When is the best time to discover a novel? It depends on who you are.
Those who consider themselves influencers of public taste scramble to read new novels before they are released. Such readers enjoy the thrill ride of early discovery, and we authors count on them to create buzz around the novel through social media posts, reviews on Goodreads, and posts on book blogs.
Publishers want their new releases discovered in the first three months, before they are replaced by newer titles on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Books that underperform in this time frame will not likely see further promotion.
Those who discover books-by-library are often at the mercy of wait lists.
Book club discovery is often a lengthier process. From a constantly replenishing tide of new titles that promote rich discussion, clubs can only choose 6–12 titles per year, and often schedule those titles a year in advance. Word-of-mouth recommendations, offered after other clubs have read the book, are key. This can introduce a significant lag time in discoverability.
Outside of these specialized groups, though, readers continue to find great stories in a timeless fashion. Just today I heard from Caroline Eliasson, who created a wiki titled “10 Fantastic Novels About Different Kinds of Families”—and placed THE FAR END OF HAPPY, my 4-1/2-year-old novel, on that list. Check it out!
This got me thinking about why so many novels never lose their relevance.
- The snail’s pace of social change. Racism is a still an issue today, almost 60 years after the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is currently experiencing a revival on Broadway. Women have yet to come into full equality, which is why Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, published in 1985, still rings disturbingly true in the #metoo era, where it has gained new life through the Hulu television series.
- Persistent problems. Many great historical novels have addressed the horrors of insane asylums (Ellen Marie Wiseman’s WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND, for instance), and the questionable reasons for committal. We are lucky to be rid of them. But one need only check the daily headlines to know that our country has not developed the resources to protect the public—or family members, even—from the potential violence of the mentally ill. Exacerbated by America’s love affair with guns, this problem is at the heart of THE FAR END OF HAPPY.
- Our common humanity. Themes of love, death, coming of age, corruption, survival, and heroism were just as riveting to William Shakespeare in the 16th century as they are to today’s novelists. The window dressing may change, but throughout the ages we’ve all been framing the same big ideas.
- Society’s building blocks. Simple adobe and modern high-tensile steel do not create the building blocks of society—families do. The fact that humans cannot thrive on their own is such a basic truth that those who are separated or outcast find a way to create new family, like Billie Letts’ wonderful character Novalee Nation did after giving birth in a Wal-Mart in the 2001 novel WHERE THE HEART IS. Such stories are at the heart of some of my favorite novels.
- We still seek hope. That TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was recently voted America’s best-loved novel says that racism is a knot in our society’s fabric that we still care to iron out. Novels may not give us all the answers, but they raise all the right questions. They place us inside perspectives we may not have previously considered, and by doing so, they make us bigger, more empathetic people.
Novels won’t cure all of society’s ills. Suicide is always a tragedy. THE FAR END OF HAPPY will not change the end of that story. But if by shining a light on the rugged terrain of such a loss I can show a family who has emerged to carry on in hope, it will have done its part.
And that will be true whenever it is discovered.