Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Abandoned novels

During the Christmas break, I began to read two novels and abandoned them both halfway through.

Both these books have been huge sellers, and have undoubtedly found an appreciative audience. So the fact that I didn't care to finish reading either of them is neither here nor there. But there may be, I think, some virtue in comparing and contrasting these two and seeing what can be learnt from their authors' careers so far.

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian

The first book was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. The Book Standard fills us in on the background of this one rather nicely:

The whopping $2-million advance first-time author Kostova received from Little, Brown for The Historian, her take on the classic Dracula story, may have raised some eyebrows in the publishing world, but it’s safe to say that Little, Brown can look on it as a good investment. The huge marketing push behind the book—publicists sent out more than 500 galley copies of the title to booksellers—also paid off. The Historian wound up moving 282,000 copies to take the No. 1 position in the Debut Novel category for titles first published during the award’s timeframe.

And that's just the American sales. According to the exceptionally well informed Galleycat, Little, Brown have more than recovered their whopping advance by selling foreign rights to overseas publishers.

So: $2 million for a first-time author, and a thousand and one other publishers fighting for it. Must be a pretty good read, right? Well, er -- sort of.

Elizabeth Kostova is a Yale graduate with an MFA from Michigan. And whatever else they teach them on MFA degree courses they evidently don't teach them to achieve their effects in a minimum of words. The Historian runs to 642 pages. So that's the first problem I had with it. It's long. And it's slow.

It's also a tad confusing. As I have remarked before, modern readers do not concentrate on a novel for two hours at a time while sitting quietly in their panelled library. On the contrary, they snatch five minutes here, ten minutes there, while on the bus, on the loo, waiting for the girl/boyfriend to turn up.

And the difficulty with The Historian is that the first 100 pages are complicated. We have a story being related in 2008 about events in 1972, with another character describing events in 1952. And 1932 comes into it somewhere as well. So chapter 4, for instance, is a first-person account of the narrator's father telling a story which was told to him by a third character. It's not exactly straightforward stuff. There are several competing first-person narratives here, and it's hard to remember who's what.

Another characteristic, which is not a problem for me, but which makes it far from obvious to me as to why an American publisher was so interested in the book, is that The Historian is a very European novel. And it's about old Europe at that. The Europe of deep, dark woods, castles, and wolves, and Hansel and Gretel. Little Red Riding Hood. It's a carefully researched, even scholarly novel, and it's about scholars. But it's not until about page 88 that we really know what the thing is all about.

And it turns out to be about Dracula. Basically what we have here is a plot made familiar by a dozen or two Hammer horror movies from the 1950s and 60s: namely, Dracula lives; and he's going around doing nasty things to people.

So. This is all very well. Promising enough. Quite commercial in its way. But I'm afraid I looked at the pile of other stuff beside my bed and really decided that some of the other stuff might be more rewarding. Which brings me to:

Ian Rankin: Fleshmarket Close

Ian Rankin's career stands in well defined contrast to that of Elizabeth Kostova, though he has a similar academic background. He was at one time working on a PhD, and planned a career as a professor of English literature. But he decided, very sensibly, that he would rather write books which people read than books which simply sat on the shelf of an academic library.

Unlike Kostova, Rankin did not have a smash hit with his first book. Or, for that matter, with any of the first half-dozen. And that alone sets him apart from the average writer of today. In a very wide-ranging and extremely interesting interview with the Bookslut, he describes how his publisher, Orion, had got to the point where they were about to dump him.

They were saying, 'Ian, we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried promoting you as best we can and it’s not working. You’re still selling a few thousand copies. We’re going to see if another publisher can do any better.' Which is a tactful way of saying you're out the door.

However, at that point he won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for 1997. Black and Blue became his breakthrough book. It sold four times as many copies as previous books and it was shortlisted for the Edgar award; it won a few awards overseas. 'Suddenly, I felt like I could make a living doing this. Up to that point, it was very fragile ground I was walking on.'

Yes, indeed. Not only was the ground fragile for Ian Rankin, but it was ground that, ten years later, few writers are going to get the chance to walk on. Not many publishers these days are going to give you half a dozen chances to find an audience. Today you either make a big impression with your first book or you can go fuck yourself. Not, of course, that anyone in publishing would put it that way, because they're all far too well bred; but that is pretty much what it amounts to.

After 1997, Rankin became a huge seller. Fleshmarket Close, paperbacked in August 2005, had sold 243,152 copies in the UK market by the year's end. His books have also been adapted for television. His detective, Rebus, was played initially by John Hannah, and a new series with Ken Stott in the lead role has just started. Stott is a fabulous actor, and I found the first episode extremely watchable.

Why then did I give up on Fleshmarket Close at page 254, with another 230 pages to go? Well, there was nothing really wrong with it. It was all highly professional. But I have read just a few too many novels about burnt-out detectives who drink and smoke too much and have problems with their women. That's all.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mic:

You can sure write a review.

Kind, polite (Are all europeans, polite?) and concise.

Will be sure to check out these
books at the local library
(for free).

Anonymous said...

I read 'The Historian' and enjoyed it from word go. I really enjoyed the flavour of old Europe and the building sense of fear and dread as I turned each page. My only quibble - well two quibbles actually - was the length (could have been chopped by 200 pages) and the ending (all this build up and it fizzled out into nothing much at all). As much as I liked this book, I don't think it's particularly brilliant and, like you, I fail to understand the marketing push behind it. Be interesting to see what she comes up with next - if anything at all.

Vikram Johri said...

count in The Ulysses from my side.

JoanneMarie Faust said...

I read all of The Historian. I don't think you'll suffer any permanent effects from not finishing it. The two things about the book that I did enjoy were (1) the travelogue of all those eastern bloc nations. I got about as close to them as I am ever going to. (2) Most vampire books have the bite being very sexual, often Dracula is out enrich his little vampire wife harem. Here, he's out to create an undead think tank, complete with an "evil librarian." How often do you hear of such things, really?

Maxine Clarke said...

Thanks for this post, I have been dithering over "The Historian" for ages and now I don't think I'll bother.
You haven't read "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell", have you? This is another massively long book that has been seriously promoted in the same manner as "The Historian" (and sounds similarly convoluted). Again, I can't decide whether to invest the time in reading it.
I had read "Fleshmarket Close" before reading your blog entry. I take your point, but I do enjoy reading Rankin. He hasn't plummeted in quality over the course of the books he's written inbetween "Black and Blue" and "FC", unlike James Patterson, who used to be good and now is so unbelievably bad -- most strikingly in the Alex Cross series, which started when Patterson wrote excitingly, but now are written by computer program (or something).


I think you could be a lot grumpier here. I know I was.

I started The Historian as well, but I found the writing so bad I got irritated and gave it away. I was exasperated to read that Kostova won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. I don't know if it was for The Historian, though.

I blogged about it here.

Coincidentally, I also started the Rankin book and didn't bother with the rest of it. Pretty much for the same reason as you. The whole genre seems to be in need of major renovation.

Anonymous said...

it was late last night that i decided i will either force myself to finish this book or i never will. i started skimming and scanning thru the last 200 pages, not giving a damn anymore to the endless, frivolous, minutely detailed describtions, or facts for tt matter. ms. kostova is just in love with every word she types, and in doing so, she sacrifices tempo and momentum in such a plot, where flipping thru pages as fast and breathless as one can should be the prime concern with a brick novel as this one.

also, ms. kostova seems to be quite under the effect of his bulgarian husband when it comes to formulating a stand point for the region's history and politics.