commandments are true. Then I want to know: What is it about people that makes them like fantasy so much? What is it about fantasy that appeals to people so much? What about all the great fantasy novels that DON'T get big? What are they failing to do, if anything? What sins have they committed? What vanities? What ignorance? Can someone answer that?

Good lord, this is long. 

And where is sci-fi in all of this? Why, the movies and TV. Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, the Matrix. 

Anyway, I’ve been sneaky. I’ve just told some favorite books and movies, except my favoritest of all, the answer of which is embedded in here in the most un-subtle way, if you care to notice. (How much do you really want it??? Ahh see, you don’t. More proof of the Zen mantra that I just invented: asking questions is a cheap man’s way of finding answers. Next time someone asks me what my favorite book is, I’m going to say paper.)

i said there were exceptions


  1. I like this post. Not just because you plug my silly blog, either.

  2. Why thank you, Epic. And thanks for stopping by.

  3. I just dropped by to say how much I loved "City of Veils" but now can't resist defending David Mitchell! His output is variable, but his best work ("Cloud Atlas", say) can hardly be accused of lacking plot and character. So there.

    Did I mention how much I loved "City of Veils"?

    I was struck by how effectively you portray the alienness of Saudi culture without ever losing sight of the character's humanity, and wondered about how "fantasy influenced" your writing is.

    Based on this post I guess the answer is "quite a lot". You've really pulled off what so many fantasy authors are trying to do: present the reader with a recognizably human society that is actuated by fundamental principles that are profoundly different from the ones they are familiar with.

  4. Loved "City of Veils" and "FInding Nouf." Pure pleasure reading. Please tell me there is more to look forward to with these characters.

    Is the favorite book "Gone with the Wind," and I'm ashamed to say I haven't ever read it. Mine's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I love most of Capote too.

  5. For me the answer is simple. My favorite book of all time is Cities of Salt by Abed Al Rahman Muneif. No better novel has ever been written.

  6. Eek! So sorry not have noticed these comments before! Lame lame.

    TJ - Ha! Point taken about David Mitchell. And thank you for your remarks about fantasy influence, I am delighted by that insight.

    kareninil - Yes, that's the favorite! Although okay, honestly, "Mockingbird" is up there for me as well. Thanks for reading my books. The third one, "Kingdom of Strangers" is coming out in June 2012.

    ihath - You rock! That book is amazing, I totally agree. Thanks for stopping by.


  7. Well . . . . . . . . . . . . ........ I'm more of a dog person, but about books, what is "Night of the Miraj?" Einar

  8. I think the epic series that capture a massive fan following also have a certain degree of character interaction; a large ensemble cast of unique individuals who form a fascinating dynamic.

    The time is ripe for an epic science fantasy series. TV and film is doing it, but books have yet to catch on with this.