• Here’s the Story

    I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
  • Archives

Cause When I Give My Love I Want Love In Return

Today, the most remarkable thing happened. A client sent me an idea for a non-fiction book. I liked it, but had that same old sinking feeling that it wasn’t “big” enough. What does that even mean. We know what it means when we are talking penis size, portfolio size, your number of Twitter followers, and yes I’m looking at you Ashton Kutcher who apparently has all three. But what the fuck does it mean to have a big book, to conceive of one, to put a proposal together that feels…big. Well, it can be idea driven (Tipping Point), story driven (Sea Biscuit), personality driven (Keith Richards). It can be new age driven (the Secret), it can be high concept  (The Seven Habits of Highly Defective People). It can be real-estate driven (The Fuckin’ South Beach Diet.) Oh, canine-driven (Marly and Me). Goopy-driven (Morrie and Me). Or find a little known story set against an exciting moment in history (Devil in the White City). Or you can just be an exception to all that (Just Kids).

What happened today was that after a few exchanges, it turned out that there was a much “bigger” story in the backdrop. In fact, the more my client told me about it, the more I realized he was on to something that had never been done. The most important history books had completely left this out. If I were a miner, I would have thought: gold. It was also exciting to me because we made the discovery together. And in so doing, I was reminded why I love working with writers, how exciting it is to see an idea come alive, and to know that over the next months that idea will find its expression on the page, and if we are right and lucky, that a number of publishers will read it and be astonished, too, that they didn’t know about this story. And that it has reach, and power, and depth. And they will pay a lot for it because they think they can sell a lot. i.e. it has the potential to be a big motherfucking book.

Of course, some big books started small. What’s your favorite big book and small  book? Wildly popular or a small gem?

44 Responses

  1. Congrats! What a cool feeling that must be.

  2. Maybe I’m just green, but that’s exciting to me. Someone out there wrote something of quality and it’s being recognized. If I work, work and work, I like to think that could be me. Writing aside, if something doesn’t absolutely HAVE to get done, it doesn’t. Viewing my life from the outside, it looks nuts. But writing is what matters to me. If I work hard enough….

  3. Best big book this year … the best I can say is THE LACUNA. It’s big and fat and fabulous, but I don’t know how publishing saw it.

    Best surprise, smaller book … Patti’s JUST KIDS. I’ve read it twice, and would have even if you hadn’t put it out there. What a story, what a writer. I should write her a letter.

  4. I hope this potential Big Book confirms our last day IS 12-12-12. It would be nice to get that question resolved for party planning.

  5. The smallest book I love is Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book. You can’t get much smaller, but it’s bigger on the inside. I think every writer should give it a look.

    Maybe that makes it a big book, too?

  6. See? See? We toldja. We toldja stick to it, it’ll be worth it. (But you woulda anyways.)

    Favorite? Big book? Small book? Wildly popular? Small gem? Let’s see…

    There are so many to choose from. I’m just going to have to pick a few almost from random. I don’t whore after the latest hot thing, so I’m not sure how big or small these books may be or have been. I know some were big, some recently, and some not so and may have since been forgotten.

    Let’s see… I’ll pick a baker’s dozen… from the last seventy years…

    ROOM.

    THE HISTORY OF ROME HANKS AND KINDRED MATTERS.

    WHITE NOISE.

    THE RINGS OF SATURN.

    SONG OF SOLOMON.

    LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE.

    DISPATCHES.

    KINGDOM OF FEAR.

    FOR THE TIME BEING.

    ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE (Rabassa translation).

    A DRINK CALLED PARADISE.

    BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT.

    THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER.

    I could easily add another dozen.

    • Love For the Time Being. Have re-read it more times than I can count. Is that a small book? I mean, Dillard’s a Pulitzer prize winner. A really small one would be Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

      One of my big ones: Memoirs of a Geisha. I feel a little embarrassed to admit it, but, hey, that book was chocolate cake for me.

