I attended all three days of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) last weekend. Exhausting. I’m not used to being around hundreds of people for thirteen hours a day. I attended a few stellar workshops—Nancy Werlin’s cutting and revising presentation stands out—and a few mediocre ones. There were quite a lot of presentations on the “getting-your-book-published” side of things and a friend of mine noted that this conference is always an uneasy mixture of craft and marketing. Because of course, books need readers and from the publisher point of view the more the better.
But what makes a book sell? No one really knows, oddly enough, hence the headlong rush to copy the style of the latest best seller. But I think there is a thread that that runs through all extraordinary books and that thread is authenticity. The author has something to say and says it: truthfully, honestly, and often, painfully.
Authenticity sells because authenticity connects and the one thing that connects us all is our human condition. If a story is written authentically, readers connect to it. They sense its inherent honesty and by transmission, its inherent value to their lives.
America’s timeless stories—The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind—burn with the author’s passion. John Steinbeck and Harper Lee wrote from their hearts, not from the publishing pulse. They wrote because they had something to say and they said it. Authenticity, in both these books, rings like lead crystal tapped.
When we write authentically, we write from the very base of human longing and it is that longing which not only connects us all, but to which we long to be connected.
photos by Dorothea Lange
The focus of my last semester in the MFA program at Simmons College is on preparing us for the ‘real world’ that is, navigating the process of getting published. Which is as it should be, since the Simmons program is highly regarded and has placed many, many graduates in the publishing community as editors, authors, agents, and publicists.
But I find myself, in these classes, getting short tempered and snappy. I would like to have a book contract. (I think.) But if I’m stringently honest, I think what I most want is to be heard. And that brings up my conflict. I want to be heard, but do I need to be heard? There is a crucial difference here and it is the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption.
Self-reflection is the soft voice of curiosity and wonder––the musings of wanting to understand one’s place in the world. Self-absorption, by contrast, is the loud unceasing voice of need.
When I learn about book trends, and ‘what sells’, I switch from the voice of self-reflection to the voice of self-absorption. I get caught up in the craving—the need––to be heard, and that’s what makes me grumpy.
The world is becoming increasingly noisy, and the ante is being raised. The quiet voice is being replaced by the voice that shocks because that is the one that is heard. Many, if not most of the young adult novels I read for my classes were violent and/or dystopian. As I read, I wondered: are these books reflections of a jaded teen audience, genuinely speaking to their concerns, or are they exploiting the teen marketplace? Because remember, by far and away, authors of YA novels are not teens. They are adults.
I wanted to learn to write to express a creativity in me that tells me it’s time. But after a long day of hearing what sells––of being reminded of the endless American obsession with money––I am weary.
A different reminder (one that is especially poignant in this age of status updates): there’s more to life than selling yourself.
People want what they can’t have. I can’t speak for cave person days, but I can speak for early US history days. I used to live in a house that was built in the early seventeen hundreds, which for the United States, is early indeed. It was built fifty years before the United States was the United States.
In the Great Room of my former house, the original walls were finished with twenty inch wide panels of chestnut board, feather edged so they fit together hiding the seam, and planed smooth by hand. Today we would drool at such boards, and they would be worth a great deal of money in their patinated chestnut state. However, in the seventeen hundreds, chestnut trees grew large and freely. Their lumber was the workhorse of the building trade. Paneling a room in chestnut boards wasn’t a statement of status.
But painting them was. In early eighteenth century colonial America, paint–since it was not necessary for survival–was an indulgence. A painted wall was a statement of well-to-do-ness. And so the feather-edged chestnut walls in my eighteenth century house were painted a popular color called Prussian Blue. To my modern eyes, the painted walls were a god-awful color—a faded electric blue that in no way reminded me of the softened past. Hard to fathom that in the time, this color was the height of fashion. But it was. And in great part because it wasn’t easy to come by.
So paper books are not in danger of becoming extinct. Just as soon as having a printed paper book becomes hard to come by, having one will be desirable. Desire creates markets. Markets need products.
Tastes change, but the human quirk of wanting what is scarce will never change.