This post is coming to you from the as yet unfinished Bibliotopia via a nearly geriatric, (very) slow laptop. It is simply too hot upstairs where my primary computer is currently located and this room feels so right just now. Even my pooch prefers the coolness of the ground floor.
I went shopping at my favourite bookstore today. It is not uncommon for me to be there, nor is it uncommon for me to search the stacks, new and old, for novels that might resemble my own. I love reading, but I also like to keep abreast of what others are writing, what’s popular and what’s becoming cliché so I can avoid writing those. I have always had an aversion to the common or popular and so have, until recently, actively avoided reading (and writing) such fiction. My own library consists largely of unique or less well-known titles, of which I am proud, but about two years ago I decided to read from the “best-seller” and prize-winning lists to see what the fuss was all about. About 50% of the time I agree with the decisions of the judges; the other half the time I have found myself either indifferent or, in more than one case, outraged, by what I read. As a reader and a writer I believe in celebrating the beauty of human languages, and I am frequently dismayed by popular writers’ inability to capture that beauty in their own work. In these cases, too much emphasis has been given to plot or to themes and structure and there is a feeling that the book has been written in a hurry, or worse, to appeal to the skimmers and skippers of the reading community. I am a deliberate reader, which means I read closely and slowly, and I believe that if I have to skim any single passage or sentence to get to the good bits, then it is not a well-written book. For me to enjoy a novel, every word, every passage must be counted among the good bits. In my opinion, not enough attention is paid in many mass-published works to the choice of words, the construction and organisation of sentences and paragraphs and to the avoidance of clichés. Thus they are not unique and do not appeal to my literary mind. I fear that fiction has become more and more about quick-selling, dramatically-themed stories that will appeal to busy Generation Y’ers who have been taught to speed-read for the sake of expediency and less about celebrating the beauty of the language in which it is written. The latter is a skill that requires a lifetime of learning and an appreciation for the nuances of each syllable, the gravity of individual words and the meanings they actuate in the sentences for which they are chosen. Every word is a choice and affects the outcome of the whole, so words are not simply a base from which to start a sentence – every word has meaning.
Now you know the truth: I am a fussy reader, an old fashioned kind of girl with discriminating tastes. In essence I write what I would like to read. So today as I was browsing the stacks I was looking for examples of novels that achieve that delicate balance between a unique plot and good manipulation of grammar and vocabulary. I was feeling pretty self-satisfied that I still hadn’t found a book that mirrored my own masterpiece in the making: the concept is unique and the language is engaging . . . I think you can guess where this is going . . . and then I saw it: every novelists worst nightmare. At a quick glance it looks like any other book in the new release section and had my mind not been trained for the keywords contained in the books title I would have missed it. As soon as I read the title my heart tumbled into my belly. I cautioned my heart to be calm, that it was infinitely unlikely this book matched mine in premise and its plot. With a cautious hand I took the book off the shelf, drew in one fortifying breath and flipped the book to the back cover. By the third line my heart sank a little further, by the fourth line the fortifying breath was released in a slow sigh. Those keywords matched closely the ones I’d used to describe my own novel. I knew I had to buy this book to read it, because it appealed to me as a writer and because I had to know if this writer had written my book. If I was in a better mood I’d say this could be a case of synchronicity, but I’m not so I won’t.
I have yet to read this book and decide how much it resembles my unwritten work, but a preliminary perusing tells me that it does and it doesn’t and that there is still a large window for my own concept. Certain elements do not match so there is hope. But, if it turns out that mine would mirror this new novel too much I have a contingency plan. Every concept, every piece I write, has a contingency plan. There’s a good reason for this: too frequently in my “career” as a writer I have been dogged with an almost premonitory imagination. I can think of half a dozen instances where I have started working on, or completed, an extensive piece whose concept has been neither popular nor very much explored, only to find the market flooded several months later with the same genre or theme. By no means am I paranoid and think that some crafty wordsmith out there is tapping into my brain, stealing my ideas and beating me to the finish line. Often it can be as simple as synchronicity where causally unrelated events occur together in a meaningful way. More often it is related to the fact that there are so many writers across the globe, living in the 21st century, facing the same obstacles and issues, that your ideas are bound to intersect eventually with one or more other writers. This is the way that culture moves. This is why I have my contingency plan – my plan B, which I will implement in cases of emergency.
Do you have any experiences with this phenomena?