I'm going to be leading a fiction workshop for young, emerging writers next month and I plan to bring up some points made by a group of editors and agents in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers magazine.
An editor at FSG states: "Beyond a good story, beyond good writing, does the novel feel necessary? A lot of good books are written, and I'm not saying that they shouldn't be published . . . the ones I tend to be drawn to are the ones that either feel personally necessary or globally necessary in some vague way that's hard to define."
I think more than ever in these hard economic times, whether we are writing a comedic genre series or a serious literary novel, we need to bring something fresh, necessary to the table. (Of course, this doesn't apply to best-selling writers who already have a strong readership base.)
I guess it depends on your definition of "necessary." if you mean the strict dictionary definition (being essential, indispensable, or requisite), which means, basically, something you can't do without. By that definition, nothing we write is "necessary." Life goes on, and it will go on pretty much the same as it did before. I think terms like "necessary" and "important" are most used to pump up authors', editors', and publishers' egos. A book may be necessary or important in the context of other books, but to life in general? Extremely rare.
I think entertainment is necessary. Even more so in bleak times. Nothing passes the time like a good book. I may not write anything earth-shattering or profound, but I like to think that what I write is some good fun.
Though, I do somewhat agree with fresh. At least fresh enough that it doesn't feel like retread. But that's a given in any time.
"It's been said that Poe wrote to avoid going insane."
It didn't work.
I'm always leery when I hear someone "can't not write." No offense, as I know this next statement doesn't apply to everyone who says it, but using that as a definition of a "real" writer is dangerous. I know people who say they can't not write. Unfortunately, what they feel compelled to write is self-indulgent bullshit.
Good point. It would be a good thing all the way around if about 90% of the people who say they can't not write could find a way to stop themselves--Xanax and martinis, maybe, or electro-shock. That said, I prefer not writing--it's boring, often annoying, sometimes a mild form of torture, especially on a nice day when everyone else is out playing. I'm sufficiently mentally ill, though, that I get grouchy and disoriented if I'm not working on something. It's a form of OCD, I'm pretty sure.
I don't know what that means, except that a book might "feel necessary" if it says something that needs saying, or tells a story that needs telling. That judgment seems entirely personal, though--one man's tedious suburban anomie story may be another man's vital social manifesto. Still, as an editor it might be hard to articulate what it is, exactly, that you're looking for. What's the difference between a merely good book and a book you want to publish? You know it when you see it, I suppose. One response I've gotten from editors in both poetry and fiction is "I liked it, but I didn't love it." The FSG guy might as well have said "I have to love it." It would've told me pretty much the same thing.