05 June 2010

Postapocalyptic Vampires Defeat Slender, Plotless Narratives

The publication of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, first of a “postapocalyptic vampire trilogy,” is bringing up a number of the issues I discussed last month at my SCBWI New England workshop on genre fiction.

One is the importance of plot in that approach to storytelling. Cronin told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam:

At Iowa in the mid-1980s, we were all trained to write these slender, plotless narratives, in the manner of Raymond Carver. I don’t think I heard the word ‘plot’ uttered during the two years I was there.
So who encouraged Cronin in creating a plot? He told the New York Times:
He got the idea during afternoon jaunts around the neighborhood with his daughter, Iris, then 9, who rode her bicycle while Mr. Cronin jogged.

“The game I suggested was Let’s Plan a Novel Together,” said Mr. Cronin…
Because kids want plot! Young readers don’t stand for “slender, plotless narratives,” even if they do come with Iowa pedigree.

Interestingly, Cronin’s agent was able to sell the trilogy in 2007 when it was only “half written.” He may have mapped out the ending, which is a crucial part of any satisfactory plot, but he hadn’t written it. But that was enough to produce large sums for both book and movie rights.

Those large sums bring up the next big point: the artistic, and perhaps artificial, dichotomy between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” In our culture, one commands more money, the other more respect. According to the Times’s estimate off BookScan, Cronin’s first two “literary” novels, Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, have sold “Probably about 74,000 copies combined.” That’s not bad for non-genre fiction, and his prizes indicated he was good for more, but it’s certainly not enough to pay for a college education when the nine-year-old grows up.

Cronin and his agent submitted the partial manuscript for The Passage under the pseudonym “Jordan Ainsley.” Back in 2007, the New York Times reported that “When the author’s identity was revealed to [winning bidder] Libby McGuire, Ballantine’s publisher, she said that the company would publish the book under Mr. Cronin’s name.” Which implies there was at least a possibility that the company could have chosen differently, and kept his name and perhaps his identity in darkness. If so, would that have protected Cronin from the taint of “Ainsley’s” genre work? Or protected “Ainsley” from the taint of Cronin’s midlist sales?

Cronin’s agent said in 2007: “We weren’t trying to hide who he was, but I didn’t want him to be typecast as one kind of author, and I thought this had vast commercial potential”—apparently lacking in the “one kind of author” Cronin already was.

In his Globe interview, Cronin characterizes the pseudonym in a more literary way:
I wanted to create an environment in which all categories were banished, so the editor wouldn’t know who the manuscript was from, or even if it was written by a man or a woman. I didn’t want them to think of the book with any predetermined qualities attached.
Beam queried if that was really a sneaky tactic, and Cronin replied, “If I was a good career tactician, I wouldn’t be a writer to begin with.”

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