WWJCOD? (What Would Joyce Carol Oates Do?)

If we could all be like Joyce Carol Oates, the writing world would be a much better place.

See, Oates is in a unique position. She can write about whatever she wants – she even did a non-fiction book about boxing – and her publishers snap it up. She’s done literary novels, romances, I don’t know what all… and it all gets put out there. She could do a book about left-handed terrorist nuns, and it would end up in Borders on the shelf next to Chicken Soup for the Insurgent’s Soul.

But she’s the exception to the rule. Robert Ludlum once wrote a comic caper novel, The Road to Gandolfo, in the middle of his suspense thriller career. His editors pitched a fit. It ended up being published under another name until years later, when he had enough clout to have it reissued under his own name.

Discussing it this morning with my wife, she got me to admit that I thought the novel was bad, which I guess makes it a bad example – but on the other hand, it did get published, and I guess did all right when it came out under Ludlum’s name. However, what if Tom Clancy wanted to momentarily clear his head of techo clutter and wrote a rollicking coming of age comedy? After they wheeled his agent out on a gurney, the editor would say the same thing that Ludlum was told (he said as much himself in his introduction to the paperback reissue of Gandolfo):

“Not under your own name!”

Among other things, an author’s name becomes a brand name. You buy a Tom Clancy or a Danielle Steele or a Michael Crichton and you know what you’re going to get. Like when you go into a McDonald’s, you know you won’t find pate fois gras on the menu.

(I would mention Stephen King here, too, but late in his career he used his clout to wander from his chosen path, writing a more literary kind of horror novel. Whatever that is – I don’t know. At the end of the day, King might not have known, either – but I’ll bet that Joyce Carol Oates did.)

Thus, publishers, like any other purveyor of a well revered product (with the possible exception of Coca Cola in the early eighties), want to protect their brand names. They want their authors to be reliable, dependable, cranking out the same thing year after year, provided of course that it continues to sell. Which is why many of these literary experiments never see print.

What prompted all of this was my statement to my wife this morning that I should just write the novels that I want to write without regard to genre, putting different names on them as I go. This in turn was prompted by a series of thoughts I had in the shower.

I was thinking about a friend of mine who was trying to get a project off the ground. Everything was going fine until his girlfriend insinuated herself into the situation. As a result of this, all of his friends deserted the project, and he was left with no help at all. Then the relationship went the way of all things, and mirable dictu! – one by one, all of his friends came trickling back, and the project managed to launch, albeit late.

This, I thought, was a great example of the Yoko Effect, and then all of a sudden there it was, in a white moment. A novel called The Yoko Effect (or perhaps Ono, Not Again! – you can smack me later) about a handful of guys trying to do something (form a band? start a business? that part wasn’t clear) when the girlfriend of one comes in and gums things up. The book would be about the reactions of the different parties involved, and how they try to keep things going – some without help of the guy with the girl, another with help from the guy without the girl knowing, etc. I figured it would be a fun book to write, a nice piece of Lad Lit in the mold of Nick Hornby .

Then it was like I woke up. Me, Joe Clifford Faust, who is trying to write thrillers and is already struggling with ideas for romances, slice of life novels, and at least one more science fiction project. Yet another idea for yet another book in yet another genre.

I can hear my agent tearing his hair out from here.

Yet another project for the tomorrow file.

I guess I could either make the book into something with the trappings of a thriller (say they’re out to rob a bank?), but that would seem to go against the grain of the whole Lad Lit idea (somewhere an agent or editor reading this says, “That’s the point, dummy!”). I guess, like most ideas and notions like this, I’ll table it for a while and see what happens.

Meantime, if I were Joyce Carol Oates, the publisher would already have the advance in the mail.

Oh, well.

Or, perhaps, Ono.

Listening: The Who, “Eminence Front” (via iPod Shuffle)

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