Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Miriam Goderich wants to be swept away

So, I’ve been trying to come up with blog topics and feeling really uninspired. All I seem able to focus on these days is how far the stock market will tumble before mining equipment needs to be used to bring it back up and how much the media is ruining our political process (along with politicians who don’t seem to think it’s necessary to know anything about, well, anything before they decide they want to lead the free world). Problem for us in the publishing business is that everyone else is obsessing about the same things and as far as I can tell, we don’t have the book equivalent of Dancing with the Stars to take our minds off the harsh realities we’re faced with.

We need a new The Bridges of Madison County (never thought I’d say that!), a new The Thorn Birds or, for those of us who remember the ‘80s, a new Hollywood Wives to provide thoroughly escapist water cooler talk and the impetus to turn off CNN and be transported by great (if cheesy and farfetched) storytelling out of our everyday reality. Edgar Sawtelle just isn’t doing it for me, frankly.

My point is that it’s been a while since the whole country was talking about (and actually enjoying) a book that was not canonized by Oprah, written by James Patterson, or featured a vampire. Good yarns with big romance, big conflicts, and lots of cliffhangers are certainly not unheard of on the bestseller lists, but the kind of superlative trashy fiction that got people talking, created trends, and provided hours of mindless, titillating escapism is in short supply these days. Everything is put into a category – YA, mystery/thriller, paranormal, literary, etc. – and it often seems that readers are increasingly putting themselves into categories as well.

The beauty of those wonderful escapist novels (Gone with the Wind, anyone?) is that everyone read them regardless of whether they were considered “women’s” or “historical” or “commercial” fiction, everyone talked about them, and despite their literary shortcomings, they changed the publishing landscape. A look at the bestseller lists right now features a little of everything but nothing for everyone. Am I crazy or do you all agree? What great trashy fiction do you wish we were all reading again?


  1. A sweeping, sophisticated, contemporary family story would do it for me. Realistic enough to get lost in, fantastical enough to lose track of reality. Thornbirds meets Sex in the City. Evergreen meets Good in Bed. Gone with the Wind meets Under the Tuscan Sun. I love to read a novel, close it on my chest and think "Wait a minute, did that happen, or not?" I like to get so close that if ink rubbed off it would end up on my nose. Which is probably why I'll never end up with one of those electronic readers.

  2. I rather enjoyed DaVinci Code, which I finally got down thanks to the audio book. I just wish it was better written.

    A novelized version of "National Treasure" would have been ideal.

    Otherwise, a Pratchett-style fantasy.

    How come Americans can't seem to do fantasy like the Brits?

  3. . . . i'm heartened by your post. i'm finishing up a final edit on a novel that is bridges of madison county meets caroline myss with a little good in bed mixed in. and as i research who to send it to, who might be interested in reading it, i get that it's going to be the folks who need some escape.

    and yet, even though the books you mention are great rides, they also speak to something deep in the human heart. love that is true, the right thing done to honor it, both people having the courage to live it. vibrancy and courage and fortitude in the face of utter ruin.

    great literature feels so boundary shifting, challenging us to change our big picture perspective. but don't you think it's the more straightforward stories that we need sometimes to help us survive the more immediate moments . . . ?

    i've been renting lots of older dvds as a way of escape. blade runner and thelma and louise. dangerous liasons and xanadu. the matrix, the island, groundhog day, cool hand luke. i want to read current books that take us on rides like these . . . yes . . . books that transport us . . . where are they . . . ?

  4. Well...immediately TELEGRAPH DAYS by Larry McMurtry came to mind. I know it's not that new, but it will do these things for you. Maybe not the whole nation/world, but it's just really fun. Actually, I didn't read it...I listened to it on audio with the actress Annie Potts and I almost think it might have made it better because she's so tremendously talented!

    I write YA, so when I need this kind of fix, I usually pick up some British YA chick lit, like Louise Rennison. It works for me too, but definitely not the whole world!

  5. Robert Parker's Spenser detective books cheer me up every time, though they're hardly trashy. I've got just about every book in the series and I love the way Spenser can do all the things I can't: spar with bad guys and win; fight evil and triumph every time. They're like intelligent Marvel Comics for adults.

  6. Hi Bill - I think National Treasure was based on a series of novels, but the author's name eludes right now..

  7. A Thousand Splendid Suns was a good read. I used to love Leon Uris and Jacqueline Susann and James Michener.

  8. I love the Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

    The Daily Coyote: A Year with Charlie is a memoir due out in early Dec. I believe this one is going to be a classic!!