      But now that I’m thinking about it, what makes a “big” book? How it eventually ranks in public/critical acceptance, or what the book means to the reader personally? Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country does it for me. I read The Corrections and loved it, but have mostly forgotten all about it. To me, it’s not a big book at all. I think a big book, in every sense, stands the test of time. Long, long, time. When it does so for many people, we call it a classic. I guess most people want a huge commercial success, but, speaking as a reader, I’d rather have my obscure little gems all to myself, or share them with a relatively small cohort.

      Betsy, it’s so intriguing that you discovered a big story while talking to your client. I’m dying of curiosity to know what it is. Please let us know as soon as you can.

      • I’m not embarrassed to admit it: Memoirs of a Geisha was wonderful, though it doesn’t immediately leap to mind when I think of books I would recommend to a friend. There’s something to your argument for staying power.

        My big books are some of Stephen King’s. My favorite is The Long Walk, which I suppose is sort of small when you compare it to The Shining or Carrie or The Stand (or, hell, a dozen others). But I read it for the first time decades ago and it really stuck with me. The premise seems as relevant today as it did back then–maybe more so.

      • Good point you make about how a book can make a big splash and be a good read, but not really stick. And then there are the books that stick, such as Dillard’s. I’ve read it three times and can easily imagine reading it a fourth.

    • Log of the SS The Mrs Unguentine? My my. Is old Stanley still alive? Growing garlic still? You should surely then include Some Instructions to My Wife etc etc to the list.

      You a Lish-ite? Or you came to Stanley Crawford some other way?

      • Last I heard he was up around Dixon, New Mexico, growing apples. Dixon is locally famous for its apples. They had a bad year up there this year. First came the worst freeze in a century and a long dry spell. After that was the worst forest fire in the state’s history, with nearly 250 square miles of forest burned. The fire came right up to the edge of the orchard and burned a few buildings, but didn’t damage many trees. The damage to the trees came in the flash floods just a few weeks after the fire was put out. Everything upstream had burned. There was no vegetation left to absorb the water when the monsoon came. Much of the orchard was washed away when the water came tearing down the denuded mountainsides.

        I’ve never read the instructions. Should I? I’m on my third wife. I anxiously await your response.

        Yes, I’m a Lishite. You?

  7. Hmm. Seems all my favorite books are small books. I’m not sure what that says about me as a reader. Most recent just-for-reading book: Dawn Light, by Diane Ackerman.

  8. You’re talking non-fiction but it’s an interesting exercise applying your types to fiction. I’m curious why Just Kids is an exception. I do see it standing apart from the categories you listed. To me, it was character-driven which by all accounts is rarely going to translate to a big book. But Just Kids is a big book. The time and place were equally fascinating to me. So is it the weaving together of character, time and place that makes it stand out? And how did Patti get so many people interested in her story who otherwise might not care about her music or Robert’s art or New York in the late sixties? Great writing trumps all? I’m trying to fit all this into fiction which complicates the “bigger” part, at least for me. And there can be gold in fiction too (to paraphrase a great John Stewart song: there’s people out there turning stories into gold). Great post– I love it when you make me think!

    Big book– Prince of Tides. Small– Rich in Love

    • IT’S PATTI SMITH.

    • Patti Smith might have been more easily overlooked, as amazing as she was, when she was young rocker, because history hadn’t yet given her the added significance she now possesses, but considering the staying power, influence, and relevance that she has had, there’s now a lot of respect and interest even from those who weren’t (or still aren’t) so much into her music. She really evoked an entire era gloriously in the book, yet in a very personal and touching way. In one sense, Just Kids is a small book, in that it’s more about her heart, but that’s what made it such a big book, too. Patti Smith may be an icon, but it’s still a great love story she told, and told well.

  9. Loud book: Goon Squad
    Quiet book: Strays by Ron Koertge

    That’s today, of course, I’m way fickle.

  10. What a great story to read at the end of a hard day. Thanks for that.

    Big books? Lonesome Dove, Let the Great World Spin, and if we can include classics, East of Eden.

