Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Cross-Over Book

Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed and judged American character and life in the first half of the nineteenth century, had some critical things to say about the literary styles that succeed among the people of a democracy.

"As the time they can devote to letters is very short, they seek to make the best use of the whole of it. They prefer books which may be easily procured, quickly read, and which require no learned researches to be understood.... Above all, they must have what is unexpected and new. They require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject....

"Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over-burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste."

The kind of bold that he's describing is not what I want from myself or the writers I read.

Unfortunately, de Tocqueville has a pretty good grasp of the kind of choices that the largest number of readers and publishers are still making in this country.

And that makes it very tempting to try to write to that audience.

Truly bold, however, may be doing one's own work without regard to that pressure. For me, it is to revise in a way aimed at satisfying my own standards and at the same time attempting to be accessible to readers in a hurry who are looking for a good time.

Not so easy. That's why for me the process takes so long.

It's because I'm "trying to serve two masters." That's supposed to be impossible, but I don't believe it. There's almost always one book on the bestseller lists that is complex and beautiful, even as it retains its "rude" American vigor. This is what's known in the trade as "the crossover book."

That's the slot I'm aiming for, the one that Tocqueville didn't mention.

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Debra w said...


I, for one, do not want to be force-fed my literature. I want to read things which are well thought out, inspiring and which leave me with the sense of being a better person for having experienced the world through a particular author's eyes. If a writer is trying to "dazzle" me with BS, I pick up on it fairly quickly, and usually end up dropping the book before the tenth page. If a writer is trying to adhere to a certain style or formula that will supposedly sell more books, that author is not one for me.

When I read, I want to be taken on a journey. I prefer it if that journey is a hopeful one in which the characters end up evolving and growing into better versions of themselves. I do not usually like to be startled or shaken just so that the writer can get my attention. I can tell if an author is being honest with me.

Peggy, your writing is both honest and complex. Your characters evoke a sense of growth and evolution. I am happy to go through the process with them. In my opinion, if you remain true to the "hearts" of your characters, you will be able to convey a story which satisfies many different types of readers. I think that even readers who enjoy a quick "good time" can sometimes be convinced to slow down and read something which consists of more substance, if they sense that it will be worth the ride.

I wish you luck in finding your own sense of balance, but I do hope that you will remain true to your craft. From what I have been able to read of your work so far, I am impressed by your ability to move your characters along without rushing things. Be careful about not giving that other master too much power.

billie said...

Peggy, I would love a few book recommendations for novels you consider good crossover books - right now I'm reading Ahab's Wife and after that Jon Clinch's Finn is up to bat after many months of hoarding in my reading pile.

Funny response on my part to the "serving two masters" thing - I feel like that should be a snap since in daily life I feel like I'm serving a multitude - between farm, children, husband, clients, and writing, two sounds easy... :)

I know what you mean, though, and I agree. Finding the balance between literary truth and marketability is a tough act.

Peggy said...

Good reminder, Debbie.

And on crossover book suggestions, Billie. How about The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Atonement by Ian McEwan (sp?), Possession by A.S. Byatt, Oral History by Lee Smith, or Angela Davis-Gardner's newly re-released Forms of Shelter?

billie said...

I've read all of the above, Peggy - love Atonement in particular, and Possession.

Excellent examples.

Peggy said...

I should-a known, Billie.

Okay, how about these? Anything by Richard Ford. The Easter Parade (I think that's right) by Yates. Most of Updike: his Maples stories particularly. Empire Falls by Richard Russo.

What do you suggest?

billie said...

I haven't read any of your second batch of suggestions - mostly I'm trolling for some new reading material!

Peggy said...

I think all of Margaret Atwood's novels are in the crossover category. Also, just started Wando Passo by David Payne (no relation) which I'm liking.