A tale of two genres
By Prioleau Alexander
I’ve always been in awe of novelists — their task is herculean, as they must not only develop a plotline and characters but also provide the reader with a sense of place, time, weather and local customs. It doesn’t work with my writing style, because a humorist enjoys the privilege of cutting to the chase.
Here’s an example: If a novelist attempted to write about a character like Hillary Clinton, it would take thousands of words — her looks, mannerisms, scandals, sociopathic need for power, abusive relationship with her husband, whispered accusations, factual crimes … a novelist would invest the time to build this picture in your mind. Thousands and thousands of words, hours of envisioning the character and crafting her entire persona.
My style makes things much simpler, as I’m going to let you build all the blah-blah about Hillary in your own mind. My entire character development would boil down to something like this: Jake received his drink from the bartender and looked around the fundraiser. To his dismay, the first person he locked eyes with was Hillary, and she gave him a smile so fake it’s rumored Kamala Harris admires it. Worse yet, he watched as she plodded towards him — Hillary, the single most loathsome, crooked, vapid, condescending hag in a vast ocean of remoras. She was the pantsuit-clad Great White shark in a pond of goldfish, except she smelled like body odor, cabbage and dry-cleaned polyester.
Great novels — written by great writers — are a “binge-worthy Netflix series” composed of only words … and there are no compliments when readers “see” the costumes; the writer must design and sew them in a reader’s mind. A novelist cannot excite or frighten readers with imposing music; they must write that symphony in your head. And they have no cinematographer who’s spent 20 years learning the art of filming panoramic beauty; for a novelist, every acre is theirs, and they must roll them out before you.
How would you, gentle reader, use 20,000 words to describe the city of Paris? The great plains of Montana under a full moon? The inside of the White House or an assault onto Omaha Beach?
I know I can’t do it. Sure, I can fake it for a few paragraphs imagining Pat Conroy’s core brilliance, but before long I don’t care. A real novelist might write of Paris, “The quaint cafés lining the sidewalk opened at 6 a.m. and spilled out onto the sidewalk the intoxicating smell of fresh bread, chocolate and coffee. For the next eight hours they catered to a menagerie of artists, bankers and America expats no longer even able to recall why they fled their home.
Add another 800 words, and you’ve got their café alone. Just that one café.
Me? We’re gonna speed walk past that café and write more along the lines of “It’s a typical French café where trust funders, white-collar grifters and losers on the run focus their energy on looking pretentious and choking down a $15-dollar sock juice they call coffee. Add in the berets, the stupid Perrier umbrellas and pointy shoes, and you’ve got a scene more appealing to an American A-10 pilot than a 40-mile caravan of broken-down Russian tanks.
Add zero more words, and you’ve got my café. Time to move on.
Currently, publishers are searching for the next big “young adult” series harder than Joe Biden searching for an off-prompter word: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent and the like. Why? Because parents are so excited to see their kids reading they’ll sell their nervous pills to get the next book in the series. In addition, the kids love the way they’re transported to a fantasy world — a world where their school isn’t assigning them Beowulf and Jane Eyre.
My reluctant attempt at writing a novel was brought on by friends and family insisting … and insisting … and insisting.
Me: I don’t know how to write in that style.
Them: Well, try. Everything with the word “Charleston” in the title in it sells.
Me: I don’t know.
Them: It doesn’t have to be any good. Just write something.
Me: You need four best sellers before you can sell books that aren’t any good.
My novel is based in Charleston and pits the locals against developers, traffic, gentrification, trophy homes, meter maids, hapless boat operators, fudge shops, the local government and any new arrival seeking to make Charleston even remotely like the place they left. In other words, it’s pretty much based on the thoughts of any native, or anyone here long enough to be viewed by natives as one of our own.
A first-time novelist must complete the entire manuscript before an agent will consider even giving it a look. And if an agent does give it a look, rest assured they aren’t thinking, “I’ll read a few chapters and see if it really begins to build.” Their thinking is more like, “I’ll give it three sentences, and if it’s the best three sentences I’ve ever read in any book, I’ll give it another sentence.”
Repeat that thinking sentence by sentence until the book ends.
Nonfiction, which I consider my sandbox, can be less risky. Yes, getting published is still 10,000 to one against, but you can enjoy a slight edge by picking a topic publishers have a known appetite for. I know, for instance, if I wrote a book entitled A Southern Male Confesses His Many Privileges and How Easy Life Has Been, it would get a look. The drawback is I’d have to type it at terminal velocity, having thrown myself off the Ravenel Bridge before finishing the first sentence. If I wrote a book entitled A Southern Male Offers 1,000 Facts That Cannot Be Disputed Because They Are Facts, I’d still end up at terminal velocity, having been thrown off the bridge by that coven of wisdom on “The View.”
You might notice that in the previous paragraph I wrote “publishers have an appetite for” and didn’t mention the public’s appetite. This is because unless you are a famous conservative and can shill your new book nonstop for weeks (ever listen to talk radio?), anything remotely conservative will be canned. The publishing industry is more a-woke than a mother rocking a teething baby with colic.
Catcher in the Rye wouldn’t get a look, because it centers around a private boarding school kid who refuses to acknowledge his privileged life. Catch-22 would go into the round file because it’s spreading dangerous misinformation about government inefficiencies. Breakfast of Champions? Makes light of mental illness. The Sun Also Rises? Anti-Semitic and overflowing with male toxicity. Moby Dick? Good luck with PETA.
Will I finish this novel? I can’t say. For good or ill, it’ll be different from the way novels are normally written. Will I be viewed as an outlaw like Cormac McCarthy? A creative like Kurt Vonnegut? A lunatic like James Joyce?
I think it will likely be reviewed as something like “This sounds like that dude who writes for the Mercury, if he was trying to utterly destroy his reputation as a writer.”
But … could it be big? A best seller? Probably not … but isn’t it pretty to think so?