Blurbese: “quiet”

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I’m not usually one to pick on my own, but for illustrative purposes only there’s a line to which I’d like to draw your attention from Anne Gray Fischer’s most recent “Women In Trouble” column:

The stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga.” 

Ah, yes, the “quiet novel”; the quagmire of literary publishing.

See, reviewers love quiet novels. “Quiet” is generally a positive term in reviews, an oblique shorthand for “character-driven”—as opposed to “plot-driven”—or, at the very worst, a charitable way to acknowledge an otherwise commendable book as occasionally a little dull. Close relatives: “pensive,” “peaceful,” “understated,” etc.

The problem is, the people who actually have to sell books hate the quiet novel. Sure, established, best-selling literary authors can pull it off; people are going to buy Freedom and The Marriage Plot no matter how quiet they are. But for any other author, it’s an uphill battle. How do you market something where nothing really happens and the protagonist(s) just sit around musing a lot? Answer: you don’t. Why bother, when there are so many rip-roaring thrillers out there just waiting to whisk readers along with their plot?

I have some anecdotal evidence on this point from comments on my own novel. Take, first of all, this review of the manuscript from Publishers Weekly, when it was a semifinalist in the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award:

There are no great dramatic scenes in this story, but rather quiet, well-conceived episodes of hope and happiness that alternate with the inevitable disappointments and disillusionment of life.

Sounds okay coming from a reviewer, right? Now take a look at these evaluations from agents:

I felt it was lacking in narrative drive and as such I think that publishers will find it too quiet for the market.

Or:

As the book went along it gets more and more quiet… The response I get most from editors turning down fiction is that the work is too quiet.

I don’t dispute the description; my novel is quiet, and I accept the negative connotations of that along with the positive ones. Probably it is slightly slow in places. After all, those are the kinds of books I like to read, so why would I attempt to write anything else?

I know I’m not alone, here, either: lots of people, beyond reviewers, like quiet books. Take Annie Proulx, a celebrated author if ever there was one. Her Close Range—the collection to which we owe “Brokeback Mountain”—is beyond quiet. It’s silent. And yet the stories are moving and they’re also, witness Brokeback, wells of vast potential commercial success.

Which is why I worry, sometimes, about the publishing industry’s schizophrenic relationship to quiet books. If readers and reviewers love ‘em, and agents and publishers hate ‘em, what on earth are the authors supposed to do?