Sunday, January 30, 2011

When the Bestseller Eclipses Your Other Books

Today I finished reading Lionel Shriver's novel, So Much for That. I had wanted to read it for a while, simply because I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is about a fictional school massacre, told by the killer's mother in letters). The thing was, I'd read several reviews of So Much For That, and all of them had been quite lukewarm. It's the kind of thing that puts you off buying a book, sadly, and so I got my copy from the library.

So Much for That Of course, it's not the same story. Kevin is an amazing novel that had me engaged and stunned (in equal parts) from the beginning, not just for the subject matter but also for the insights, the style, the depth and its ability to really, confrontingly, make you think about what it means to be a parent. It was a book that stayed with me long after. But So Much For That has the same depth, the same lingering after-effects. It deals with, among other things, what it's like for a family with a member dying horribly of cancer, and the cost of the US health system and the farce of their health insurance system.

The characters are very real, with many flaws, but never unlikeable. No, this book didn't have the same impact on me that Kevin did, but I still thought it was terrific, and didn't deserve the lukewarm reviews. Is this the legacy of a bestseller?

I thought about different bestsellers that I'd read - Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, Snow Falling on Cedars, The God of Small Things - and what having a major bestseller means to the author's other books. Even if they've sold well before, or there had been other good ones since, somehow they all pale against The Big One. I've read lots of author interviews and what comes through a lot of the time is a weary impatience that this should be so.

It must feel like having several children you love equally but all anyone ever asks you about is the one who won an Olympic gold medal! And if that major bestseller is your first novel, how pressured an author must feel to 'do it again', knowing that it's probably not possible. Still, if nothing else, the bestseller usually sets you up for a great many years of writing without having to worry about how you'll pay the next power bill!


Sarah Allen said...

Hmmm, very interesting to think about. Thank you for this enlightening post :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Sarah. And I remembered the other book I was thinking of - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It was his fifth book, but has certainly eclipsed all the others, and makes you wonder how the next one will be received.

Anonymous said...

I loved Kevin if loved is the right word as I also found it extremely disturbing. I'll hunt up this book after reading your comments.
I did chase up a few of her older books after reading Kevin and was disappointed.
Do you think perhaps that when you love a book you want the next one to be more of the same? I wonder if I do sometimes, which is very boring of me!

Sherryl said...

Alison, I do think we expect more of the same (but different!). I think it's been so long since I read Kevin that I was more open to this novel, and had different expectations. So the expectations were more about great writing and deep characterisation than story, perhaps. I know the same can be comforting but does get boring - it's why I have given up on Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels.

Robyn Bavati said...

I love that analogy to having several kids you love but it's only the Olympic gold medalist everyone wants to talk about. It really must be hard on those authors - though not as hard as for those who don't have a single book people want to talk about.

Sherryl said...

Robyn, I think what is really heartbreaking is to have one novel that sinks out of sight. I know one author who spent ten years on her first novel and after a couple of lukewarm reviews, it faded away. And it was a terrific book! The competition is so fierce, it seems, and the bestsellers so "in your face"!