I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard
Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.
The Status Model
The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.
If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.
Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)
My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.
For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.
The Contract Model
The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.
Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.
For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.
Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.
Comments and questions welcome.