Your Cup of Tea

In a response to one of last week’s posts, I volunteered to look at some query letters. The upshot was that I got a number of very good ones–apparently only ringers responded.  They were, in fact, so professional and polished that there is little point in posting them here. To paraphrase Aristotle (who was talking about people, not publishing) query letters are “good in but one way, but bad in many.”

In each case, what it came down to was simply an issue of whether the genre or subject matter is one in which I am interested. I rarely take on science fiction of any stripe, but the dystopian novel pitched to me sounded good enough that I would request it. Another was a historical novel set during the Civil War, but despite the richness of the milieu and an engaging enough synopsis, for reasons I cannot myself unpick, I find it hard to feel enthusiastic about the prospect of reading another Civil War novel.  Self-limiting, I know, but there it is.

Quirks of taste and interest are a part of this process, and if I dish them out, so must I take them.  I recently went out with a book in which part of the action takes place in Congo, only to have an editor warn me that novels set in Africa are rarely his cup of tea. Another editor once interrupted me midway through what I thought was a diverting aside about a trip to Peru to say that “Mesoamerica just didn’t do it” for him. Needless to say, that was the end of my report on the Inca Trail.  And I made a mental note never to send him the great Aztec adventure novel that I might someday represent.

That said, I endeavor never to say never, because as we all know, there are also those books that blow these preconceived notions out of the water.  I always think about Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, simply because I have: a) no particular interest in horseracing and b) a deep-seated childhood prejudice against animal stories, since the main plot points invariably included injury or death of the animal in question (Sounder, Old Yeller, Big Red, The Red Pony, etc.).

In any case, I’d love to hear about books that redefined or overturned your own cups of tea.

5 Responses to Your Cup of Tea

  1. DBurks says:

    What a fascinating question. But how depressing to hear about more narrow minded editors. How do they expect to find the next new thing when they only read the same old thing?

    Two things happened in the late 1950’s when I was twelve that changed everything for me about books. It was mostly an accident of circumstance and the flexibility teachers used to have. My seventh grade english teacher was a big fan of Longfellow so the class studied his narative poem ‘Evangeline’. It was a radical choice in a small Arkansas town, and most of the class merely tolerated her eccentricity. For me it was transformational since it was the first time anyone even hinted that poetry could be exciting, suspenseful and descriptive of places in Louisiana that I had been to.

    She also took us all to the library and told us to pick out a book to read and report on. There might have been three hundred books in the school library, and they were all done in the nearly indestructable library binding. Most of the students picked out the smallest book, but I was interested to find that one book had a Russian name. Sputnik was all I knew about Russia, but I also recognized the name Jules Verne. The movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea had been released the year before.

    I do not know what I expected, but within a few pages I was completly captivated by “Mikhail Strogoff”. It was the first time I had even heard of a book about an utterly foreign place and time that had adventure in every paragraph. Czarist Russia and small town Arkansas were at opposite ends of the universe, and all I had to do to go there was turn the page. Why hadn’t anyone told me there were things like this sitting on the shelves? And how many more were there? I needed ten cents to go to a movie, but I could have adventure for free just by picking up the books with the most dust on the top.

    Ever since I have read all sorts of books in order to go to new places and times, and usually I am rewarded with a fascinating story.

    Now if only editors were a bit more willing to entertain new ideas.

  2. jseliger says:

    Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. If you’d told me a dense murder mystery set in a 14th Century abbey with heavy doses of medieval theology and politics and written in a style that successfully mimics / parodies the time period would become one of my favorite books of all time, I’d have called you mad. Yet it is and demonstrates how wrong I can be about what I think I’ll like.

  3. Hillsy says:

    DOH!!….I was looking forward to my query being torn a new one….=0)

    I actually don’t find that upsetting news….Specialization is rarely a bad thing unless you’ve got a derth of options. As there appears to be a raft of editors and publishers and agents etc etc then you can actually better target your queries more effectively – which is a large part of an agents job as well I guess

    Right – back to watching England murder India in the 3rd test

  4. The CS Lewis Space Trilogy was the one that made me rethink space-sci-fi stuff. I know it’s old school and the science is a little off but it wasn’t the science or the fiction but the character development and the story that grew from the characters. I still don’t do well with sci-fi and I cringe just seeing the cover of such a book. I had to read one for a class and ended up reading all three.

  5. TryThis Again says:

    I hate to admit it, but I have always found suffragettes in their white hats, white dresses and pointy white shoes (at least in my imagination they are pointy), boring, boring, boring.

    Also: Carrie Nation, that whole effort to make the United States a “dry” country…

    But, when I started to read some good books about the above, it was fascinating. I didn’t know, for instance, that a strong motivation for women activists back then, was to relieve the terrible suffering of women and children in a household with an alcoholic husband/father. I didn’t know that…kind of gives Carrie Nation her dignity back, doesn’t it?

    A tangent on tea: I always buy Red Rose Tea in a box – it has 3 rows of teabags, with two paper dividers shaped just like bookmarks – would be great if there were some coupons for books (e-books, whatever) printed on the dividers, as well as mini-interviews with authors…yes, you can sell me a book in a box of tea…

    Wanda B.

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