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Book Review, Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Stephanie Butland in Praise of the ‘Quiet Book’

SB author shot BWUsually (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…

Large cover image - THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEARTIN BRIEF: My View of The Other Half of my Heart

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!

 *POSTSCRIPT*

 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.

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

45 thoughts on “Guest Author – Stephanie Butland in Praise of the ‘Quiet Book’

  1. What a refreshing post. Hear hear for quiet books! I know exactly where Stephanie is coming from both as a reader and a writer. My novel is also a ‘quiet book’ where narrative voice takes precedence over plot and I’m excited to talk more about it next week on the sofa.

    Posted by helenmackinven | October 14, 2015, 16:30
  2. Yes, yes! YES!! This all chimes with me, completely. I love a good twist (who doesn’t?) but I don’t need a Big Twist in every novel I read. I recently re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge and I had to marvel at the complex humanity of Hardy’s protagonist Henchard. It’s a great novel and certainly “quiet”, with the only “shock” moment coming right at the start (genius). I love slow novels, character-driven novels, stories where silly things just wouldn’t dream of happening, where people talk and there is subtext. It doesn’t have to be “real life”. It’s sensationalism for its own sake that bores me. Great piece, thanks Stephanie and Isabel.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | October 14, 2015, 17:04
  3. Yes – couldn’t agree more. I love quiet novels that tell us something about the complexities of relationships, be they romantic or familial. relationships. The authors I love that write this kind of book include Tessa Hadley, Alice Munro, Maggie O’Farrell, Stephanie Bishop etc etc. I could go on endlessly. With my book, I’ve been told to really work on ‘the hook.’ Great food for thought, thanks.

    Posted by alison | October 14, 2015, 17:25
  4. You will not be surprised, Isabel, to hear I agree with every single word in this post. There seems to be a real disconnect between publishers / booksellers and many readers at the moment. As Stephanie said, there is a huge body of readers who are already readers, who don’t need to be hooked, who just need to be told where to find the ‘quiet’ books we love. A bit of marketing on this, not much, just a bit, would, I think, get the industry real returns for quite a small investment. Why spend all their budget getting slightly reluctant people to buy just one book when there is a back catalogue of excellent quiet books AND a large cohort of readers ready to pay good money to read them? I dare say the quiet readers are also the least likely to be downloading illegal PDF of popular books. We want these books! Take our money! It’s time for a quiet revolution.

    Note: This comment is in no way influenced by the fact that I will be schilling my own quiet book to agents early in 2016. Not in the slightest.

    Posted by rachaeldunlop | October 14, 2015, 17:33
  5. Enjoyed this blog immensely, recognising that when someone says “nothing actually happens, but I loved it” it is the sort of book written by such as Anne Enright.
    One writer you might not have come across – I could only buy her most recent book in Scotland – is Ajay Close. Things that happen are out of the ordinary, but it is interaction of character that drives them.

    Posted by Sandra Davies | October 14, 2015, 19:01
  6. Lovely post. Yes! YES! Some of the books I read decades ago fall into your quiet category, and I think back on them still. I’m remembering L.P.Harley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy, and plenty of Howard Spring – not just his hit, My Son, My Son (marvellous), but other unsung books where nothing really happens – but *loads* happens. Like Hard Facts, and These Lovers Fled Away. No idea why Howard Spring is out of print. He shouldn’t be.
    And yes, Sandra – Anne Enright. Nothing much happening, but layers and layers of quiet insight and subtly that utterly engross and are so thoroughly believable.
    Think I may enjoy your books, Stephanie. I’ll look them up.
    Three hushed cheers for the quiet book.

    Posted by Whisks | October 14, 2015, 19:59
  7. Love everything about this, truly! I read and write Quiet Fiction and I am so inspired by this, in general, and also by the authors’ names on here I hadn’t heard of! MORE QUIET READING FOR ME! But really, I feel like there is obviously room for all kinds of writers/books/characters and the ones that stay in my heart the longest are the quiet ones, indeed. This post really blessed me so thanks much y’all!