  9. I'd happily settle for everyone rushing out and buying my book... ! Sorry to be genre bound but it's a crime thriller. If you check out my blog about the lengthy publication process (including delays caused by a novice author who didn't have a clue how to write a book but somehow managed to sign a 3 book deal with a publisher anyway) you'll appreciate why I'm so thrilled to be nearly there. Publication only a few months away... !

  10. I totally agree!

    Although, when Anne Rice did the Vampire thing, it wasn't tired. And heaven knows, everyone read Harry Potter despite the genre.

    I'm so hooked on Jane Austen lately, and so glad to not be trapped in a reading genre. That's so boring. Blame everything on the marketing.

  11. Noir is my escape, especially with some humor thrown in.

    Watching babes throw themselves at hard-working, hard-loving PI's and seeing the good guys triumph the odds and win.

    Yes it is a fantasy. But sure, it's what we need right about now.

  12. How about "Silence of the Lambs." A horrific serial killer like Hannibal Lecter would get our minds off the economy.

  13. I've really been enjoying WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. I'm not sure it's GONE WITH THE WIND quality, but it's taken me away nicely. I'm a stock broker (and a writer) and I need the escape. I might also reread THE STAND. Nothing takes me away from my troubles like that book--at least we're not all dying of disease, right?

  14. The answer to your question is in my opion as a unpublished novelis the house are constantly searching for a ready made best seller that they easily market. It's sad

  15. I have written something I would like to think is in the realm of a YA version of "Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood." I enjoy reading stories that are deep, issue oriented and have humor strewn thoughout, as real life does. Unique characters that continue to haunt me are key.

  16. There are a lot of e-publishers already doing this. And they are gaining in numbers. too.

  17. I'm not sure there will be anymore culturally universal phenomena like HARRY POTTER Potter anymore. I read an article about the fragmentation of our cultural attention, and it was pretty convincing, but now I can't remember where I read it...


  18. "Gone With the Wind"? "The Thorn Birds"?

    Both are now considered too lengthy.
    If you were presented with the first ten pages of either of those books, you'd send out a form rejection, and you know it.

  19. Actually, Anonymous, I don't think I would have rejected either on the basis of 10 pages. Length is not the issue these days as commercial viability. We're all looking for immediately engaging storytelling and memorable characters you can fall in love with and follow to the end of the book. As I remember (and it has been a while) both GONE WITH THE WIND and THE THORN BIRDS do very well in those categories.

  20. I like to hear that you, personally, wouldn't reject books as long as GWTW based on ten pages.

    But cynical as it may sound, I have to agree with Anon @ 11:12 in a general sense with respect to length. Most would reject anything that lengthy; some would probably laugh.

    Now, on the positive side, I do think writers can produce some good "swept away" books at 50 to 60thousand words. And that's probably where the focus should be.

  21. 1
    Ivan had taken everything. Not that Cheryl Reece had much to begin with. But the hurricane had swept her shack and everything in it into virtual oblivion. Two days later without even a suitcase she left Grenada. All she had was her passport, the white shirt and blue dress she was wearing the day of the hurricane, and the plane ticket to Ontario she had used almost her entire savings to purchase.
    Now, crouched in a ditch on the Canadian-U.S. border, her white shirt had turned gray. It was dirt and sweat stained. She hoped the change in color would prevent light reflection. The flashlight beams of border patrol guards scanned the not so distance.
    Cheryl checked her watch, straining to see its unlit face in the moonlight. It was 11:40.
    Five more minutes, she thought. A car engine whirred and presently headlights gleamed on the road ahead. She pressed her face into the cool night earth and tried to stay calm.
    The watch had been her father’s. She had left him behind in Grenada. He too, like so many other Grenadians, had been ruined by Hurricane Ivan. For a fleeting moment Cheryl fantasized about finding a job in America and sending him money, but the rustling of leaves behind her snapped her back to the present. She whirled on her hands and knees. It was only the wind.
    Cheryl stood up and brushed her skirt off. She glanced at her watch again. 11:41. Time seemed to be practically frozen. Slowly she climbed out of the ditch and, staying low, made her way toward the road. Crickets and wind were the only sounds save for her quiet footsteps. Tree branches cast eerie shadows on the broken ground. Suddenly the rumble of car engine shattered the relative silence. Cheryl scanned the ground for cover. There was some tall grass by the roadside. Without hesitation she raced toward it. The roar of engine grew louder. Headlights seemed to light the world. Cheryl threw herself to the ground, sliding on her stomach into the cover of the grass. The headlights flashed above and, as quickly as they had come, were gone. A moment later the sound of engine had disappeared beneath the wind and crickets.
    Cheryl’s heart was whacking against her ribcage. She gasped air into her heaving lungs and looked at her watch again. 11:42. Time was moving so damn slowly!
    Another car was approaching, this one moving more slowly. Cheryl buried her face in the dirt. She could feel headlights burning on the roadside and then, abruptly, everything went dark. Tires squealed faintly on pavement. Cheryl rose up on her elbows and peered through the grass. A car had stopped on the side of the road not far from where she was hiding. Its door opened and shut, the engine still sputtering, and a shadowy figure emerged. Cheryl could not make out his features but she could see he was tall and black and, despite the summer heat, appeared to be wearing a trench coat.
    The man walked toward her then turned and paced in the other direction, clearly unaware she was there. He seemed nervous, flustered. Finally in a hushed voice he called out, “Cheryl Reece.”
    Cheryl didn’t think it was possible but her heart started beating even faster. “Hello,” she said in a cracked voice.
    The man saw her in the grass and waved for her to come. “Quickly,” he said. “There are police all around here.”
    He had a thick Caribbean accent- but not Grenadian, maybe St Lucian. Cheryl scrambled to her feet and ran toward him. His car was a battered red Ford Tempo. He opened the trunk and told her, “Get in. Don’t say a word. Don’t even make a sound. You must be absolutely quiet no matter what happens. Understand?”
    Cheryl nodded. As she clambered into the trunk the thought crossed her mind, What if this guy is a maniac? He could drive me anywhere and rape or kill me. But she had come too far to turn back now. The man peeled off his trench coat and laid it on top of her. It smelled from cheap cologne
    “Remember,” he said, “Be absolutely quiet.”
    The trunk slammed shut and she was plunged into darkness.

