Books Magazine

What’s Your Kind of Book?

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

FeetOnce again thanks to Ben Blackman and Sanjida O’Connell for contributing such stimulating guest posts and for keeping the Literary Sofa in business whilst I was, I hope, career-advancingly occupied.  Ben and Sanjida proved to be extremely popular guests sending the stats soaring and I’m hoping they’ll both make return visits to coincide with their new releases (no pressure, Ben).

I’m very pleased to report that my manuscript is finished!  It’s been proofread, which bizarrely resulted in large quantities of fictional champagne going missing thanks to a Search and Replace operator error.  It’s being given the once-over by some new and discerning readers and I am very close to pressing Send.  I’ve kept agents waiting for a month – I hope they’ll think it was worth it.

It’s strange coming to the end of such a big undertaking, especially after this intense final push.  So many extra hours have appeared in the day.  Weekends are back!  I’ve finally cleaned my house and now have time to lose myself in my reading for Hot Picks 2014, which looks like being the best listing so far.  I still can’t get my head round a What I’ve Learned post (and when I do, I’ll have to resist calling it How Wrong Can You Be?) but today’s is about one particular aspect.

There’s nothing like the feeling when you tell someone about your novel, or they read the pitch, and they respond with, That sounds like my kind of book/my cup of tea/right up my street/words to that effect.  It’s something I often find myself saying about books.  It made me reflect on what exactly produces that buzz of excitement and anticipation, and of course it’s different for everybody.  As usual, I engaged my Twitter followers on the topic, asking if there was a ‘kind’ of book they were especially drawn to, more specifically than the broader concept of genre.  And as usual, the responses I got were very interesting.

Now, as you will know if you’ve ever tried to discuss anything complex on Twitter, the confines of 140 characters can be a challenge.  I was pulled into conversations about voice and writing, and I agree that those are key factors in deciding if a book is your thing when you read it.  But for now, I’m thinking about the stage before:  what propels you to buy or pick the book up in the first place:  a pitch, a blurb (which may be on the back or inside cover), word of mouth, the title, the cover.  I’m fascinated by all the things which combine to produce that Ooh! Moment.  Or not.

Here’s a small selection of things my Twitter friends get excited about in fiction:

Time travel, especially involving secret tunnels (really)

Middle-aged, middle-class women having angsty meltdowns

Books about art, places and ‘non-places’

Books within books, where part of the story is told by letters, diary or manuscript

‘Overliterate bitterness,’ à la disgruntled pedagogue bemoans literary success of junior colleague

Great answers!  This was exactly the kind of specific and charmingly idiosyncratic stuff I was hoping for, and am guilty of myself.

I’m such a fan of contemporary American writing that I could happily read nothing else for the rest of my days.  It often seems to have a crisp, pared-down quality that I really enjoy.  OK, that is the opposite of specific, but it does go some way to explaining ‘my kind of book’:

I love books set in New York and especially Brooklyn so much that my own is partly set there.  Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude set in the 1970s was a huge inspiration to me when I came to write those parts.  Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is a classic.

Characterisation matters to me and I adore family sagas (we’re talking dysfunctional of course – try writing a novel about any other kind.) Especially Irish and/or Catholic (been there) or Jewish (can’t explain, except that I have a lot of Jewish friends).  Often set on the east coast, in fact, often in Maine:  The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman, Maine by Courtney Sullivan.

I enjoy the intensity of novels set in a closed world, especially an academic institution:  Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont.

Finally, any book featuring a mysterious, old or abandoned house will make my eyes light up:  The Thirteenth Chapter by Diane Setterfield, Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  There’s one in my next book!

Since I read most new titles in proof without the final artwork, I’m not as influenced by covers as I used to be – until I’m actually in a bookshop and then that reflex kicks back in.  However, a title is a real dealmaker/breaker.  I’ve made a beeline for many on that basis alone, but have probably been put off by just as many.

I try to keep an open mind and not always head straight for my comfort zone in my choice of fiction.  One of the joys of reading is discovering novels you wouldn’t have expected to enjoy, after all, and that’s where social media and book groups really come into their own.  But there’s something rather wonderful about that ‘my kind of book’ moment.

What does it for you?

Thanks to Alan Bowden, June Seghni, Benjamin Dreyer, Ryan Adams, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Shana DuBois, Matt Greene and Wendy Ogden for a great discussion.


Next week my How to Run a Successful Book Blog guide will be appearing on the excellent For Books’ Sake website – do check it out!

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