    Posted by Leesa Cross-Smith (@LeesaCrossSmith) | October 14, 2015, 20:25
    • (Also I’d like to add that as a Highly Sensitive and easily-overstimulated person I really really appreciate quiet time in a book. It stresses me out when something is “happening” on every page! I’m the same way with movies/tv shows. I love the time to take a breather and enoy the quiet moments between characters and the quiet moments characters have with themselves. These are my favorite life things too. Too much excitement wears me out, tbqh.)

      Posted by Leesa Cross-Smith (@LeesaCrossSmith) | October 14, 2015, 20:28
      • I agree. I need reflection time within the pages of a book – I like to be able to understand the significance of one thing before the next one thunders in.

        Posted by Stephanie | October 16, 2015, 15:34
  8. Excellent blog, Stephanie, and Isabel. I was just saying the other day how often I now come away from mainstream bookshops empty handed and uninspired. I’ve been reading lots of novels by indie publishers lately and there is lots of quiet but brilliant stuff coming out that the vast majority of readers won’t be able to find easily. Such a shame. And I wouldn’t have picked up Letters to my Husband but would have made a beeline for a novel called Surrounded by Water 🙂

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | October 15, 2015, 11:58
  9. A fantastic post… and you won’t be surprised, Isabel, that I for one second all the comments here! I’m having so many conversations at the moment with ALL sorts of readers and writers about how, if you want to read books that have no bearing on real life, you have this huge choice of magical realism, sci-fi, thriller, dystopian etc. – but quiet? That’ll be indie and/or old-school, then. It seems bizarre when you think Anne Tyler, feted as the best living American novelist, won a Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons: a story about a couple on a road trip in which nothing really happens – except, of course, you learn all there is to know about marriage and relationships. Or that Alice Munro, hailed as the world’s greatest short story writer, garnered countless awards for fiction about ‘normal’ people doing ‘normal’ things who still managed to express and explore every emotion known to man. Rachel has a really strong point: even if we readers don’t want ‘quiet’ all the time, the choice would be welcome. ‘Sensations’ aren’t sensations, after all, when they become the boring norm?! Surely more choice = more sales somewhere along the line?

    Posted by Jenny Knight | October 15, 2015, 14:54
    • I can’t help feeling that a lot of the novelists I love would never be published today. John Updike’s first novel, ‘The Poorhouse Fair’, is about an open day at a retirement home, is a classic example.

      Posted by Stephanie | October 16, 2015, 15:27
  10. I too identify and agree wholeheartedly with the blog and the comments from all of you; how heartening it is to believe there is a quiet revolution in progress. Thank you all.

    Posted by Holly | October 15, 2015, 16:21
  11. Thank you. This was incredibly refreshing to read. Some thoughtful and pertinent points made here. One of my favourite authors is Anne Tyler, who I think you would describe as the genius of the ‘quiet book’. I am trying to find representation for my debut novel, which I now realise probably falls into this quiet category. This has spurred me to keep submitting …

    Posted by Tracy Fells | October 15, 2015, 16:40
  12. What a fab post Stephenie. .. wholeheartedly agree with both post & comments. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I love a gripping, compelling twisty book but sometimes – more times – I love a quiet read… and in hindsight it’s those that provide a far more satisfying sustenance. Thankfully since joining Twitter I’ve found so many of the latter – books I never knew existed – not be loud promotions but small mentions from readers, writers & bloggers.

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | October 15, 2015, 20:18
  13. Oh my! Yes this is so true.
    In the same way I am sick of gritty police dramas where similar bloodthirsty crimes occur and it takes a few people grumbling away about cutbacks and procedures in dark rooms to solve it.
    I love a quiet story, I write quiet stories, I seek them out and buy them! I want to find an agent who loves them too. Thank you so much for this, I thought it was just me!