    Mike Washington was furious. He had spent two years saving up for this goddamn family vacation and now, in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean, his daughter Jessie had lost her passport.
    “Well have you searched your cabin?” he demanded.
    Fifteen year old Jessie shook her dyed blond head. “Yes,” she said meekly.
    “Well search it again!” Mike roared. Mike’s wife, Honey, rested her hand on his shoulder.
    “Calm down baby,” she said. She smiled sympathetically at Jessie who looked like she was about to cry. Mike was an intimidating man. Aside from being taller than average and having a thick brown beard, years of hard physical labor had given him a muscular build. Honey knew he scared his children when he yelled. Plus there were other passengers on the deck.
    “I’ll go look again,” Jessie said softly. She turned and headed back toward her cabin.
    Mike leaned against the railing and gazed down at the sea. White foam frothed around the cruise boat’s hull. “Damn kid’s sharp as a marble,” he muttered.
    “She’s fifteen,” Honey said.
    “George is ten,” Mike said, “and he hasn’t lost his passport.”
    Honey smiled and hugged Mike from behind. “Just wait ‘til he’s a teenager too,” she said, pressing her face into his back. “Something about being a teenager makes your brain stop working.”
    Mike almost smiled. The wind, the smell of salty air, and Honey’s long black hair whipping around his body had a calming effect. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’ll have to go to the Embassy at the next island we stop at and see about gettin’ her another passport.”
    Honey said, “I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
    The next island stop on their cruise was St Lucia, which doesn’t have a U.S. Embassy. But the day after their boat arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados. While the rest of the passengers on the cruise disembarked to explore the island’s shopping and beaches, Mike hailed a taxi and took his family to the only U.S. Embassy in the Eastern Caribbean.
    “Remember to be polite,” he said to his children as they climbed in the cab.
    His son George was a skinny introvert and almost always quiet- a little too quiet for a boy, as far as Mike was concerned. But at least he could trust his son to be well behaved. Jessie, on the other hand, was a handful. She had a habit of “runnin’ off at the mouth,” as Mike often put it. She wore clothes that were way too revealing for a girl her age- or any girl that was Mike’s daughter, if the truth be told. And lately her grades had been falling in school, which Mike blamed partially on her new boyfriend Hector.
    Nonetheless even fifteen year old Jessie understood the importance of getting her passport replaced and, as the taxi pulled into the Embassy parking lot, agreed to be on her best behavior.
    The U.S. Embassy in Barbados is an imposing yellow building. Four stories tall and almost equally wide, it is one of the largest most impressive buildings in an otherwise unassuming cityscape. The American flag flies proudly out front on what looked to Mike to be the tallest flagpole he had ever seen.
    Once inside the gated compound the Washington family was sent through a security check and then directed by blue uniformed guards into the Embassy’s Consular Section waiting room. The waiting room was large but crammed with people. Most of them were black Caribbean locals. The air was thick with the smells of sweaty, hungry humans. The front of the room was lined with about ten windows. Three young white adults were sitting in the windows, two men and one lady. The men were dressed in ties, the lady in business attire. Every few minutes one of them would announce through an intercom system a name or number and someone or some party from the waiting room would go to their window. The Washington’s found a section of bench long enough to accommodate all four of them and waited.
    “This is going to take forever,” Jessie whined, looking at the discouraged faces of people who had been waiting longer than her. She began tapping her feet on the brown marble floor.
    “Hush now,” Honey said. She glanced at Mike, worried he might snap at his daughter, but it seemed he hadn’t heard her complaint.
    It took a little over an hour before the intercom speakers crackled and said, “Jessie Washington to window five please.”
    “Finally,” Jessie said. She leaped up and followed her parents to the window where they were greeted by Jake Gold, one of Embassy Bridgetown’s three Consular Officers. From behind three inch thick bulletproof glass he looked to be about Mike’s age, but he was skinnier and his brown hair was starting to recede. He peered up from his computer and said,
    “Hi guys, what can I do for you?”
    “Well,” Mike said. “My daughter’s done gone and lost her passport.”
    Jake smiled reassuringly. “It happens,” he said. “Do you have any identification on you?”
    Mike said, “Sure,” and passed his passport and Jessie’s driver’s license through the tray at the bottom of the window.
    Jake examined the documents and then looked Jessie Washington up in the computer system. As he did he asked her, “How’d you lose you it?”
    Jessie shrugged. Mike nudged her and said, “Answer the man.”
    “I don’t know,” Jessie said, her round face turning red. “I think it must’ve fallen out of my pocket while we were in St Vincent.”
    “We’re on a Royal Caribbean cruise,” Honey said quickly. “We’ve been getting on and off the boat at all these different islands and I think she might’ve lost it when we went swimming or something.”
    Jake nodded and continued typing on his keyboard. “Alright,” he said after confirming Jessie Washington had a valid passport. “We’ll issue you an emergency passport.”
    Mike’s face lit up with relief. “Thanks man,” he said. He exhaled through his teeth and smiled. “That’s a load off my mind.” Honey patted his shoulder as if to say “I told you it wouldn’t be a problem.”
    “Not a big deal,” answered Jake. “However please keep in mind the emergency passport is only valid for one year. But if you send it to the passport agency with in one year, they will replace it with a full validity ten year passport for free.”
    “Ok,” Mike said. He held Jessie’s tiny arms with his massive hands. “Next time we’ll just staple it to your head,” he joked.
    Jessie, clearly embarrassed by her father’s affection, squirmed to get free from his grasp.
    “Alright,” Jake said. “Come back in about an hour and we’ll have that ready for you.”
    Everyone in the Washington family, even George, thanked Jake, but Mike was the most vocal.
    “Man, that makes me feel good about being American,” he said. “That we can just come in here and get that taken care of with no problem at all…And that we got the biggest dang building in this here island…seriously man. I really appreciate it.”
    Jake grinned. “It’s my pleasure,” he said. He reached into the box behind him and pulled out a clear plastic folder containing documents.
    “You know what?” Mike said. “I can trace my family lineage straight back to George Washington.”
    “You don’t say?” said Jake. It crossed his mind that Barbados was the only country outside of the U.S. George Washington had ever visited. But not wanting to provoke a conversation he decided not to say anything.
    “It’s true,” said Mike. “Got the same last name, so I’m about as American as you can get.” Honey, seeing Jake was busy, tugged at her husband’s arm. “Alright I’m coming,” said Mike. He rolled his eyes at Jake and said, “I bet Martha never rushed old George like she does me.”
    Jake just smiled and waved goodbye. He liked helping fellow U.S. citizens. It was too bad that was the smallest part of his job.

