Friday, August 21, 2009

Cooper Shatters Shibboleths

In a guest post at Nathan Brandsford – Literary Agent, Peter Cooper imagines how a literary agent would receive The Hobbit if Tolkien were trying to get it published today. Hilarity ensues. Excerpts:

Dear Mr. Tolkien,

Thank you for submitting a query for your children's novel, "The Hobbit". I regret to inform you that while the proposal shows merit, this agency may not be the best fit for your work.

If I might venture some feedback, your query letter needs to be improved if future submissions are to be met with success. Although well written, with some of the strongest grammar this agency has ever seen, your outline of the dilemma facing the main protagonist failed to engage me on an emotional level. You also spent far too much time talking about your professorship and expertise in Norse mythology and foreign languages. What has that got to do with anything? Tell me about your book!
Read the whole thing. Although I advocate authors writing stories that people actually read (hence the fact that this is a genre blog), I admire Cooper's hammering at the publishing industry's profit-driven shibboleths. For example, take the fictional agent's assertion that opening "with Bilbo in the grip of the Trolls" will "grab your young reader's attention" much more effectively than "back-story concerning 'hobbits' and their unusual living arrangements." But the sieze-them-by-their-nostrils-in-the-first-three-sentences opening has become so common that it's almost cliché. While lecturing at the Odyssey Writing Workshop, James Maxey noted, "So many books on writing are going to tell you that you want to start with the action, you want to start in the middle of something exciting. You need to have your spaceship crashing on the first page. I think that has led to more bad story starts than any other advice." His formula for a strong intro? Upfront information and lots of it, something Tolkien always provided in spades.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Blake Lawrence)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Thing is, even in Tolkien's day his stories weren't the most publishable. Tolkien was always one of those quirks who tapped into something powerful, but didn't (unlike many of his contemporaries) put much truck into writing "professionalism" or seeking audiences. The Hobbit, in fact, was published almost on accident--one of his students had a connection with the publisher.

The decision to publish The Lord of the Rings was made in the belief that the story would loose money. But that style of publisher--willing to publish unpopular works in order to promote what he thought of as enduring literature--seems to have mostly died a couple of years ago with Jim Baen.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, I can sympathize with the publishing industry as regards story introductions. Tolkien's introductions tended to be pulled off with not insignificant skill--whimsy and humor carry the reader through initial chapters, and I have no problem with that. (The same thing could be said about Gaiman's Stardust.) But since then, hundreds of "Tolkienesque" fantasy books start out with epic info dumps largely disconnected with anything human or personal. It looks like Tolkien, at a superficial level, but it doesn't really work. (I sometimes skip the introductions, and experience the joy of dislocation and trying to figure out the world from story-centered contextual clues.)

To conclude: an interesting tea-party can be a more effective introduction than a bitter swordfight, if the characters are engaging and the backstory well-paced in its introduction. But given a choice between blood-and-guts action introduction and info-dump epic prologue, I'd take the action scene any day.

Loren Eaton said...

But since then, hundreds of "Tolkienesque" fantasy books start out with epic info dumps largely disconnected with anything human or personal.

Completely agreed. I think that's part of the reason why China Mieville dislikes Tolkien (or, rather, his successors) so much. Few have been able to handle his archetypes with equal skill. Instead of being interesting, they come off as dull facsimiles.

There's such a fine balance between readability (or marketability, if you want) and excellence, isn't there? You want to simultaneously engage your audience while not pandering to them. Not an easy thing to do.