Usually (and officially) when a guest author writes for the Literary Sofa it begins with me enjoying their book, getting in touch and suggesting a related topic that will interest my readers. Occasionally it’s the other way round and when Stephanie Butland offered me a piece in praise of the ‘quiet novel’, I didn’t hesitate. Reading her newly released second novel The Other Half of my Heart confirmed that she is the right person to address an issue close to my heart as a writer, and many of yours, I suspect. I spend a lot of time talking to readers – here, on Twitter, in real life – and so many people tell me these are the kind of novels they enjoy the most: about relationships, family, recognisable true-to-life situations with a dimension of reflection and depth, a vital element which is easily – and increasingly – sacrificed to pace. It’s time to speak up for quiet books and I’m delighted Stephanie is joining me to do just that (my mini-review follows):
In a nutshell:
- A quiet book is one not overburdened with sword fights, car chases, twists or uncanny parallels to whatever is currently preoccupying the news media.
- If you write a quiet book, publishers are less likely to buy it.
- If they do buy it, bookshops are less likely to stock it.
- Which means that readers are less likely to find it.
You’ll notice I said readers are less likely to ‘find’, not ‘buy’. When I put a shout out on social media for readers to tell me about the quiet books they love, I got enough titles to keep me reading for months. I’m someone who reads widely and often away from what’s stacked on the tables at bookshops, and I’d never heard of many of the titles. Readers told me why they loved these quiet books: believable characters, stories that read like real life, and feel relevant and true.
Reading those comments was a little bittersweet for me, because the reasons readers gave for loving quiet books are very similar to the things people say about my books. And my books, frankly, have not been bothering many bestseller lists. Hell, they haven’t been bothering many bookshops, despite being published by a huge publisher.
But this is an article, not a whine. It’s a privilege to be published – and if I thought I was the only author affected by the perils of quietude I’d be quiet about it myself. Not so. There are many of us in this understated boat.
Here, I think, is the problem. Publishing is a retail business and those involved in it believe that readers must be persuaded to read. (We don’t need persuading. We’d do it anyway.) Readers need exciting blurbs and ‘pickupability’ (yes, I’ve heard someone say that word with a straight face). And the thing we readers need most to persuade us to read a certain book is a Hook.
- It’s told from the point of view of a tree!
- It turns out the narrator has been dead all along!
- You don’t realise until the end that the child and the Prime Minister are the same person!
- (Or whatever.)
I’ve nothing against a hook, or a twist. I gasped aloud when I got to That Bit In Fingersmith Where You Realise and it’s still one of my favourite reading moments, ever.
What worries me, though, is that ‘an engaging, absorbing book that will stay with you long after you’ve read it’ (or whatever) is not considered to be a Hook by much of the bookselling industry – even though, for many readers, that’s the biggest, best, Hook there could ever be.
I used to be a bookseller. I sold books from charts, and books that came in to the shop by the score, and that was absolutely fine. But the books I loved selling were the ones that arrived a single copy at a time – the ones that the powers that be had decided wouldn’t be very popular. Sometimes they were books I’d read, more often books recommended to me by customers. By and large, they were quiet books. By and large, those readers came back to say how much they’d enjoyed them.
Bookselling wants to make it easy for readers. An example: my first novel was called Surrounded By Water. The title was changed to Letters To My Husband for paperback publication. (I didn’t much mind – or maybe I’d realised by then that, as an author, your purview is what’s between the covers, and the outside belongs to Sales.) The reasoning was: Surrounded By Water makes a lot of sense when you get to the end of the book but won’t necessarily make people buy it. In other words, the title was seen as a block. When I speak at author events, the title-change question often comes up. I say that Letters To My Husband was considered more commercial. Most readers curl their lips and say, well, I prefer Surrounded By Water. They know when they’re being underestimated.
Here’s the thing, Bookselling Industry. (I address myself to the behemoth that is you as a whole, rather the individuals who make you up, who are, in my experience, every bit as frustrated and exhausted by the way you work as readers are.) Writers and readers alike might prefer it if you spent less time, energy and money on creating Book Sensations and more on letting readers have a choice.
Maybe don’t decide in advance what’s going to be successful and blow your budget on that, leaving all the quiet books hoping for crumbs of column inches and the odd publicity tweet.
Go on. Give readers a choice, and a chance. You might get a pleasant surprise.
Thank you, Stephanie, for putting the case with such eloquence and insight. I have never hosted a piece I agree with so completely! Not every novel needs a killer hook or an extraordinary premise.
Do you enjoy (or write) quiet novels? Even if you don’t, we’d love to hear some more views…
All novels do need something special to get published in the first place and to keep the reader engaged. With a quiet novel, it won’t be a plot full of wild surprises, implausible happenings or unbearable suspense, which means a lot depends on the quality of the writing and the author’s ability to uncover interior lives and make the reader care about the characters. The Other Half of my Heart has strong romance elements and is beautifully written with layers of emotion and wisdom that will resonate with many readers, the familiar expressed with a distinctive delicacy that often had me nodding whilst thinking I’d never heard it put quite that way before. Although there is compassion in the portrayal of main character Bettina’s struggle with guilt and the lingering trauma of her past, the author is not afraid to make her prickly and distant at times, another thing that readers of this kind of fiction willingly accept – personally I can’t stand being emotionally manipulated. I empathised with Bettina because she felt like a real person, others will have their own response. It only remains to say that the rural equestrian community and the village that’s home to the bakery are depicted with colour and humour and the food descriptions are positively mouthwatering!
Next week I look forward to welcoming longstanding Literary Sofa reader Helen Mackinven to the blog as my guest, to talk about setting her debut novel Talk of the Toun in the small Scottish town where she grew up.