Built to last
In a time of throw-away fashionable clothing, pre-cooked microwavable meals, and when a new author’s retention time on brick and mortar store’s book-shelf is 6 weeks – if the book store gets it unpacked and on the shelf by day one of its six weeks… I guess I was born in the wrong era.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I like modern medicine a lot more than wire-brush-and-Dettol or sacrificing a clay replica of the afflicted body-part, but books that make it onto my shelf tend to have a very long retention time. I don’t sell them, even if I am foolish enough to lend them out. I’ve enjoyed them, and I want others to try them and enjoy them too… Which works, but they don’t always come home. Look, I wear clothes until they are past repairing. What is this fashion thing of which you speak? And I guess I am the same about books –at least some of them – I read and re-read until they fall apart. And, as often as not, I’ve hunted down another copy before that happens. They’re old friends I turn to in tough times.
Now… just as my sartorial elegance is bad news for the rag trade (unless they’re buying. I do produce rags, eventually), my reading habits are, I admit, not great for the book trade… except that if you’ve made it onto my re-read shelves, especially if you’ve made it into my comfort read selection… your next book is a shoo-in. Possibly in hard-back, if I can afford it. And then I will lend it to someone, forget who they were, and buy another. Sometimes this process gets repeated a lot – which has to be good for at least that author.
Of course, rather like rushing to sell that next ‘wear twice and throw away’ fashionable garment, the short term relationship with a book is short term profitable – but not what I’m looking for, and prepared to spend money on. I buy jeans and boots to last. I buy books pretty much the same way. I know, this is not for everyone, and popcorn books are popular and make money. Cool. But it’s not – as an author, what I am trying to achieve. Your mileage may vary. I was looking for the long tail, the sales that go on and on – possibly as more people are lent the book and it doesn’t come home.
So: the obvious strategy is to look at pre-existing examples, and say ‘what do those have in common?’ and ‘what can I do with my own craft to take advantage of that?’
The key thing here is to realize – when searching for pre-existing examples – is that this is somewhat like looking at a symptom – say a headache – and diagnosing cause. A lot of things can cause the symptom, in a lot of different degrees. There are books with a small cult following (not a bad thing if the cult is not too small, and your attempt can capitalize on the desire for more. John Scalzi made something of a career out of continuing H. Beam Piper. Eric and I have done quite well out of the Karres books.)
There are books which made such a shocking impact that few want to read them twice – but they want that impact made on others (that’s a high risk strategy, assuming both your skill and the situation the same as it was for that author.) The Lathe of Heaven, and the Handmaiden’s Tale spring to my mind. If one accounts for factors like the author’s reputation (for instance as an activist or literary figure) or someone making a movie or TV series, you may come to realize you’re asking a lot of yourself – or of the luck or connections it takes to get that to happen. Books like Dune or Lord of the Rings on the other hand were enduring favorites before the movies were made. – and would have gone right on selling without it. On the other hand: are you Herbert (and that was really his one outstandingly great book) or JRR Tolkien?
There are also books which endure because… they’re great reads but also comfort reads. This has been my target. I’m getting the comfort part right sometimes. Well. I like think I am.
Now, part of what I was doing today was to ask your opinions on what books you thought fitted the enduring comfort read. Books that may not last centuries, but will a few generations.
I’ll start the ball rolling with a few of my favorites – and why. Lest Darkness Fall – by L Sprague de Camp. Now, this is probably in ‘cult’ corner, but I just loved the lead character (so much so that I used him for the role model for my hero in Pyramid Scheme, mixed in with another de Camp character Robert Shea. But he’s more ‘Mouse’ Padway.) He’s a small, intelligent-and-not-physical archeologist, cast into a situation which is very physical, where brute force mostly triumphs. Padway can’t outfight – but he can out-think. It’s a problem solving book, with a level of satire (that floated right over me as a kid, when I first met the book). It is also easy to read, with realistic (and memorable) dialogue driving it. (‘Sure he’s honest. You just have to watch him.’) Yes, it is a happy ending (with a few elements of doubt), and it’s chock-full of fascinating little details of history – never a lecture, just seasoning.
The Black Sheep – Georgette Heyer. I’ve read this so often I quote chunks of the repartee. “Talking to you Sir, is like talking to an eel!” “Do you find them more responsive than gateposts?” As well the priceless “Will no-one save my poor Fanny?” The characters cleverly wrought – but (unlike Mouse Padway) none of them have much in common with me. However, it is once again the case that Miles uses his head to solve the problems, rather than brawn. I suppose that might appeal. It’s not that object to fights, I just like the trickery. And yes, once again the book is very easy reading, with a surprising amount of historical detail – but so lightly added it slides in. Needless to say – a happy end.
Fallon – Louis L’Amour – Now Macon Fallon is a man with a fast horse… and a glib tongue. There’s plenty of shooting and fighting – but there’s war with the mind and the mouth too. Again – easy to read, good dialogue, all tied in to a trickster-character. And although Fallon at the end won’t get any help out of his fast horse, it does have a happy ending…
I could go on for a long time, Poul Anderson, Diana Wynne Jones, Doris Sutcliffe Adams…
And every one of them sold, solidly, for years, and each author sold many other books. Not a prize winner among them. Invaluable additions to my comfort shelf.
So what are your enduring comfort reads?