I just finished Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, after a little over a month (granted, I snuck Ray Cluely's Water for Drowning in there, in addition to many, many slush pile stories). This is unusual for me. My average pace is probably about a book every week or so, unless it's a Sanderson-size tome and then I'm looking at two-ish. The Barker book is a long one, weighing in at nearly seven hundred pages, so I could be excused for taking so long to finish it. But the fact is that until the last two hundred-odd pages, I just couldn't get into it. I'm a stubborn sumbitch, and so I pushed through. But I finished it, having mostly enjoyed the third act of the book, and asked myself why didn't this book click for me?
Two reasons, I think, one minor, and one major. The first is there are moments that are so Clive Barkery they actually read more like a parody of Clive Barker (similar to Stephen King's Lamp Monstery moments). The bit about the guy who creates snake monsters by having insects manually masturbate him until he ejaculates on his own shit was particularly ridiculous. But when you open up a book by the bondage demon guy you have to expect a bit of that. The major reason I couldn't get into the book is that as a reader, I didn't have an emotional anchor until more than halfway through the novel.
When do you usually meet a protagonist? In the case of The Hobbit, in the very first line. In the case of The Shining, in the second chapter. Even in works like A Song of Ice and Fire, with huge casts of characters and multiple points of view, we meet all three of our true protagonists (Dany, Jon, and Tyrion) within the first hundred pages of the first novel (I actually love how the first two POV characters both get their heads chopped off; nice touch, that). But in The Great and Secret Show, we don't meet anything resembling a traditional protagonist until a third of the way through the book when Tesla Bombeck is introduced, and she's a tertiary character up until the halfway point.
In fact, Barker plays kind of a shell game with the protagonists up until Fletcher's self-immolation at the Palomo Grove Mall. Part one focuses on Randolph Jaffe, who we think is going to be our protagonist, albeit a seriously flawed one, until Fletcher and Raul are introduced. Then part two shifts focus to four teenage girls (and a pre-teen peeper), whose main purpose in the novel is to give birth to children who will be the catalyst for later events. In part three we settle in with Jo-Beth and Howie, who ultimately prove kind of useless to the resolution of the plot, while simultaneously meeting Tesla, who proves to be our actual protagonist.
Tesla is the character we really care about. She's the one who undergoes the hero's journey, she's the one who rises to the occasion when called upon, and she's the one who ultimately triumphs over evil. Plus she's snarky and fun. So why the hell don't we meet her earlier?
For half its length, the book floats from character to character without ever settling on one. And this illustrates for me the stark difference between what an established author and an unestablished one can get away with. A guy like Clive Barker can structure a book like this, in what I'd argue is a borderline experimental form. For someone who hasn't had a string of NYT bestselling novels, it's a much harder sell. Both for publishers, and for readers.
Like I said, I'm stubborn, and I would have kept reading anyway.
But not everyone is. Until I've sold a few million copies and feel like I've built up sufficient trust to get weird with things, my aim is to make things as easy on my readers as possible. That's not to say I won't produce complex or challenging stories (or stories I'd like to think are complex and challenging but are in reality obvious and banal); rather, I'll try to craft stories that honor the contract between the writer and the reader. The one that promises to give them certain things when they crack a book cover.
Like an anchor. Or at least a life preserver.