Monday, April 16, 2007

Miriam Goderich discusses 1001 books (sort of)

One of my colleagues here at DGLM is obsessed with a list of the “1001 books you should read before you die.” (I won’t say who the colleague is but if you’ve been reading our blog posts, you’ll probably be able to guess.) This person forwarded the list to me and I started looking through it to see whether I could die happily knowing that I’d go to the part of heaven where the well-read people hang out debating relative greatness – Homer vs. Virgil; Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald; Flaubert vs. Turgenev; Mailer vs. Roth, et cetera ad nauseum. As it turns out, despite undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and a lifetime of defining myself as a bookworm, I haven’t read all 1001 titles. I long ago made peace with the fact that I will not ever be able to read all the books I want to read and certainly not all the classics -- it’s hard enough to keep up with the current bestsellers and award winners! What I found interesting about the list was how many of the books listed fell in the “liked-but-didn’t-love” or “outright-loathed” columns of my own personal ratings system, especially because other books by the same authors might be well established residents of my “love-love-love” column.

As the list-obsessed colleague and I were discussing why Heart of Darkness and The Old Man and the Sea are books to be admired rather than loved (as opposed to Lord Jim and The Sun Also Rises, for instance), I got a query from someone who said she hated a book I’d recommended on the “staff recommendations” section of our web site. None of this is surprising, of course. Literature is all about falling in love and there’s no accounting for taste. Despite all the experts, pundits and pedants trying to tell us what to like (and what not to like), the bottom line is that we all fall in love for different reasons, some as hard to explain as the mad crush we had on that odd-looking, nerdy kid back in seventh grade who wouldn’t give us the time of day (or maybe that’s just me). While I do believe that there are certain qualities that elevate the great from the so-so literature, part of the impact of a great book is how it affects us emotionally and intellectually when we’re reading it and how long it stays with us after. While unpacking a box of books from my basement the other day, I came across The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and just holding the dog-eared copies of Justine and Clea made me smile remembering my pleasure at discovering these titles. I don’t usually have the same reaction when I see my uncreased copy of Finnegan’s Wake, I’m afraid.

We in the publishing business spend a lot of time trying to communicate to authors why their work doesn’t grab us – especially when the writing is solid and the idea strong. We fall back on “I simply did not fall in love,” and many a frustrated and irate author has come back to us with “is that the best you can do for an explanation?” In fact, it is. Because in order to put in the time and energy required to see a novel through from query letter to publication to the morass of the current marketplace, we have to fall in love with it, believe in it, defend it when it’s rejected, and stay with it even when the critics take their shots at it and the buying public walks right by it on its way to the latest James Patterson thriller. For us it’s personal, as personal as any list you might make of your favorite books.


  1. You have given me peace of mind. For the first time I understand the words I've come to hate -- I didn't fall in love with it.

    Your clear answer with your justapositon of what you now read and your need to love it as compared to what you loved in the past, made sense to me.

    Thank you

  2. It's an interesting list. I turned it into a spreadsheet so that I can easily track my progress through the list (currently 145 titles into the list). The list is much heavier in recent lit, which in my case is probably a good thing for boosting my reading since, while I was an English major, I also was a bit of a snob and tended to avoid most books written after Thomas Hardy as well as eschewing the vast majority of American writers of any period. I'm currently working through the Register's top 100 novels of all time first, but I'm guessing that finishing off the list will probably be a lifetime activity unless I abandon my other reading, which I have no intention of doing.

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  4. I just "found" my copy of Justine again a few days ago as well, while in our family room looking through the bottom bookshelf, with my daughter, for another book.

    I still remember where I was and what I was dong the summer I first read it. I loved that book - read the Quartet over the course of that season - but this is the one that has stayed with me.

    I reread notes and page numbers that I'd written in the front of the book a long time ago. It was like finding old friends again - the book and a little bit of a younger me in a snapshot of that one summer.

    I used to plan to finish lists of books - and I still love the idea of it - but I find that I really have to love something now, to stay with it. Sometimes it comes down to a feeling that permeates the words, sometimes it comes down to certain strong scenes that stay with me.

  5. "I didn't love it...good luck in the future."
    Let me count the times I've read those words....
    Wait! Grisham didn't hear the words "I loved it!" until what?? his 100th query? So I guess there's still hope for me.
    1001 books to read before I die? Sorry, I'm too busy writing the next best seller.
    Someday I'll send you the query for it.

