Topics I won't read, no matter what

Dear Ms. Snark:

I really love your blog, thank you so much for sharing, (and venting).

My manuscript is complete and polished, my query is professional and enticing, and I have only queried agents who are actively looking for manuscripts in my genre, (commercial fiction). However, my subject matter is controversial.

How do I get an agent to look past the fact that my story involves abortion, and see that the overall story is worth reading. I will greatly appreciate any suggestions you can offer.

Well you've heard it here often enough: write well, but in this case you're going to meet the other reality of publishing: every agent has topics they won't read. This is one of them. Child abuse, sex abuse, alcohol/addiction recovery stories are some others.

Particularly with abortion, it's very very hard to get past "this is an important message from our author". I hate message books.

It's also very hard to be funny about abortion. No, it's impossible. Not even mordant, dark humor. And humor can be illuminating and carry a message much more effectively than any kind of "serious exploration". I don't look for serious explorations in commercial fiction. I run and hide from them in fact.

So, short answer: you can't.


Kit Whitfield said...

Abortion is controversial, but it's also something that happens a lot. As a result, it's something that plenty of people will be prepared to read about.

Maybe some agents won't like it, but lots of books that have abortions somewhere in their plots make it to the shelves. If your book's good, I find it hard to believe that a difficult subject matter will put off every agent in town. One or two might have strong personal feelings on the subject, but every agent avoiding something just because it's controversial? They'd have to be a load of chickens, and that, they ain't.

Anonymous said...

"It's also very hard to be funny about abortion. No, it's impossible"
George Carlin says anything can be funny in the right context.
so Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck were at the clinic......

Anonymous said...

What is considered "commercial fiction"? How does it differ from "genre fiction?"

And wtf is the correct punctuation here in my questions?

wv: ofifeh


Anonymous said...

Try reading "Falling in Love With Natassia" by Anna Monardo. Abortion is mentioned in the first chapter, and throughout, and it's actually pretty funny.

Anonymous said...

Is there any distinction between a book about abortion and a book including abortion? What if the abortion is merely one of a sequence of experiences the protag has to deal with or an incident in the backstory? Would it be appropriate to avoid mentioning it in the query letter to avoid the appearance that the book is about abortion?

Anonymous said...

to first anon:

The question mark goes outside the quotes.

Maxwell said...

Maybe I'm paranoid, but it seems to me that there are a several topics and possible plots that are simply not available to the non-established writer. If Steven King wants to write a 'three wishes' novel, of course the publishing world awaits eagerly. If I try and query a 'three wishes' novel the publishing world awaits something fresh - certainly not another 'three wishes' novel.

This effect goes triple for ick factor books and/or overly cruel antagonists. An established writer can do a serial child killer, but the new kid on the block cannot. Not that I'd want to, I'm just saying.

Am I paranoid? Or are there special rules for freshmen?

If there are, put the abortion novel in the drawer. Start the 'less controversial novel that eventually enables the publication of the abortion novel' right now.

Caitlin said...

Try your luck and hopefully the writing will speak for itself. Plenty of people write about difficult topics, get published and sell plenty of books - just look at the success of Jodi Picoult.

If you don't have any joy, I would suggest that you consider submitting to foreign literary agents. Abortion is far less controversial in many other countries, including the UK and Australia to name two English speaking countries.

Caitlin said...

First anon and Elaine, the question mark goes inside the quote marks if what is contained within the quote marks is a question.
Eg. The child asked: "When are we going to the zoo?"

The same with commas - when it's a complete clause the comma goes inside the quotes.
Eg. Miss Snark said the stuff in her slush pile was crap. "It's crap," she said.

It goes outside the quote marks if the quote marks only contain fragments.

Eg. Wtf did you mean when you said I had a George Clooney "obsession"?
or Miss Snark said the stuff in her slush pile was "crap", citing its lack of grammar and general unreadability.

(here endeth grammar lesson)

Disclaimer: It's quite possible US grammar has entirely rules to UK or Australian grammar, rendering my advice "useless crap".

