What are we to make of this?
It’s quite likely that there’s something wrong with me, some Creutzfeld-Jakob of the publishing brain. I turned down a publishable novel this weekend.
Really, there was nothing showstoppingly wrong with it. I yanked it out of the slushpile with lightning speed because the writing was top-notch. It was SF rather than F, which excited me because Mercury Retrograde is so heavily weighted in favor of fantasy. PoV slips were minor, and I felt certain I’d be able to coach the writer through where he was going wrong. And it started in media res, which almost never happens. I had every expectation of falling in love.
So why did I turn it down? Not because of any fault, but because of what it turned out to be: a sort of James-Bond-in-space with a female protag. Sounds like a great concept, right? This is the kind of thing that dominates the upper end of SFF novel sales, and a publisher with a better moneymaking brain would have jumped all over it. I’m sure it will sell quite soon–or within a timeframe that passes for “soon” in the publishing industry. In fact I’m certain the only reason it wound up on my desk is that the path to publication with a big house has grown so very, very long.
But for better or worse–or, more to the point, for richer or poorer–it was the things this very competent novelist didn’t dig into that made my decision for me: character and ideas. For me, it is not enough that a character is well-defined and heroic: I want to see him or her *develop*, deal with conflicts that are deep and defining and change as a result of confronting them. I don’t want the story to turn on an Achilles heel: I want to dig into why Achilles’ sexual orientation changed the course of the Trojan War. And great worldbuilding and gee-whiz-ness don’t do it for me unless they are there in service of ideas the author is exploring. I understand that most readers don’t share my needs: most read to be entertained, to zip through a story that gives them a good ride and maybe some good moments to roll around in their minds later. And that the smart money is in giving people entertaining diversions, not stories that will challenge them, ask them to become emotionally involved or even changed by what they read.
As a reader, though, it’s things in the latter category I want to read. As a writer, that’s what I want to write. As a publisher, I want to create a space where writers can do that sort of work without having to consider themselves failures if their work doesn’t get below the magic Thousand Mark on Amazon. But all I really knew when I decided to decline the offer of that very competent novel was that I didn’t love it. I had to wander around for several hours afteward, trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.
It’s possible that I recognized with my artist-brain, long before my conscious mind caught up, that to start down the path of choosing novels for monetary rather than artistic reasons is to risk artistic ruin. But it’s also possible that I just have Mad Cow.