  6. Ah, the much feared response. It is certainly better than 'no.' I will say that the response goes over so much easier if there is a little 'but...' clause tossed in as well. While it obviously means more writing regarding responses, it is such a boon (at least to my writerly ego) to hear something of what that implied 'but...' is when you say, 'I didn't fall in love with it.' It could be anything you found positive about the writing, strong protaganist, great concept, excellent writing, or whatever. Even something generic like, 'I didn't love it, but you are talented writer,' goes a long way.

    Maybe that's just me, but I understand the enormous time crunch agents are always under, and how much quicker it is to just drop the form letter in the mail box.

  7. I've seen that list myself and it depressed me to death. I don't want to die and go to heaven; I want to live long enough to read a few more of those books. Or maybe die and come back as bookworm again just so I get another shot at them. By which time more books will have been published and added to the list and I'll never catch up...

    When my proposals are rejected, my assumption is always that I haven't managed to dress my books in a manner that makes them look as charming and compelling as I know them to be. So I brush them off, try a different presentation, and search for a new potential suitor, hoping that at some point I will hit on the right combination.

  8. This was a good post (and realistic, too). But I can't help wondering when does an agent decide to shop a book simply because it has mass appeal potential? And fight for it because they believe the mass market will buy it and enjoy it, even if it goes against their own personal tastes? Clearly, it happens every now and then.

    In other words, when it comes to agenting as a business is the objectivity ever clouded by the subjectivity, and if so, how does this relate to the overall sales figures of books(fiction)these days?

    Many well known designers have built their reputations creating haute couture for the top forty, but they make most of their money selling underwear to the mass market in WalMart.

  9. When an agent tells me she didn't connect with my character, it's very disappointing for me, as I guess it is for most writers. The characters are often so vivid in my mind -- so lively, realistic and active -- that it's hard for me to imagine why anyone wouldn't just fall absolutely 100 percent in love with them.

    It goes back to Elementary school writing principles. You (the writer) know what you mean. The reader is not inside your head. The trick is to get them there.

  10. There's nothing like a list of "musts" to bring out my childish rebellion gene.

  11. I wish they'd release 1001 you should not have read.

  12. Thank you for s'plaing (as Ricky Ricardo said) that there is no s'plaing why some books just grab you.

    Falling in love is what it's all about and what writer would want an agent that is not head over heels in love with her book?

  13. This the truth.
    I will go one step further and write: An author-agent realationship is like a "good marriage" or ANY "good relationship" and all that comes with it--the good, the bad, respect,commitment, forgiveness,space, the ups, the downs, the all arounds, etc.. Most importantly the glue that holds it (or ANY good realationship) together when nothing else will is the Love-Love-Love... However if it's bad then no one is happy for very long and it just falls by the wayside.
    And we authors certainly don't want that to happen!

  14. I love that commentary. I can't finish a book without characters I have fallen in love with, madly, deeply, truly.

    When I write, I fall in love with my characters, my antagonist included. I love them all. Otherwise, how could I ever tell the truth about them.

    I admire The Old Man, too, but can't love him.

    In my book I am submitting by request to Mr. McCarthy this week, I was amazed to find I loved the boy murderer as I wrote.

    To me, Dostoevstky and Soseki are the Kings of this quality. I ration their books over 10 year periods.

    Were it not for the second of my five husbands educating me in literature, I would have never known their characters, never thrown The Idiot across the room in tears in the last pages, refusing to finish it, sobbing.

    Thanks for the list. I'll consider it for sure.


  15. I don't have to fall in love with the characters, but I must find them compelling to follow. I just want to say this because I've known a few writer who are told, "I just don't like your character," and then change them to someone 'likeable,' when in fact, they were more resonant before.

    An example of an unlovable main character was Rhoda in Jo Silber's "Household Words." I didn't love this character --and neither did Ms. Silber, but she was portrayed so fully that in many ways, the circumstances so well wrought, that eventually, I could empathize with her.

    Another one is in the Anne Tyler novel, "Back When We Were Grownups." Rebecca makes a lot of cold moves, yet again, because her motivations and thoughts are so well expressed, we can follow her.

    In non-fiction, Barbara LaSalle expresses outright desperation and outrage in "Searching For Ben." Again, she's not exactly lovable, but neither are her circumstances. Yet, I followed her on her quest to take care of her autistic son.

    And by the way, Peter O'Toole was so gorgeous in "Lord Jim." Really, slay me. He was ridiculously handsome and troubled. Man-candy. Oh, yeah. Somebody peel me a grape.

  16. @ Don and everyone else

    if you want to know how many books you actually have to read a month before you die, download a free copy of Arukiyomi's automated spreadsheet.

    1500+ others have!