    Small books? Body and Soul by Conroy; and ooh I loved Just Kids.

  11. Big: The Stone Diaries
    Small: The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie

  12. I’m very curious to read about your writer’s history topic. I love history books and my favourite fiction incorporates a seaming of the two.

    My best recent big book has been Nam Le’s The Boat. Soon after that I read a small book, Gretchen Shirm’s Having Cried Wolf, which although it was less compelling had a gentle aftertaste.

  13. I love this post Betsy. Your excitement and enthusiasm shine through.

    Big – The Goon Squad
    Small Gem – Not So Perfect – Nik Perring

  14. PS – Is it just me or does that lightbulb look like me from behind bending over to touch my toes (you know, if I could reach that far)?

  15. My favorite big book is “Search for the Lost City,” by Jean & Dana Lamb, which was HUGE in its day.

    My favorite small book is “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.” It has PHOTOS!

  16. Mazel tov! Collaboration is a beautiful thing.
    Okay, I’m going for my reaction here, not number of pages.

    Big book – Room by Emma Donaghue
    Small book – Mennonite in a Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

    I’m about to start A Brief History of TIme by Stephen Hawking. I have a feeling that it will replace Room but it could very well oust Mennonite. Yes, folks, that’s just how small my brain is sometimes.

    • I think A Brief History of Time would have a spectacularly ousting effect – it is supposed to be one of those world altering/give-up-now-because can’t-take-the-brain-strain sort of tomes, so by just trying to read it, you prove your mind to be of good size.

  17. I thought penis size didn’t matter. Make up your damn mind.

  18. Small book: The Outermost House by Henry Beston, that man makes sand interesting.
    Big book: Year of Magical Thinking

  19. The standout for me was Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence. I should have put 2 and 2 together with Judith Jones as the editor: it wasn’t a travel book, it was (is) a food book, but it started oh, so small, and became the huge hit we now know.

  20. To Kill A Mockingbird is not only a great book, but a lesson –maybe a whole course– in character and plot development. As far as small books, I can’t help but think of some of the short story collections I’ve read that never seem to get their due. Raymond Carver is well known, but how about Norbert Blei (not sure if that’s the correct spelling. See? No respect). Russell Banks’ Trailer Park was an interesting early work. Aside from Annie Proulx, how many short story collections have done well? Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout might fit in this category.

  21. Woooohoooooooo! How flipping exciting!

    Unusual hits:
    Longitude
    Eats, Shoots & Leaves
    Henrietta Lacks

  22. The Road to Los Angeles — John Fante. A classic, no doubt. But I must confess, I just spent a few minutes trying to figure out if I had spelled Angeles right. Fuck. I took two years, University years, of Spanish and it still looked weird to me. Go figure and spit, and after doing your work just go with it. Anyway, The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante. Gotta love it.

    • I can only imagine that he is far better than your whole list. What does that mean? It’s over, baby, it’s over. Go gracefully into that dark night.

  23. My favourite small book – or small stories are – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, followed by RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde.
    Love the blog!

  24. Keri Hulme’s, The Bone People. I have a first edition published in 1983 or 84 (after many many rejections) by this wild New Zealand collaborative press–they may have been all women. It is paperback and contains so many typos they inserted a list in the beginning with an apology! Loved it as a small book. Loved it when it won the Booker prize (1985 maybe?). Loved it when rereleased by Penguin in 2010.

  25. Big Book: Presently, I’m reading Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Not literature perhaps, but damn good storytelling.

    Small Book: Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers, a novel that began as an M.A. thesis project and tells the story of the filles du roi, the young Frenchwomen sent to Canada to produce a population for the new colony.

    I’m going rogue and adding another small read: The Unraveling of Abby Settel by Sylvia May. When the life Abby knows unravels, she must make some tough choices. Frankly, I didn’t like the choices she made. But what I liked about the book was, I couldn’t see another way out for her. So Abby left me pondering. I like that.

    Fun post!

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