Some people make a good living writing bestsellers, and I respect them, especially if they also happen to write good books. A fair number of bestsellers are also very good books. Writing a commercially successful book takes hard work and abilities that most people (including most writers) don’t have. To write a commercially successful novel that is also a very good book—I think of Life of Pi or Cloud Atlas or some of Louise Erdrich’s books—is almost miraculous, but it’s worth remembering that Faulkner and Hemingway were bestselling authors in their day. Not too long ago the New York Times fiction bestseller list didn’t include genre titles; now they predominate, and the list of genres has expanded to include almost everything. Meanwhile the publishers have tried to squeeze out profits through market segmentation, slicing and dicing the readers into a data feed of genres and sub-genres that define how their reading dollars will be spent. Writing the typical bestseller has become more an exercise in demographics than in literature. Yet the most inventive writers are always creating something new, even if the publishers can’t take their eyes off the rear-view mirror. Several of the biggest all-time bestsellers were initially rejected by multiple publishers because they pioneered new genres or sub-genres: John Grisham’s The Firm, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. I know one (former) editor who proudly boasts that he rejected The Firm and would do the same thing again today. Today we are seeing the big publishers running after 17-year-olds who self-publish on their phones!
Back to the question: Would you rather write a NY Times bestseller which is light and fluffy or a book from your heart written because you love it? Obviously that’s a false dichotomy. Most NY Times bestsellers aren’t light and fluffy—quite a few are dark, violent and heavy. And it’s quite possible for a really talented writer like Yann Martel or Louise Erdrich to write from the heart and also score a commercial success. As for myself, I think the best advice came from André Gide:
“Throw away my book: you must understand that it represents only one of a thousand attitudes. You must find your own. If someone else could have done something as well as you, don’t do it. If someone else could have said something as well as you, don’t say it—or written something as well as you, don’t write it. Grow fond only of that which you can find nowhere but in yourself, and create out of yourself, impatiently or patiently, ah! that most irreplaceable of beings.”
In other words, write the book that only you can write. No other book is worth writing. If you want to stay strictly within one of the accepted genres (which is something I’ve never been able to do), the challenge is all the greater: to stay within the genre and still write the book that only you can write. The best genre fiction writers are able to put that stamp of individuality on everything they write.
If you write the book that only you can write, the publishing industry may eventually catch up with you, as it did with John Grisham and Dan Brown. Or maybe not; they’re running a business. But here’s the good part: If they never catch up with you, you didn’t waste your time. If you enjoy writing as much as I do, you will have received 90% of the benefits that you could ever hope to achieve as a writer. The only part you may miss—unless you’re really lucky—is fame and fortune.
Thank you, Bruce. That was very interesting. Now let's move on to a blurb and excerpt.
The Rules of Dreaming
A novel of madness, music — and murder.
A beautiful opera singer hangs herself on the eve of her debut at the Met. Seven years later the opera she was rehearsing—Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann—begins to take over the lives of her two schizophrenic children, the doctors who treat them and everyone else who crosses their paths, until all are enmeshed in a world of deception and delusion, of madness and ultimately of evil and death. Onto this shadowy stage steps Nicole P., a graduate student who discovers that she too has been assigned a role in the drama. What strange destiny is being worked out in their lives?
Late last summer, after less than two months at the Palmer Institute, I witnessed an extraordinary performance. One of my patients, Hunter Morgan (that was not his real name), sat down at the piano in the patient lounge and started playing like a virtuoso. Hunter was a twenty-one year old schizophrenic who had lived in the Institute for the past seven years, and as far as anyone could remember he’d never touched the piano before. The piece he played was classical music—that was about all I could tell—and it sounded fiendishly difficult, a whirlwind of chords and notes strung together in a jarring rhythm that seemed the perfect analog of a mind spinning out of control. He continued playing for about ten minutes and then suddenly stopped in the middle of an intense climactic passage. Without acknowledging his audience—which consisted of his sister Antonia, his nurse Mrs. Paterson, a few other patients and myself—he stood up from the piano and ran out of the room.
Since I was new at the Institute, the impact of this performance was lost on me at first. I assumed that Hunter had been studying the piano from an early age. It wasn’t until later that afternoon, when I reviewed Hunter’s chart and questioned Mrs. Paterson specifically about the piano playing, that I realized how uncanny this incident really was.
“You mean he’s never played the piano before?”
Bruce Hartman has been a bookseller, pianist, songwriter and attorney. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous novel, Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, was published by Salvo Press in 2008.
Readers, follow Bruce's tour and comment often for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Tour dates can be found at http://goddessfishpromotions.blogspot.com/2013/04/virtual-book-tour-rules-of-dreaming-by.html