Sunday, May 24, 2009

Amelia P. Emerson on Publishing

I am re-reading one of my favorite mystery-adventure series, the Amelia Peabody stories by Elizabeth Peters. In The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog Amelia has some interesting things to say about publishing which echo my sentiments exactly. She is supposedly editing her private journals for publication, and has just quoted one line of Keats in attempting to describe her experiences as a female archeologist in Egypt during the reign of Queen Victoria: "What mad pursuits! What struggles to escape! What wild ecstasy!"

Amelia writes:
I am informed by a certain person of the publishing persuasion... that if an author wants to capture her readers' attention she must begin with a scene of violence and/or passion.

"I mentioned - er - wild ecstasy," I said.

The person gave me a kindly smile. "Poetry, I believe? We do not allow poetry Mrs. Emerson. it slows the narrative and confuses the Average Reader." (This apocryphal individual is always referred to by persons of the publishing persuasion with a blend of condescension and superstitious awe; hence my capital letters.)

"What we want is blood," she continued, with mounting enthusiasm. "And a lot of it! That should be easy for you, Mrs. Emerson. I believe you have encountered a good many murderers."

This was not the first time I had considered editing my journals for eventual publication, but never before had I gone so far as to confer with an editor, as these individuals are called. I was forced to explain that if her views were characteristic of the publishing industry today, that industry would have to muddle along without Amelia P. Emerson.

How I scorn the shoddy tricks of sensationalism which characterize modern literary productions! To what state has the noble art of literature fallen in recent years! No longer is a reasoned, leisurely exposition admired; instead the reader is to be bludgeoned into attention by devices that appeal to the lowest and most degraded of human instincts.

The literary person went away shaking her head and mumbling about murder. I was sorry to disappoint her, for she was a pleasant enough individual - for an American.

I must agree with Amelia here (and presumably Ms. Peters). These stories are extremely entertaining, and contain quite a lot of action and a fair amount of very discreetly referenced passion, as well. But they do not "bludgeon" the reader into attention as so many other books seem to do. There is a brutality about entertainment these days, whether written or in movies, that I find repulsive. I actually find myself bored during long, intense action scenes, such as that at the end of Batman Begins (which just happens to be on television tonight, which is why I thought of it) or the battle scenes in The Return of the King, which I skimmed in the book as well as fast-forwarding on the DVD.

At the same time, I am almost as likely as any other reader (I think) to close a book that fails to capture my attention on the first page.

What do you think, Above Average Readers of This Blog? Is it the physical events of a story that capture you, or is it a voice such as Amelia's? Or an unusual setting or circumstance? Or something else?


MitMoi said...

I agree with you. There are other ways to move a story forward and develop tension beyond violence. I hate movies with endless pow! bang! and boom!

I think relying on that type of action to engage a reader is sloppy plot/story development. It's just like relying on facial expressions to inform a reader of a character's emotional state.

I haven't watched the latest James Bond movie - but I hear it relies on him thinking his way to a solution than relying on gadgets and gimmicks to solve the problem.

As a reader, I think that's much more satisfying.

Christine H said...

If you mean Quantum of Solace, it's a very dark, character-driven film for sure. With plenty of gut-wrenching violence, including a couple of rape scenes. I had to turn my head a few times. But, you are right... a distinct lack of gadgets, if I recall correctly.

However, the opening sequence is a long, intense chase scene that I think is the equivalent of "bludgeoning." I lost interest fairly quickly, since he jumps off balconies and from one rooftop to another so hard that he should have broken his leg at least 3 times in the first few minutes!

So, they lost me on believability. Daniel Craig isn't hard to look at, though. :D