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.)
Yeah, I'll maintain that New York is over-represented in crime fiction too. Hardly a comprehensive list, but there are the old-timers including Stout, Woolrich, Puzo, and Sanders and the more recently deceased, e.g., Westlake and McBain, along with the still active Block, and there's Price, DeMille, Rozan, Starr, Fusilli, Carr.
The last Peter Abrahams I read was partly set in NY. One of the Lincoln and Child series is set there. There's Bayard's Poe sleuth, a Ken Bruen, Haddon's Curious Incident and Motherless Brooklyn. There's a Benjamin Black (i.e., a John Banville), and a new author by the name of Jason Pinter has a series set there. And honestly I've noticed a lot of writers who never really made it, but who based books in NYC, so I can't really recall their names.
I'm sure I'm leaving out loads of authors, but it's a very popular setting, it seems to me, partly because the people who make publishing decisions are very familiar with it, I maintain. I've heard some editors say they buy what interests them, that it's no good trying to figure out what the public wants, and what interests a lot of them is, surprise, surprise, home turf.
Like some others, I think your editor should clarify what, exactly, s/he means by 'necessary.' If the books are indeed good, and they're being published, presumably they have readers. To me, that's what 'justifies' a book.
I'm reminded of a quote by Sol Stein - something like 'The writer's job is to provide the reader with an experience outside the reader's normal life experience' - i.e., it's not to be relevant, or to be topical, or to produce Great Literature (tm). It's to capture the imagination of the reader and take them on a ride they can't take any other way. Now, is that 'necessary?' I dunno, but it's why *I* read.
The novel I'm currently working on - is it necessary? I doubt it. But does that diminish the value of it?
I do have to write. I don't feel good when I'm not engaged in some creative pursuit, writing being my preference.
I wrote a short story that was published a few years back in Crimespree Magazine. In it, Elvis is (or was) still alive, but making a living as an Elvis impersonator. Was that story necessary? Hardly, but it was loads of fun to write and from the feedback, it was loads of fun to read.
On the more serious side, I've addressed topics such as what the husband experiences when his beloved wife is raped; what a young cop experiences when he learns he has killed someone he shot who was committing a crime; what a teenager who has been the subject of molestation goes through when he realizes the next target of the pedofile is his younger brother.
None of these stories were necessary, but I think (or hope and have been told) that they offer some insight, a different perspective, and maybe opened a few eyes.
I think an author who worries "is this necessary" may cripple themselves and their ability to write and write well. I think it is more important to write the story that matters to YOU - if it is pure pleasure then so be it. If you have a point, that's great as well.
Necessary. The word itself is neither vague nor hard to define.
Necessary: Absolutely essential; indispensable.
Oxygen is necessary. Food is necessary.
I suppose it could be argued that art is sustenance for the soul; but, try offering a hungry man his choice of Moby Dick or a bag of rice.
He'll take the bag of rice every time.
This is a paragraph from a query letter I mocked up for my work in progress:
When seventeen-year-old asthmatic drummer Alexander “Maddog” Maddox dreams about shape-shifting into a bloodthirsty beast, he chalks it up to late-night pizza and Creature Feature comic books. But, when a local farmer reports the ghastly slaughter of a prize-winning lamb, and Alex wakes with dried blood on his chin, it soon becomes clear these are no ordinary nightmares. Convinced through flashes of clairvoyance that human victims (including his girlfriend) are next, Alex must race against time--and a flamboyant ghoul named Roary Rory from Respiratory--to prevent the future from happening.
Is any of that "necessary"? Nope. But it might be fun. It might entertain a certain demographic. When you get down to it, that's all we can really ask of literature and other forms of art. Getting all lofty and calling something "necessary" just makes me want to run the other way.
I guess how I define "necessary" is what we as writers are bringing new to the genre, what void are we filling. Each person has a distinct voice, but sometimes it takes a while to craft and chip away at that voice.
This point about being necessary helped me to think about my own series--am I seeking to just prolong my series because it contributes to my livelihood? Or is each book "necessary" to the body of work that I'm trying to create? I agree that we shouldn't overthink our creative attempts, but I think there's some value in reflection from time to time--especially for those who are trying to get published.
Is art/story/writing necessary? Not as necessary as food, shelter, good health, and family/friendship. But from the beginning of time, humans have felt the need to share stories, either orally or through drawings and then writing. There have been times in even our nation's history in which we've limited certain people's access to information and written stories, proving that reading and writing are powerful tools. Too bad we've taken these things for granted.
Those of us in love with the written word find it hard to imagine a life without books; but, I think there's a danger in thinking our contributions are necessary or even important. Of all the thousands and thousands of writers throughout history and in the world today, relatively few have been or will be remembered. Surely most writers, even the really good ones, don't believe their own work to be "necessary." Those who do are suffering from some sort of delusions, I think.
Thomas: I think that editor was using the word "necessary" in some grand sense that I just can't relate to. Fiction doesn't cure disease or feed the masses. It exists to entertain, and sometimes to seek answers about what it means to be human.
I would never try to inflate the importance of my own work by calling it "necessary." It might feel necessary to me, at the moment, but as a rationally-minded person, I realize whatever I might accomplish as an artist (even, say, winning the Nobel or the Pulitzer) is nothing but a speck in the big picture.
Entertainment and seeking answers about what it means to be human isn't necessary for survival, but it is necessary for our own personal solace. You said you may think your work is necessary to you at the moment, but not more than a speck in the big picture, but the big picture is made up of many tiny specks, and "the moment" is all you have. The book you're writing now may not feel important in the future, but something else will.
So the book you're writing now may not specifically be necessary, but entertainment and reflecting on what it means to be human are both endeavors that humans have pursued from the beginning, so there must be some need to do it. Writing is just one way to do it.