So What Do You Really Really Want?

This week I tweeted a question.  It went something like this:  Does the forthcoming film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ herald the return and rise in popularity of the financial thriller?  I’m a duffer with numbers and financial thrillers aren’t really my thing, but recently I read an unpublished first novel that had huge potential.  High concept, high octane, it made quite an impression.  So where was the hitch?  The main protagonist was a slick city trader.

Bankers, for reasons that I don’t need to go into here, are not popular people.  Mention the word ‘city trader’ to most and eyes roll and abuse pours forth.  It took me twenty minutes to check out the word on the wire with my own agent with regard to whether financial thrillers were ‘in’.  The resounding response was ‘dead in the water’.  A couple of writer friends with their ears close to the literary ground confirmed the same.  Like a reluctant messenger of doom, I passed on my grim findings and then, a couple of months later, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ wins a Golden Globe and is nominated as a front-runner for an Oscar.

To take another example, I’ve lost count of the times editors in publishing houses have said:  ‘The problem is the main protagonist – too morally ambiguous’.  Yet look at Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’.  You don’t get more morally ambiguous than a crystal meth manufacturer and yet do we follow him every step of his tortuous way?  You bet!

This got me thinking.  Is there a disconnect between what the public desire in film and what readers desire in books?  Is our taste for visual art and storytelling different to what we sign up for when we read a novel?  Or are publishers playing catch-up with the film industry?

In all art forms there is an element of subjectivity.  What rocks one editor will turn off another – and that’s fine and expected.  Fashions in books, as fashion in general, ebb and flow.  Historical fiction will be in one minute and out the next.  Romantic fiction is a stalwart and the taste for crime fiction has never been more in demand.  Crime dramas with detectives, often based on novels, are all over the small screen, which indicates that there is no disconnect whatsoever between books and television.

I’ve often been told that publishers want something original, put another way  ‘They don’t know what they want, but they know what they want when they get it.’  Whatever the genre, if a novel strikes a chord with the reading public, publishers, with their eyes on the balance sheets don’t just want more of the same, they want shedloads of it.

Years ago, long before I was published, I was warned by an assistant to an editor at a mainstream publishing house not to send in any work that contained boats.  The editor had a particular dislike of all things nautical.  It wasn’t a problem for me because I’m not that keen on boats either but pity the poor writer who unwittingly transgressed!  Is there an element of too much personal taste going on?

In my day job as an editorial consultant, specialising in crime fiction and thrillers, for Writers’ Workshop, I’m often asked about the marketability or otherwise of a novel.  It’s relatively easy for me to see if a first or even a third draft requires more work.  What isn’t so easy to answer:  does the story contain the X factor, that elusive quality that makes it irresistible to agents, publishers and the reading public.  This brings me neatly back to where this blog started!

If I had a crystal ball  to unlock the formula for a cracking good read; if I could forecast whether a certain story was destined to be the next great thing, I’d be worth a fortune.  As to whether films lead the way and shine a light or simply reflect what a viewer (and reader) really really wants, it would take a braver woman than me to say what that is.  If there is a sudden spurt in financial thrillers, or if the next best seller is a story about a narcotic manufacturer, perhaps it might answer my question.