Anonymous said...

I hate message books, too. I like to be entertained by my discretionary reading. That's why I hated most of Oprah's picks. A dark, foreboding world view.
I'm no Pollyanna, but geez. Give me a break.
And the same goes for movies.


litagent said...

There are actually quite a few novels that include abortion, including Irving's Cider House Rules. There will absolutlely be agents who won't represent a book that includes abortion, child abuse, children dying, etc., but there are plenty who will. And that fact that books do get published with these subjects shows that they're not the kiss of death -- but the writing better be superb.

Anonymous said...

i've actually thought about this issue a little bit, ever since the last time this general topic arose a few months ago. since then, i've decided it's not necessarily the topic that readers will have problems with per se but the delivery.

i don't like to read message books, either -- those that proselytize or aim to teach a certain set of morals or blatantly advocate a particular point of view right from the start of page 1. a good piece of fiction take both a writer and his/her reader on a journey, a route through a particular kind of development; there's no journey if the book's message remains constant and in your face all the way from point a to point z. the only way i enjoy a book, as a common reader, is if the message is creatively and covertly embedded in the story so that i don't realize the sneaky way the author is trying to convert me to his/her way of thinking -- at least not until i've actually been converted and find myself oriented a bit differently, if only just a little bit, than when i first started reading.

BernardL said...

Possibly portraying the life and accomplishments of a grown man or woman, who didn’t get aborted, would be uplifting. Depending on the supporting characters surrounding the human being who escaped death before birth, the novel could be really funny. Each time the man or woman ran into trouble, or complained, a supporting character (Mom, Dad, Aunt, Uncle, etc.) could zap them with a little reminder of where they could be.

“Crap, Zelda told me I shouldn’t have carried you to term, you ungrateful…”

“But Ma,” Stan broke in, smiling at his Mom’s familiar insult, and replying with his own, “think of all the good times you had torturing me into becoming a pediatrician.” :)

Anonymous said...

"It's also very hard to be funny about abortion. No, it's impossible"

Um, I beg to differ. Citizen Ruth is about the funniest movie ever made. Honestly, I think that anything can be skewered by comedy as long as it involves human beings. Why? Because human beings are moronic, tender, bull-headed, passionate, honest, disonest and achingly lovely. No topic is safe from comedy. Conversely, no topic is safe from tragedly, either.


Anonymous said...

Cider House Rules by John Irving.

JJ said...

To first anon and Elaine: Off topic, but no, it doesn't, depending on where anon lives and works.

Quote marks may go inside the punctuation in the UK, but they virtually always go outside the punctuation in the U.S., home of the Snarkmeister. (The example here is not one of the few exceptions.) So for the U.S., it would be ..."commercial fiction?"

Unknown said...

Okay, Snarkettes!

One of the characters in the book has had an abortion and it affects her and many other people in her life, especially her husband, the protagonist. But that's not the main theme of the book.

I am currently reading Cider House Rules and my story is nowhere near as heavy. And while I guess it is a message book,(there's no way it couldn't be,), it's still funny and entertaining as well.

I have posted the first six chapters of the book on "Writing.com" under the pen name of Johnny Relentless. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Anonymous said...

These two fetuses walk into a bar. One of them pulls a little piano player out of his pocket. The little piano player sits down at the piano and starts playing "Moon River." The second fetus says "Oh, an eight-inch pianist."

Hildieblog said...

