Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Weather: What Agents Say They Want And What They Really Want

When my daughter recommended that I read Weather, a novel by Jenny Offill, I dutifully got it from my local library. (While I always read books that my children recommend, I know better than to buy them.) As promised, it was engaging. And because it was composed entirely of short, one-paragraph, diary-like snippets thrown somewhat randomly together, it was perfect for doctors' waiting rooms, airports, and all the other venues of modern life that require casual time-killing.
In short, I liked it. But I would never consider putting this book on my shelf. Why? Because I could easily have written it. Stream-of-consciousness is the simplest, and laziest, form of writing. It requires no training, no "crafting," and certainly no thesaurus.

I frown upon that.

Predictably, the critics loved Weather.

"Offill takes subjects that could easily become pedantic — the tensions between self-involvement and social engagement — and makes them thrilling and hilarious and terrifying and alive," gushed New York Times reviewer Leslie Jamison. "Offill’s fragmentary structure evokes an unbearable emotional intensity: something at the core of the story that cannot be narrated directly, by straight chronology, because to do so would be like looking at the sun."

Thrilling, terrifying, hilarious, unbearably intense and like looking into the face of a gigantic ball of inconceivable energy produced by an endless stream of nuclear fusion, no less. All of these descriptions would lead you to believe that this novel has the potential to take you on a wild, unforgettable emotional ride, the likes of which you have never experienced before.

Absolutely not.

The reason I liked Weather was because it required no effort on my part to read it. I didn't have to recall who the characters were, because Offill didn't actually give us enough description to be able to identify them. (It was sort of like my meandering, elderly neighbor who constantly gossiped about Chet and Naomi, whoever they might be.) (I never did find out.) There was no descriptive prose, so I didn't have to tax my mind by imagining where these people were, or when events happened. Oh, now that I think of it, nothing actually did happen, so remembering the order of events was rendered moot. There was no plot. It was like being lost in space, enjoyable in a way that brings to mind an anesthetic haze. Or the pleasures of an opium den.

Apparently, this kind of fiction is appealing to readers. (2,222 ratings on Amazon 35,757 ratings on Goodreads - we'll get to some of those later).  

As a reader, I'm okay with Weather. But, from the point of view of someone who regularly deals with the publishing world, this book is an anomaly. It is precisely the type of a novel that agents say they don't want.


This is how agents describe their perfect novel:
  • strong storytelling, unputdownable stories with characters that transcend the page
  • plot-driven work with strong world-building, character development,
  • compelling emotional stakes
  • beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, family stories, socially engaged writing,
  • compelling plots
  • unputdownable stories with bold, courageous characters who take you down an emotional journey of perseverance
  • character-driven literary explorations with efficient, stunning prose and commercially appealing plots
(In case you are wondering, all of those descriptions were lifted verbatim from agents' wish lists.)

Agents say they are looking for plot-driven, immersive, page-turners. Yet, Weather is none of those things. It is, however, a novelty. Readers like novelty. Publishers, and hence agents, don't - which is why they avoid taking a chance on new ideas.


Agents want to make money. (Sometimes, they also want to champion writers. But that's actually quite rare.) Agents are engaged in a career that involves acting as middlemen between people who produce ideas (writers) and people who sell them (publishers). The agent is simply a go-between. It's nice when they love your work, but their purpose is to make dollar signs happen. 

Weather made dollar signs for its author, and for Alfred A. Knopf, and presumably for Offill's agent. All of that is nice. But it flies in the face of what writers want, which is to be loved and admired.


Note: If you are anticipating a discussion of pressure fronts and how they interact with moisture, you will be disappointed.

One of the things people who study the mechanics of language - phonemics, syntax, semantics - soon realize is that the relationship between sounds and parts of speech, etc., is what confers meaning, not the sounds and words, in and of themselves. This also holds true at the macro level. If you take two unconnected sentences and place them one after the other, your mind will automatically work to link them together in order to force them to make sense. (You can try that with any two sentences that I have ever written.)

To demonstrate my point, here is a page from Weather, chosen at random:
After the election, Ben makes many small wooden things. One to organize our utensils, one to keep the trash can from wobbling. He spends hours on them. "There, I fixed it," he says.

A turtle was mugged by a gang of snails. The police came to take a report, but he couldn't help them. "It all happened so fast," he said.

And in the ether, people asking the same question again and again. To the yours-to-losers, to the both-the-samers, to the wreck-it-allers.

Happy now?

The path is getting ...  narrower. That is how Ben told me. He was doing the math in his head. 

But it could still...?
It's not possible.

And so we stayed up and watched to the end.
See what I mean? I guarantee you will find a way to make this page make sense. In fact, you will read many more pages, attempting to find a context to place this page into. You will do that because that is the function of language.


I enjoyed reading this book, mostly because it only took a couple of hours of my time. (I am compelled to read every word of books I take out of the library. It's a diagnosable condition, I'm told.)

Other people were not so generously inclined. Here are a few one-star reviews I found on Amazon.

"Boring and pointless" -  Anything that resembles a plot could be written in 10 pages- good marriage, normal child, sick brother.

Why, oh why...this book did I buy! - I am REALLY struggling to finish this book. Rarely do I buy a hardcover book when it just comes out, but I did with this one and I am disappointed. It consists mainly of random, nonsensical paragraphs page by page.

Weather: NOT a novel - "Weather " is yet another fragmented, MFA-chic, tedious narration of boring events in the life of a contemporary jaded writer.

Noun verb noun - No plot after 25%. Maybe there'll be a point later, but I don't feel much need to slog through poorly crafted prose, with no plot, a boring heroine, no deep understanding of human nature. Of course I haven't finished it and I probably won't. This may appeal to some, but it seems to be the worst thing I've read in a decade.

Impressionistic, not a novel - Impressionistic observations, thoughts, anecdotes over a period of probably a few years — a writer’s notes strung together and called a novel. Many were interesting and many were not; I finished the book, relieved to get away from the chaos.

Terribly written - I had no idea who was who and what was happening. I get stream of consciousness but this was just terrible. Check Alice Walker for ways to do that well.


This post had a point when I started writing it. But I find it hard to maintain a coherent train of thought after reading Weather. (When you read, you unconsciously adopt the author's writing style to your thought patterns.)

Oh yes, now I remember. 

Just write whatever you damn well want to write. Despite all protestations to the contrary, agents (and publishers, as well) want something that will make them money. That is why they almost invariably include on their wish lists a number of successful books that they want your book to emulate. They want another... (just fill in the blank with a book that has sold millions of copies). Rarely do agents (or publishers) go for novelty.

Where does that leave you, the writer? My advice is to ignore the market. Ignore what agents say they want, and sell your idea to them as if you are the best thing since sliced bread.

Because you are.


Here are some eye-opening stats that  will boost your self-confidence:

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