Experience… and Popularity in the Novel

In some ways, the first three books of the Spellsong Cycle are among the most realistic fantasies I’ve written, particularly in dealing with sexual politics and intrigue. Interestingly enough, each of the five books received starred reviews from some literary source or another, and the last book was a book of the year for one literary review. None of my other fantasy series has received anywhere close to that sort of critical acclaim, but the books of the Spellsong Cycle don’t sell as well as those in my other fantasy series.

It can’t be because there’s no sex, since none of my books — except one, published more than 20 years ago — contain anything other than indirect allusions to sex. Is it because the main character is a middle-aged woman? Is it because the source of magic is the fairly technical application of song and accompaniment? Or is it because I dared to show certain very direct components of sexual discrimination?

All of those may play a part, but I suspect that the real reason is the same reason why my science fiction novel Archform:Beauty won plaudits and awards and only sold modestly. The success/failures of characters in both books hinge on the value of experience. No young hero saves the day against impossible odds. In the Spellsong Cycle, Anna bides her time, utilizes the bitter lessons of academic politics and a failed marriage to position herself so that, when the time comes, she can act effectively. She doesn’t hate men, but she has few illusions about either their strengths and weaknesses, and she’s not any easier in assessing those of her own “fair” sex, either.

In Archform:Beauty, the experiences of the five viewpoint characters — all told from the first person — interact and combine to create the resolution, and like most such resolutions in life, the results are bittersweet and mixed… and, also like life, anything but world-shaking.

This does bring up a point that has certainly been debated for years, if not centuries, and that is whether, except in exceedingly rare cases, books that hew closer to the realities of human emotions and experiences can ever be wildly popular. Is popularity based on the defiance of experience, the dream of identifying with what we as readers know to be impossible, but would still like to believe? Does it matter?

This might seem like an “eternal question,” but in a sense, it’s anything but eternal, because in terms of human culture, the modern novel is an extremely recent innovation. While epic tales date back millennia, and one of the first examples of what we would consider a novel is the eleventh century Japanese work, The Tale of Genji, such examples were either essentially oral traditions or hand-written longer works with extremely limited circulation. The modern novel needed the printing press, and a number of scholars suggest that Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, is the first of the modern novels.

And in practical terms, until the 1950s, and the wide-spread advent of paperback books, novels tended to be restricted to those who could afford them, and not a large percentage of the population could. While book publishers were clearly interested in profitability, “popularity” didn’t become the dominant issue with book publishers until the late nineteenth century, and didn’t become an overriding imperative until the last 50-75 years.

But the interplay of popularity and content do raise further questions. What is the point of publishing a book? To sell as many copies as possible? To make a great profit? To entertain? To enlighten? To educate? To raise issues? What trade-offs do publishers make… and why?

I’ve certainly been fortunate as an author to have been backed by a publisher who has allowed me to raise issues, sometimes less than popular ones, in what I’ve hoped is an interesting and entertaining manner… and I’ve seen other publishers who do, but I have to wonder, as I watch the media conglomerates strive for market saturation and pure profitability, how long truly thought-provoking books will be widely published.