Give them what they want, give them what they need.

Not often the same thing, mayhaps:

Does anyone really want the publishing industry to give readers what they want? I know that I don’t want what I want–I want what I don’t yet know I want. Sure, I’m always happy to sink my teeth into a nice crime novel when I know it’s going to satisfy me in a particular way. But the whole point of literary fiction, and really the only thing that separates it from commercial fiction, is that it provides a new way of seeing. You’re not supposed to know you want to read it. You’re supposed to be surprised.

Increasingly, the publishing industry can’t stand surprise. It is bad for the bottom line. And the idea that the Times would suggest that the industry’s unpredictability is a problem really makes me want to give up, and just scawl my novels on bar napkins and staple them to phone poles.

What if it rains?

I know some of the biggest delights I’ve found in recent years, reading-wise, were certainly books that rocked my world – the coolness involved that I just didn’t see coming.  That said, there’s something to be said for knowing what you’ll get – Haruki Murakami, for example: you know, after all these books, that he might do some nice wonky things with cats, aloof women, head-scratching 30-something narrators, wells.  You know, in other words, what you’re getting.  Which isn’t to say there aren’t any eyebrow-raisers; just that you look to him for a certain patented blend of goodness.  Which, I think, is true on a much more general scale – you know, to a degree, that you’re in for a certain type of writing, unless you’re buying a book labeled like Led Zeppelin four – in other words, not at all, which is pretty rare.  Pretty unlikely that Paul Auster will be putting out a pop-up book, eh?  I guess it is some mix.  I like to know a little bit about what’s in the soup before I eat it.


2 Replies to “Give them what they want, give them what they need.”

  1. Another thing about knowing what you’re getting: I’m more likely to slog through an unpromising or slow beginning if I know and trust the writer. Or more likely to toss a book aside if it’s the same old writer’s same old tricks (see Auster).

    So it’s all about branding, is it?

    The same does not go for publishers, though. If an FSG book stinks on the first page, I’m no more likely to buy it than a book put out by anyone else.

    Does this have anything to do with your post? I don’t know. Just thoughts.

  2. Branding, yes.
    It’s a double edged sword. I’ve seen some growing Murakami backlash – people crying out because it’s the same old writer’s same old tricks, as you said. In his case, I disagree – same tricks, but presented differently, maybe. Or maybe I just enjoy the tricks so much.

    Auster, on the other hand, has devolved into a parody of his old tricks (the vaudeville feel of BF, the plain tired Scriptorium) –

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