Breakout Books

The following piece was published ten or fifteen years ago.  If I didn’t think it still had validity I wouldn’t reprint it here…

RC

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FROM TIME TO TIME a writer bursts upon the literary scene with a first novel of astonishing accomplishment, and the world gasps as if witnessing the genesis of a supernova out of a hitherto undetected star. Critics poring over the author’s pedigree for clues to his development usually find only such banal biographical facts as that he was a reporter for his high school yearbook or a bridge columnist for some obscure midwestern newspaper. But this author had apparently been struck to his knees by a sublime inspiration and spewed the work out of his soul in one volcanic eruption. One thinks of Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Gone with the Wind, or Raintree County. In some cases the author never again rises to the height of his first book, and in not a few the author never writes another book at all. But that first book is enough to make the author’s name a household one forever after.

Professional writers often greet such events with mixed emotions. On the one hand they cannot help but join in the outpouring of adulation. On the other, if they are honest with themselves they will probably confess to intense envy. For, this . . . this amateur has somehow hit a grand slam home run on his very first time at bat, has achieved in one stroke something that most writers may never achieve in their lifetime, or may achieve only after decades of struggle and sacrifice: a breakout novel.

It is always instructive to examine a society’s underlying assumptions, and it seems to me that the big breakout has become an article of faith for everybody involved in the world of books, from publisher to critic to consumer. What disturbs me is that it has also become an article of faith for writers. But before I elaborate on that statement, let’s see if we can define a breakout book.

Implicit in the term is that there is something to break out from. In many cases it is a body of work in a genre, such as romance, science fiction, mystery, or western. Or it may simply be what is opprobriously termed the “midlist,” that purgatorial place between success and failure occupied by books that are good but not good enough, bad but not that bad, promising, interesting, nice, pleasant, okay, and a lot of other less-than-hyperbolic adjectives, books that are profitable enough to tantalize or not unprofitable enough to discourage.

The world of genre and midlist books is populated by writers whose fates are still being fashioned by the gods. Some of them will remain in their comfortable niches forever, content with nonhyperbolic work and relieved that there is always a buyer for their books. Others will hang in long enough to see their books hailed as venerable classics, probably after it is too late for them to appreciate it. Still others will drop (or be driven) out. And others still will break (or be broken) out.

The breakout process occurs in a number of ways. An influential critic “discovers” an author and proclaims his greatness to the world. This happened with William Kennedy (Ironweed) and John Irving (The World According to Garp). Thriller writer John D. MacDonald awoke one Sunday morning after toiling for decades to find his latest Travis McGee detective novel hailed on the front page of the influential New York Times Book Review. Or perhaps an army of loyal readers will storm the bookstores and cast a favorite into the pantheon by popular acclaim, as happened to Alice Walker and The Color Purple. Sometimes reading tastes veer unpredictably, exalting a cult figure into the mainstream, such as John Barth whose The Sotweed Factor was a college classic for a generation but until recently a well-kept secret from mass audiences. And finally there is the author who, by dint of Herculean effort, catapults himself (with the help of a substantial capital investment by his publisher) into the front rank with a work that shatters the mold of his former creations. It is this type that most publishing people mean when they talk about breaking out. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The breakout book marks a departure in quantity and quality. Often it is actually, physically, larger than previous works. Genre paperbacks range from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand words, generally speaking, and midlist hardcover fiction is seldom longer than, say, eighty-five thousand words. In order to justify the higher price that publishers charge for lead fiction, they look for works of at least one hundred thousand words, and in many cases the books run far longer. Recent best-sellers by some famous denizens of best-seller list summits are over one thousand printed hardcover pages long, extending to as much as half a million words between covers. Although these works can’t be defined as breakout books, since the authors have long and successful track records, they do illustrate the difference between best-selling authors, who are encouraged to write thick books, and midlist authors who are importuned to keep the length down. Although you may be able to break out with a gemlike Slim Little Volume, the tendency among star authors is definitely toward heft, for heft is equated, for better or worse, with importance.

Naturally, I don’t mean merely padding a hundred-thousand-word novel with fifty or a hundred thousand more words. The plot must be proportionately more complex, the time span longer, the characters more numerous and treated in greater depth, the mise-en-scène more elaborate, the details of time and place portrayed with greater attention. And even with all these elements, unless the author has breathed life into the work, it will not fly.

