This post of Seth Godin's, The Places You Go
talks about how, very often, emotions are
like rooms in our mental houses -- they are places we seek out
because we want to be in that state, rather than something that happens to us.
Being a marketing philosopher, he of course connects it to brands
, and mentions that the best brands figure out how to supply those states, those emotions, to people that visit them.
And I couldn't help but think about books
(and music, to some extent). How many of us return to (or seek out) a particular book for the way we want to feel, and build mental castles out of book spines, each room special-purpose, an emotional landscape we can return to and navigate over and over again.
I wonder if authors have trouble balancing
.. the urge to experiment
and play around with different kinds of books, and the readers' (and the publicists') wants for predictability
and for stable brands. From the reader's perspective, navigating the informational space of book preferences is an incredibly difficult task, and having found an author that you like, you of course hope that their other works will be similar, will provide that same thrill or connection. You know that the book
now became that one particular place where you go for a certain emotion, and you hope to expand that room, you hope that the author
becomes a room like that (or a series of related rooms, maybe). And some authors have no trouble delivering predictability -- they build a brand out of schoolboy wizards or buxom vampire hunters or whatever (and often this happens under the not inconsiderable pressure from their publisher), and just continue writing in that line.
But other authors are more like those brilliant indie music bands where each album is genre-breaking, and completely unlike the ones that came before. And of course, I understand it from the creator's perspective, too -- I already wrote
a novel about a wizard school for dragon fighter pilots/illuminati conspiracy/plucky multi-species debauchery and vampire hunting/etc, I'm done with that, now it's time for something else! How am I going to learn, how am I going to grow as an artist, if I don't experiment? Especially now, while I'm still young, and the pressure to stop experimenting and start pumping out similar hits is not as colossal (it's still there, but not as bad as when you'll be supporting villa mortgages and private schools and coke habits).
I suppose those artists, if they choose to follow their urges to experiment and diversify, succeed when they build meta-brands
(or when they themselves, their personality, are
the brands). Take Umberto Eco, for example. I keep wishing he would write Foucault's Pendulum
again, or at very least a Baudolino
. But although he doesn't, he's done with that, I still read all his novels, since I know what to expect of the meta-brand. It's going to be insanely well-researched and erudite, and meandering, and philosophical, and have Proustian levels of introspection and longing. Thomas Pynchon is the same way, for me -- though the subject matter of each book is wildly different, I'm still happy to read them all since the meta-brand remains the same -- it will also be well-researched and ultra-dense and full of in-jokes, and also subversive, and surreal, and feature more sex than Anita Blake ever dreamed of.
Now, those guys are mainstream fiction literary-acclaim powerhouses, so I imagine it's easier for them to write drastically different books. What I'm more interested in is genre fiction, and young writers who are still very much in the process of building their brands.
Specifically, I think about Cat Valente's/ catvalente
's brand and career a lot, in this context.
I'll always remember that one review of Palimpsest
which consisted of the reviewer's bewilderment of "why isn't this exactly like The Orphan's Tales? I wanted fairy tales dammit!". It was utterly ridiculous and un-professional as a reviewer, of course, but it illustrates an aspect of a reader's relationship with an author, especially if they're new to the author's work. There is a level of investment, of emotional inertia
, of having tried a delicious pastry and getting that thrill of, hey, there is a quality bakery right next to my house! Of course, then you find out that the pastry was an exception, and the shop is not a bakery but actually sells artisan anchovies, caviars and gourmet seafood. But I wanted a pastry! Yes, but notice that what the pastry and all the caviars and canned seafoods have in common, in that shop, is a wild, unorthodox use of cinnamon in the recipe
Far-strung analogies aside, every single one of catvalente
's books have been wildly different, written in a varying style, on different subject matter. You can't say that she writes nested fairy-tales, or urban fantasy, or about Japan, or medieaval myths, or Stalinist Russia, or early 19th century Italian villages. Can't say that she writes dreamlike Joycean prose (like The Labyrinth) or plain-spoken Young Adult (like Fairyland). To the extent that she has been successful, I think it's due to her building a meta-brand (and also herself as a brand, in the close relationship with her readers that she maintains through her blog).
Rather than a particular subject matter or series (at least at the moment -- narrowing of a brand can occur at any time, and perhaps she will become best-known for Fairyland
, or some other future series, to the exclusion of all else, and like Anthony Burgess she will protest, 'Guys, I wrote other books
you know'), what her books have in common are things like:
* Writing, even fantasy or scifi, has to be intense, personal, revelational, confessional. If it doesn't hit you in the gut, what is the point of it? And what do you bring to it, as an author?
* Each particular sentence should be as carefully crafted and well-worded as a line in a poem.
Transparent prose is bullshit
The insistence of "scifi/fantasy as a genre necessitates transparent prose" is bullshit. Prose writers should care about their word choices as much as poets.
* Trying to give voice to the voice-less. Given a particular myth or story, she often focuses on a character who is voiceless or neglected, who is mysterious, a cipher, but has very little lines. And then proceeds to tell the story from their perspective. She's done this in countless short stories, in The Grass-Cutting Sword
, in Deathless (the book focuses on Marya Morevna and Koschei, rather than Ivan, the traditional focus of the story), and many others.
* The universality, timelessness, and relevance
of myths and fairy tales to our daily lives. She constantly performs the act of translatio
, updating old stories to our new lives (through the lens of her own life, often), saying, look, these things are still in effect and have a lot to teach you. She understands that as humans, we can only understand and navigate our lives through stories, that there is nothing else. Stories help us live, and survive. And when completely new things come into the world (this is the future, after all), that call for new and previously untold stories, well, that's what science fiction is for (which I am delighted she is starting to work with).
* The saving power of obsession and want. (See also the lyrics to "Sacred Darling" by Gogol Bordello).
I'm sure there's other themes that I missed. As always, I'm fascinated to watch how she develops as a writer.