    Posted by Moira Please | October 16, 2015, 06:52
  14. Oh, and let’s not forget John Steinbeck. Even his epics like The Grapes of Wrath are full of dazzling minutiae of quiet. I thought I’d read all of his, but came across a novella, The Red Pony, recently. Such exquisite emotional range. So powerful in its understatement.
    Really enjoying this thread. Thanks Isabel and Stephanie and contributors – lots of books to check out. Yum.

    Posted by Whisks | October 18, 2015, 11:25
  15. I’ve just discovered Glen Duncan, via his ‘Love Remains’ a £1 punt from The Book Barn. Huge depth of character observation and exploration, wonderful writing and immensely thought-provoking about the nature of love and marriage. Contains sex and swearing too, if that’s a concern.

    Posted by Sandra Davies | October 18, 2015, 11:38
  16. Fascinating post. I too am a fan of ‘quiet books’ and one of the great things about having studied literature at university and taken an MA in Creative Writing is the opportunity to read and discuss many great novels (many contemporary too) — and the majority would qualify as ‘quiet’. Very few start with gory murders or apocalyptic explosions on the first page — the kind of event writers might be forgiven thinking is necessary to qualify as the hook to attract an agent or editor’s attention.

    There definitely seems to be a tendency for writers to hone the hook. There was a ‘tweet your novel’ competition run recently by an agency in which authors competed to condense their novel into 140 characters. Fine for certain novels but not likely to yield a thoughtful, quiet novel of the type celebrated in this comment thread. I’m glad Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler was mentioned. I would guess if you tweeted the plots of her novels then they wouldn’t jump out as particularly extraordinary.

    I wonder if this is a knock-on effect of the way books are marketed now. I’ve attended a few fascinating sessions at writing conferences where the commercial decision making processes of large publishers have been discussed. So much is based on analytics — even debut authors’ novels are analysed in terms of projected sales by comparing the novel with something ‘similar’. So it’s something of a no-brainer to rush out a vampire book if they’re flavour of the month but a lot more difficult to make a case for novels which have strengths in,for example, characterisation or writing style.

    Similarly, quiet books are likely to build sales more slowly, particularly over an author’s career, building a loyal following through word-of-mouth and access to a backlist. A publisher looking for a quick return on capital might prefer to invest in promoting a single title rather than a potentially slow-burning career.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | October 21, 2015, 13:00
    • I don’t think there’s a thing I could disagree with here, Mike! And I’ve heard several well-established writers admit (privately) to your last point – they are sure that if they had started their careers in today’s climate they never would have been given the chance to become successful, because their first, second and even third books didn’t sell particularly well.

      Posted by Stephanie | October 22, 2015, 11:48
  17. Fascinating post – 2 of my favourite books are If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon MacGregor in which a terrible thing happens but it is part of the fabric of life and the beautifully ordinary (that is a compliment) Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton. Quiet books that slip into your soul.

    Posted by Catherine Hokin (@cathokin) | October 22, 2015, 20:42
    • Patrick Hamilton! Forgotten about him, thanks. Just looked him up, and as one reviewer said, I’ve read Hangover Square (astonishing) and felt that reading any more would be a let-down – but the reviewer has changed my mind. On the list he goes. Sooo many tantalising books queueing up. Mmm.

      Posted by Whisks | October 22, 2015, 21:20
      • I’ve not, to my knowledge, heard of Patrick Hamilton (will look him up), but offer Jennifer Johnston and Elizabeth Harrower in exchange.

        Posted by Sandra Davies | October 23, 2015, 06:23
  18. Stoner by John Williams, which was published in 1965 but re-discovered a couple of years ago and acclaimed as a masterpiece. A quiet novel about a quiet man. A novel that made me cry and made me re-read it again immediately.

    Posted by barbarahudson2012 | December 3, 2015, 13:19

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