It’s hard to say just what it is that makes the difference. It’s not necessarily the writing, for horribly written books are exalted onto the best-seller lists all the time, and if you’ve been a bad writer all your life, it’s not likely your breakout book will be better written than anything else you’ve ever done. But there is certainly a departure in quality that marks the breakout book. Publishing people sometimes refer to it as the author “finding his voice,” meaning that he has fused a large, original, worthy subject and well-honed skills with the flame of inspiration and love.

And so, while the book may belong in a superficial sense to a category, it will amalgamate traditional category elements and formulas with that unique viewpoint, theme, style, passion—with that “voice”—to create something entirely new and grand and wonderful. The whole will be larger than its parts, so that it is not merely a super-romance or a super-mystery, a super-western or a super-science fiction novel. In a sense it will be a new genre. For example, occult and horror fiction were here long before Stephen King, but he transmuted the genre and stamped his name on it, as did Louis L’Amour with westerns, Georgette Heyer with period romances, Danielle Steele with contemporary romances, and Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein with science fiction.

Implicit in the breakout event is the sense that the author’s metamorphosis is permanent, and that henceforth he or she may be counted on to produce a consistent body of work in the same vein as the book that broke out. Reading the work of today’s best-selling authors, you get a strong impression that they’re not merely striving to repeat a winning combination, but rather have discovered their true identities in their books. James Michener with his geographical sagas, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford with their sex-and-power fantasies of the super-rich, John Jakes with his American historicals mingling fictional and factual characters, Sidney Sheldon with his tales of lust and vengeance—you might well wonder if in these instances soul, style, and story have not been blended into one entity.

As I’m drifting treacherously close to the metaphysical, let me bring you back to earth with a simple definition: you know an author has broken out when publishers start commissioning imitations, referring to the authors as if they were registered brand names. “I want a western family saga a la Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts, or maybe a little sexier like Janet Dailey’s Calders,” one might hear at the luncheon table. Or, “I’m looking for a writer to do England the way John Jakes has done America.” Or, “Do you have a client who can portray Madison Avenue the way Judith Krantz did Rodeo Drive?”

The big breakout requires, of course, the complete commitment of the publisher. But though you might think publishers are dying to push a ton of chips behind anything faintly resembling a breakout book, in truth they feel rather ambivalent about the process. For one thing, obviously, it costs an awful lot of money, and the premature launch of an unripened author, or a misjudgment about the “breakoutability” of a book, can create catastrophic losses and profound embarrassment followed by the sound of rolling heads. Publishers often therefore err on the side of caution, preferring to launch their breakout campaign only after the “numbers” on previous books by that author are immense, rather than hype somebody who has not built a broad audience. But by the time the publisher reaches the conclusion that the author’s moment has come, the author may be gone: his agent will have found a publisher that wasn’t so ambivalent.

From time to time, readers will actually be ahead of a publisher in the creation of a breakout. Publishers sometimes underestimate an author’s popularity and the demand for his work. In due time, the groundswell of demand for an author will be felt in a publisher’s office, thanks to reports by the salesmen out in the field, and if the publisher is smart he’ll ship as many copies of the next book as the traffic will bear. But if he is not alert, he’ll lose the author to a house that is. This happened when thriller writer Dick Francis switched from Harper to Putnam, where he now enjoys best-selling hardcover sales of every new book. Putnam knew the potential was there and detected the clamor that Francis’s previous publisher failed to hear.

I sometimes wonder whether writers shouldn’t step back and question whether breaking out is all it’s cracked up to be. While success has been a goal in all ages, I don’t think I am romanticizing the past in stating that the pressure to succeed has never been more intense for writers than it is now. Thirty-five years ago when I came into this business, there was among writers some sense that a life of quiet literary accomplishment book after book, the appreciation of a small but discriminating audience, and an income sufficient to support a middle-class lifestyle were worthy ideals. It was joy enough to be read; the heart swelled to see somebody reading one’s book on the subway or to come across it in a library (remember libraries?).

Today such goals seem not merely unattainable to most writers, but inconceivable. Although the shift in thinking has been evolutionary, for many writers the realization impacted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a series of blockbusters starting with The Godfather altered our thinking. No longer was it enough for a book to be read: it had to be experienced by the Global Village, had to become an international mass market multimedia event, in order for the author to feel fulfilled. Such feelings are promulgated and perpetuated by publishers and the press in the form of the “blockbuster mentality,” adding to the conviction most writers today have that they are faced with but two options: go for the jackpot or become a janitor. The anxiety generated by these forces is enormous. Authors no longer feel that they have time to patiently develop craftsmanship, to build an audience, to attract the attention of critics—in short, to become professional writers. Instead they feel they must come roaring off the blocks with a spectacular work.

Richard Curtis

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