Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen to You

UPDATE 4/25/2010: I just ran across this interview from last year with Paul Harding on Powells.com. Thought some of you might be interested.

MaryJBlog sent me this link the other day and it was too good not to share.

Paul Harding’s manuscript for Tinkers had lain dormant and neglected in a drawer for three years after numerous rejections before it not only found a publisher (somehow it was resurrected, although the article doesn’t go into how or when or why) but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, after which more literary goodness flowed in:

Within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed with Mr. Harding late in 2009. A few days later the Guggenheim Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.

Thanks largely to the efforts of independent booksellers, the book was touted and lauded, despite being entirely overlooked by the New York Times who did not even review it.

I find it disturbing that the early agents who read and rejected the manuscript were still looking for some kind of formulaic story with car chases and fast-paced action and dialogue, completely dismissing the writing itself. No one, they said, wanted to read a nice, quiet, well-written book.

And how many times have writers been advised not to write to the current market? You can’t target your writing to what’s hot RIGHT NOW, because tomorrow’s RIGHT NOW could be something else again.

I guess the moral of the story is, write what you love, what moves you. Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead, Harding’s former teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (and now his friend) sums it up thusly:

One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they don’t have to calculate the market,” Ms. Robinson said. “Now that I have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more.

Makes me feel better, how ’bout you? Support your local independent bookseller! They may be our last, best hope.

23 thoughts on “Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen to You

  1. It’s like they’re all thinking in lock-step. One agent gets it into their head to look for one kind of book, and they all jump on the bandwagon and go looking for the exact same thing, as if only one type of book is allowed to be published. I think this is what’s killing the industry, this myopic view of what they think people want to read.


  2. Speaking of nice quiet well-written books, I haven’t read Harding’s book yet, but Marilynne’s Robinson’s Gilead is one of the best books I can remember reading. It does start out a little slow, but once you get used to the pace, it’s EXTRAORDINARY..


    1. I really need to carve out more time to read. I think at this point my reading list is long enough for me to travel to Pluto and back, reading non-stop the entire time.


  3. “Maybe one day they’ll realize the salvation of the publishing industry is not gadgets like a Kindle, but actual good books.”


    ” I think this is what’s killing the industry, this myopic view of what they think people want to read.”

    Indeed. I keep seeing the same vicious circle over and over again:

    1. author is told “that kind of story” will never sell
    2. someone finally dares to publish “that kind of story”
    3. surprise! “that kind of story” becomes a huge hit
    4. people in the biz scramble to get more of “that kind of story”
    5. market becomes glutted with “that kind of story”
    6. finally, people are sick of “that kind of story”. Meanwhile, a writer is trying to query “that kind of story”- and it may even be absolutely fabulous- but unfortunately, because the market became so glutted…no one wants to look at it now.

    Gluttering the market doesn’t help readers or writers.


    1. And you know, glutted market or no, once people develop a taste for a certain style or genre, it’ll keep selling. Look at the ‘fantasy’ genre. If I had a nickel for every book that features elves and princesses and swords and magic, I’d be a rich woman. I don’t think the public tires of something as quickly as the industry “pros” think. Then again, I’m not privy to sales figures. I’m sure once they see a drop in sales they start declaring it a ‘dead’ style, be it vampires, zombies or Harry Potter knockoffs.


    2. Gypsy, hurry up and trademark the word “gluttering” before somebody (maybe me) is tempted to steal it from you!


  4. Kindle will never take place of the feel and smell of a leather bound or hard cover book. I even considered spending $2000 for a original edition of Frankenstein. If only I had that kind of money. I don’t own enough copies of that book yet


    1. Yikes! How many copies do you own? I only have one humble little paperback copy. Books like that are worth buying in hardcover though. Someday I’ll replace all my paperback copies of Jane Austen’s books with those pretty leather-bound ones.


  5. (12:17 EST – just read the interview) Geez, what an interesting guy! If that’s how articulately he speaks, I just cannot wait to read the novel.


    1. I just barely started reading it yesterday, so just saw some of the process of how he approached writing the story. I’m already dying to get my hands on a copy of Tinkers.

      (12:48 PM) Oh dear god. I was going to pick out a couple of favorite phrases, but the whole interview is like nothing I’ve read before. Talk about the music of language. Ok, here’s one that I think is stunning:

      “There is a process of taking the moment and exploding it. You keep penetrating to find the essence. To the extent that the story has dramatic tension, it comes from the tension of the moment: man thinking, or consciousness, as opposed to, as you say, action or plot. It tends toward the lyrical.”


  6. I just now had a chance to read the whole interview with him. I just loved how enthused he sounded on certain topics. He comes across as such an intelligent and interesting person. I MUST read his book.


  7. And see, there’s the happy (actually the happy ongoing) in action – 3 readers sold, because the author wrote truthfully, spoke intellegently, and refused to compromise!


  8. I was impressed by the kinds of stuff he reads, the physics, and philosophy. Maybe I need to read more physics. 🙂 There is a different parlance that infuses his writing from reading so much science, I think.

    Even still, he sounds brilliant.


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