    Jake Gold, like his colleagues Kenny Taylor and Josephine Cox- like pretty much everyone in Foreign Service- had joined up because he enjoyed living in foreign countries. But the way Jake saw it his colleagues fit into one of two categories. Category one: Do-gooders. People out to change the world. Naïve twits, as far as Jake was concerned. Many of them were Mormon- about fifteen percent of State Department employees as far as he could tell- which is a lot considering they make up only two percent of the U.S. population. Most of them had done missionary work in some African or South American fuck-hole and would now care for their oversized family with the free housing all State Department employees serving overseas are provided.
    If they weren’t Mormon they had still done their time in some God forsaken country either serving in the Peace Corp or maybe just teaching English under the illusion that their journal, titled something like “My (insert name of fuck-hole country)” i.e. “My Tunisia” would eventually be published. Yet despite having the ego to assert literary ownership over a country, as if their experience and perception was so goddamn unique as to merit sharing it with the world, they would never call any country “God forsaken” or “fuck-hole.” To this breed all cultures were meant to be learned from and respected. Dying languages should be preserved, even at the expense of progress. Tibet should be freed. And most countries’ failings were more the result of U.S. imperialism than the corruption and ineptitude of their populations.
    Jake looked over at Josephine, the slim blond twenty eight year old Yale graduate sitting in the window to his left, and eyed her with contempt. She fell into Category one. She thought her role overseas as a Consular Officer was first and foremost ambassador of American goodwill. Josephine wanted every visa applicant to walk away, regardless of their answer, liking America and Americans. For her, visa interviews were diplomatic opportunities to overcome preconceived notions of American asshole-ism which she, like all Category one-ers, believed the entire world maintained because of a mix of failed U.S. policy, Hollywood, and drunken frat boys puking on elevators in Europe.
    Jake couldn’t stand her politics. He fell into Category two: jaded, unsympathetic, protectionist. He didn’t give a damn about U.S. reputation abroad beyond how conducive it was to the advancement of U.S. interests. And now, waiting for ticket holder 45 to make his way through the Consular Section waiting room to his window, he began to feel his stomach twist. He took the applicant’s documents out of its clear plastic folder.
    There were two passports, both from St Vincent, a DS-156 which is the standard non-immigrant visa application form, and a bank statement indicating 1050.00 Eastern Caribbean dollars (about 396.00 U.S. dollars) with an average six month balance of 50.00 E.C. There was also a job letter written on Sandal’s letterhead stating the applicant had worked at the resort for three years as a maintenance man. This was all very typical of what Jake pulled out of plastic folders all day long on the non-immigrant visa line. And, like many applicants with similar job history and financial situation, he was inclined to refuse the application. However, thumbing through the applicant’s passports, he could see the applicant had traveled to the U.S. several times in the past. Jake brought him up on the computer screen which also indicated he had been issued prior visas. Holding his breath Jake looked through the passports again which smelled from cigarettes and God knows what else.
    The United States does not have an exit stamp. It was difficult to tell how long the applicant had stayed in the U.S. on each visit. One entry stamp was from May 2006. A different page in the applicant’s passport had a St Vincent entry stamp from January 2007. There were more entry stamps to the U.S. and St Vincent but Jake did not have the time to look at them all. The applicant, Neville Bourne, was already at his window.

