Trends: WWII

I had the extreme reading pleasure of devouring Tony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah one after the other. They’re both epics about World War II. Nuanced, heartbreaking, gorgeous, suspenseful novels, both. Important, both.

The books themselves feature very different plots, and characters, but they’re both tales of resilience, enhanced with rich (and sometimes horrific) historical details.

All the Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of a young German orphan, who gets filtered into a privileged school for Nazi youth due to his skill with radios, and the sightless daughter of a museum lock-maker, who builds her scale models of neighborhoods so she can learn her way around by touch. Each is tested–and changed–by the world around them.

The Nightingale is about two French small-town sisters whose everyday lives are impacted by the arrival of the Nazis and the shift in the political currents. Kristin Hannah delivers a powerful message about how heroism comes in all forms, and the consequences of acting on principle in a time of war. I was surprised, and oddly grateful, for the horrors she put on the page amid this story of family bonds and community life.

There’s no sugarcoating in either of these novels.

Some pages were hard to read, certainly.

I don’t like intentionally shocking novels; I find that the shock, the horror, pulls me out of understanding the character, but if the shocks come after we know the characters, and love them, then my seatbelt is already on, and I’m along for the ride and can appreciate the bumps and unexpected turns. Moreover, I don’t want to get off the ride.

I think that’s part of the brilliance of All the Light We Cannot See: we know Werner as an orphan who wants to protect his sister. Where he goes, and how he becomes part of the Nazi engine, is perfectly rendered and in context. He has a good heart, and we know that from the beginning.

I’ve only read–and admired–one of Kristin Hannah’s novels, which didn’t prepare me at all for this gorgeous historical epic, newly released, which is full of terrible injustices and dangers and heartbreaks that she poured on to the page. What happened, what she allowed to happen to her characters, took me by surprise, the way the best fiction does, and in a way that felt totally true to the setting.

It was a pretty amazing experience reading both of these novels one after the other. However, it’s meant bad timing for World War II manuscripts that are coming through my submissions portal at Forest Avenue Press. They might be excellent novels, totally different from Doerr’s and Hannah’s, but those two made such an impression on me that I can’t pull myself far enough away from them. In several instances I’ve found myself comparing Nazi protagonists with Werner, and thinking about how even if a kind act is shown by a Nazi in the opening pages, that character is still a Nazi. It’s hard to be sympathetic. With Werner, Doerr avoided that issue by introducing us to him earlier in his life, and letting us see the inexorable machinations that pulled him into service by circumstance.

The bigger takeaway?

It’s all about taste, when it comes to finding the right editor or agent or publisher. And sometimes a manuscript hits at the wrong time for the person reading it. So take heart, and keep submitting, and keep researching where you’re submitting.

Across the board, authors who have taken the time to read one of our books or even look at our catalog have submitted novels that fit my taste; people who throw their books at us like spaghetti being thrown against the wall are most likely to earn form rejections. Sometimes, with all that preparation, and even hitting a person’s taste just right, you’ll run into an unforeseen circumstance; I’ve told our WWII submitters that I haven’t been able to get past my own reading, or see how at this point I could compete with those two novels in the literary fiction marketplace, but perhaps another agent or editor or publisher wouldn’t bring that same perspective, or would welcome a war novel.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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10 Responses to Trends: WWII

  1. Laura, are there a lot of WWII novels being submitted? If so, any idea why? Spurred on by the success of The Book Thief or Code name Verity, maybe? It’s an interesting insight, from your side of the desk, that “sometimes a manuscript hits at the wrong time for the person reading it.” That certainly is out of a writers control–so take heart, novelists of WWII!

    • There are, actually; there’s another trend of an unsettling physical act (which totally is NOT to my taste) as well as a few other themes, but WWII is a big one in my inbox right now. You may very well be right about THE BOOK THIEF and other earlier books, since surely these authors have spent quite a bit of time on their historical novels, and the two I referenced here are quite new. And as I’ve told some submitters, surely there are editors out there seeking the next big WWII novel. That’s not me, though, not right now…

  2. Dale Robards says:

    I reviewed All The Light We Cannot See on my blog last year and wrote about Doerr’s gift for restraint. He writes pages of gorgeous, sweeping prose, but knows exactly when to pull back and let the reader’s imagination take over. Brevity, as they say, is its own reward.

    I’d been waffling on The Nightingale, but you convinced me to give it a go. Thanks for the post!

    • So well said, Dale! It’s a perfectly crafted book. I’ve only read one Kristin Hannah novel, and The Nightingale feels like something quite different. It’s still about women and their relationships with each other, but it floored me, in terms of its epic sweep and the sacrifices the characters make, and the courage it must have taken to imagine. I wasn’t expecting to be so emotionally involved.

  3. onmounthood says:

    Great post, Laura. I finished “All the Light We Cannot See” last week. Best book I’ve read in years! Went and saw Anthony Doerr last night at Lake Oswego High School and he was fantastic.

  4. Thanks for the heads-up on these two books Laura. My book club will be reading The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure this season :

    “In 1942 Paris, gifted architect Lucien Bernard accepts a commission that will bring him a great deal of money – and maybe get him killed. But if he’s clever enough, he’ll avoid any trouble. All he has to do is design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man, a space so invisible that even the most determined German officer won’t find it. He sorely needs the money, and outwitting the Nazis who have occupied his beloved city is a challenge he can’t resist.”

    I think there have been trends in WWII books and movies since we were kids. It comes in waves and just when you think there is nothing more to be said on the subject, another book or movie comes out to prove us wrong.

    Maybe your submissions have come during one of these “waves” and those other books might be lost in the surf.

    I also believe the reason WWII is constantly being revisited has a great deal to do with our country’s perception that it was the last “good” war. We don’t see books about Korea and the few books and movies on Vietnam were so depressing that you need to take a Zanac before reading another. The middle east will remain an impossible situation for us to come to terms with and like the trouble with the Arab nation and Israel … it will never be resolved.

    • You make such great points about why WWII fiction is showing up; I have had several more submissions dealing with that subject arrive just since I posted this piece. There are so many human stories, and trying to understand war and violence seems to have always been a major topic for fiction and nonfiction authors. I am on the last pages of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, which has given me a whole new perspective of Africa and politics vs. village life. So fascinating.

  5. Such a good thing to remember! Just because an agent doesn’t accept a writer’s work, does not mean that work in itself is bad. Tastes in fiction are so subjective. I’ll keep submitting… when I again have something to submit. 🙂

    • I’m so glad I could share that perspective with you, Sara! So much of it is finding the right person at the right time. I wish you the best of luck in getting something ready so you can submit to someone!

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