one of those kind of books

My book is about a lot of things. On the very first page of my notebook, I have a list of all the things my novel is about. Some of them are vague and abstract (fragility and unexpected strength?), and some are less vague (a young marriage rooted in friendship?). It’s also a story about some birds. Really, it is. But nowhere on my list is the [big topical subject, or two] that happens to also come up in the book. It isn’t a story about “that” at all.

Or at least I hope it isn’t.

For a while, I was worried it would end up being “one of those kind of books” about [insert your favorite big topical subject matter here]. Not that there’s anything wrong with “those kind of books”. People love them. They sell well. They make people think and they make people talk, and the author gets invited to morning shows and Oprah to talk about [big topical subjects]. Jodi Picoult writes “those kind of books”, and I’ve read some of them before, and they’re interesting. You can tell when she talks about them that they’re “those kind of books”, because when she talks about them, she talks about the [big topical subject] they’re about. But I don’t think I’ll ever want to talk on a morning show, and that’s not the kind of book I want to write either.

The Cider House Rules is a good example (one of my favorite books ever!). If any book could be tagged as being “about abortion” I think that would be it. But in truth, it’s not about abortion at all. It’s about people, and what a person is entitled to do with his life, and what’s right or not right, what’s fair or not fair. It’s about love, and family, and sacrifice, and standing up for what you believe in. But no, it’s not really about abortion. Or I’d say, if you think it’s just about abortion, then you’re clearly not reading it deeply enough.

What is the difference then, and how do you make that difference stand out? I think one difference I see is in the characters. I imagine that when you sit down to write “one of those kind of books”, you start with an idea, a story about [big topical subject], and then you insert some characters.

Then the stories I like to write, and love to read, are ones where the story is so organic to these particular characters that no other characters could possibly take their place, because the story just wouldn’t work anymore. The story is the characters. Maybe that’s the difference? I love stories about people, not stories about [big topical subjects]. Though often people will run into these big topical subjects in their lives. It’s kind of unavoidable sometimes.

So I know what I want my book to be, and what I don’t want it to be. And I think I have one point to start with. Does anyone else see other differences, between “those kind of books” and the other kind, which somehow manage to be about much more than you’ll find at the surface level?

2 thoughts on “one of those kind of books

  1. I do see that when you have a big topical subject of some sort, it’s possible that a story like that came become out of date or trapped in time by the ideas around it. Where as the types of stories you tell are ones that will always be able to be read because they’re about people, and people are so multi-faceted and so different from one another they’re always a fascinating subject.

    Jay has pointed that out on Seinfeld. I noted one day how it was still a popular show and easy to get into. Even our young friends loved the show, and they were hardly a twinkle in their parents’ eyes at the time it was running on network TV. Jay was the one who pointed out it’s really about the people at its heart, and less about the topics of the day, it was easier to watch and get into.

  2. Oh I loved Seinfeld back in the day! I think the same thing about a lot of those shows, like Friends, or even now like The Office. It’s really the characters that make the show, and make the reruns watchable long after the series have ended.

    People are fascinating! 🙂

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