    Cheryl awoke with a start. The bump and thud of the road must have lulled her to sleep. But now panic seized her. Everything was black. Instinctively she tried to stand and banged her head on the hard metal trunk. She clutched her head and curled into a ball, breathing deeply, trying not to lose it. The trunk was filled with the stench of cheap cologne.
    She could feel the car slowing down and hear the engine soften. This is it, she thought, and as she did the car jarred to a stop. They were at the border.

    Should I keep going?

  22. Actually, Miriam, Anon. 11:12 (on 10/28) has a good point.

    Periodically, some cynical and enterprising writer will put together a mock submission using the first chapter of some piece of classic literature. It almost always gets a form rejection.

    I think someone actually wrote a book on this some time back.

    The exercise is usually carried out to prove that literary agents can't recognize good writing.

  23. I always thought the "mock submissions" were a bit silly. Times change, culture changes, tastes change and evolve. We move all mediums. I Love Lucy is a wonderful classic, but the general concept wouldn't work today (can you imagine a sitcom nowadays where the husband spanks his wife for buying a new hat?). And the same goes for books.

  24. I don't like this at all. This is EXACTLY the problem I have with agents, editors and publishers.

    There's plenty of unifying trashy fiction out there. THE DAVINCI CODE and the HARRY POTTER series are two examples of works as popular as GONE WITH THE WIND, THE THORN BIRDS, etc.


    All of these are popular novels. They were popular when they were published, they often flouted some convention or publishing "wisdom" concerning length, subject matter, and so on, and all of them are classics.

    Who is out there now, looking for what might be the next classic? Looking for something penetrating and deep and full of great description, unforgettable characteres, something unique and not at all like anything that's out there? Who wants it, who is looking for it, and what agent will really fight for it?

    That is all.

  25. You're right. I need a good story that's devoid of so many of the maudlin stereotypical crying jags that seem to be all to predictable. I want a voice that's not sentimental, and is compelling enough to get me through the entire book.

    Right now, I'm find the best reading in non-fiction. Books like Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea," or even Michael Yon's blogging on Iraq via his online magazine.

  26. Forever Amber.

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