Coming to Terms : A Literary Response to Abortion
The New Press ISBN 1-56584-188-3

Edited by Lucinda Ebersole & Richard Peabody

While it is not unusual for abortion to be considered in political and social terms, rarely is it thought of as a source of literary inspiration. But in fact dozens of leading literary figures have been moved to write about "coming to terms" with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies, and in so doing they have written some of their most inspired fiction. In this original and important book, Lucinda Ebersole and Richard peabody, the creative anthologizers who brought us Mondo Barbie and Mondo Elvis, have gathered together over a dozen short stories and fiction excerpts that remind us what is most important in this hotly contested "civil war"-the people and circumstances behind the headlines. In "Cora Unashamed," Langston Hughes writes of the Sturdevant's maid, Cora, who loses her livelihood but not her honor when she publicly decries the abortion the family forces upon their "shamed" daughter. In Amy Hempel's very contemporary story, "Beg Sl, Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep," a woman deals with her recent abortion by knitting piles of baby sweaters. The broad scope of literary talent-the contributors come from all over the world and from a variety of political perspectives-coupled with a topic that elicits heated ebate make Coming to Terms a must-read for anyone interested in this, our must publicly debated, yet extremely private, issue. Nonpartisan in its focus, this collection transcends the political polarities that limit most discussions of abortion and confirms literature's ability to empower, comfort, and transform more effectively than any rhetoric that has yet to grace our opinion or editorial pages. Contributors include: Richard Brautigan, Babs H. Deal, Joan Didion, Zoe Fairbains, William Faulkner, Ellen Gilchrist, Amy Hempel, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Fyodor Sologub, Kathleen Spivack, Caroline Thompson, and Alice Walker. "Dozens of short story and fiction excerpts provide a literary response to abortion, going beyond the usual medical focus to gather the varied literary reflections of such notable writers as Langston Hughes, Richard Brautigan and Gloria Naylor." --Midwest Book Review

"[Coming to Terms] makes the abortion issue very personal, and also shows the variety of feelings we all experience on this issue."-Feminist Bookstore News

"One of the great virtues of this collection is that none of the writers take a political or moral stance on the issue. But they do graphically write about the stark and painful realities surrounding abortions, both then and now. . . giving the reader a new perspective, both historical and personal."-The Improper Bostonian

"Timely and useful."-Tonic

"The emotional consequences of abortion are poignantly portrayed."-Book Report

"These poignant stories won't end the abortion controversy, but they might prompt deeper reflection from all participants."-Philadelphia Inquirer

Kim said...

Back when I was in high school, I read a book that was essentially a "coming of age" story. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title, but I'm pretty sure it was by Norma Fox Mazer (sp?). It's written in the first person, the main character is a guy, and it's basically the story of his first serious relationship with a girl.

Mazur (sp?) uses the girlfriend's abortion as a turning point that becomes the unraveling of their relationship and I thought Mazur did it fairly well. It wasn't preachy, it wasn't "how evil", but it wasn't "this is the perfect solution". It seemed as ambiguous as it probably is in reality. But it also wasn't the main point of the story, either. It was simply another step to the couple's inevitable breakup.

Sooo, I think it all depends on how the issue is tackled as to the degree of its success.

word ver - ozabwaga - I'd have commented for this alone!

Tina said...

Anne Marie MacDonald's first novel, "Fall on your Knees" (literary not commercial fiction) is a killer story that traverses the issues of abortion, child abuse and sex abuse brilliantly. Her book was a national best seller in Canada and eventually landed her on Oprah's couch, which ain't bad news for the pocket book.

My favourite review of the book is by author Rita Mae Brown: "It's a bit like performing the Stations of the Cross to rock 'n roll."

First published in 1997 by Vintage Canada.

Fuchsia Groan said...

I agree-- Citizen Ruth is funny. Of course, it's mocking the political debates around abortion, not abortion per se. But it is broaching the taboo subject without getting unbearably ponderous.

I read an article in the NY Observer about a woman who wrote a novel about depression and infanticide (sounds cheery, doesn't it?). She had a tough time-- many friends advised her to shelve it, even begged her--but she stuck to her guns, and McAdam Cage put out the book (I think it's called [i]A Mouthful of Air[/i]).

And I just reviewed a new literary novel that features child prostitution, forced sex-selective abortion, honor killing, multiple deaths of children... weird to say, it does have a few funny moments. It also has a big agent and PR push behind it. But the writer is really, really talented (even if the litany of abuses isn't quite my cup of tea...).