It struck me the other day that I was turning into a cult writer, which I'll define as a writer with a relatively small number of passionately devoted fans, who never quite breaks into mass-market popularity. Let me say here that this was not my intent, nor was it the intent of my original publisher. I am a genre writer and the point of genre writing is to sell enormous shitloads of books. I did get on the NYT Best Seller list once, albeit for a time period usually associated with experimental particles in an accelerator, but in general my sales are cult sales. There is a group of people who buy everything I write, many of whom send me wonderfully rewarding notes of appreciation for my work.
So I'm not exactly bitching, just curious about why this should be so. It can't just be the inability to write popular fiction, because the Karp and Marlene legal thrillers I wrote for Robert Tanenbaum were hugely popular, ten million of them in print, big advances, etc., and had I stayed with that job I might be a Patricia Cornwell or a Clive Cussler by now, with seven-figure advances and the rest of that kind of life. In order to have done that, though, I would have had to resign myself to writing the same book over and over, which proved to be too boring, not to mention the whole ghostwriter thing. I thought I could break out with a book of my own imagining, but it turns out that my imagination seems to be half a bubble off center for general popularity.
This putative cult must consist of readers who share my sensibility, most of them the same half-bubble off center. So I assume that, like me, they are a little bored with the conventional thriller, but they still like getting entertainment from books, rather than exclusively from other media, and that while they may read literary fiction, at certain times they just like a yarn. But not just a yarn. In order to keep myself interested in the next page I have to at least nod at dealing with the standard artistic questions long associated with literary novels: that is, how are we to make sense of the human condition, the enormous peculiarity of humans in the universe. This necessarily requires engaging with the God question in a serious way, without taking sides in the in the manner of Father Brown, for example, and beyond that to ask ontological and other philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the origins of our ideas of the good, the true, the beautiful, and all that . Most of the people who are interested in these questions read fiction, but sometimes not thrillers, because let's face it most thrillers are sort of formulaic and dull of prose. Heres another clue, to my cult's character. if you thought The Da Vinci Code was terrific you're probably not in the cult, thus ruling out the 95 % of humanity to whom the DVC was terrific.
A pervasive feeling that something is ajar in the modern world, that our present civilization is unstable is another good cultic mark , as is an impatience with melodrama and sentimentality. I don't do cute, and there goes another 70 million readers.
The cult must be interested in Otherness, especially those individuals that balance between ethnicities and cultures. Much of what I do is imagining the Other, traditionally the heart of fiction (although not of the thriller, usually) and nothing is more other than the opposite sex, so many of my leading characters are women. I might note here that this has become easier for male authors since women became more superficially man-like, although I hope I am not silly enough to take this at face value. It has been interesting writing an historical novel, as I now am, and being instructed in the lives of women in former ages by women writers of those times. Whether the cult will swallow an historical novel remains to be seen. (Note from three years later--no publisher will handle a historical novel by me it seems.)
Something that occasionally happens is that a cult becomes popular, usually via the movies, as with Phillip K. Dick, or through the mystery of word-of-mouth. Harry Potter was a cult (for about two weeks) as was Tolkien, for somewhat longer. It is a little annoying to the cult members when their cult becomes popular. I recall being so when everyone came to know what a hobbit was. No one knows what make a cult popular, but I'm now engaged in an effort via social media to proselytize our cult, although a movie would be nice. The upcoming novel, THE RETURN, (out in early September) would be an ideal vehicle for a couple of older male stars, and there's a nice ingenue role there as well. We shall see. I am pretty content with the cult as is, although I guess I could learn to like being fabulously wealthy too.