Is the 'high concept' destroying voice?

Because bigger publishers are unwilling to take a risk with new kinds of writing (witness the many years it took Eimear McBride to get A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to publication), 'literary' novelists are having to get used to what commercial writers and film-makers have known for years:  the need to 'make a pitch', to create stories with a 'high concept' (see this article for an example here:

'High concept' stories are stories that are easily marketable, but have to be 'original' or 'unique' without scaring the children - hence the popularity of fan fiction. Fan fiction, like any number of vampire or Jane Austen mash-ups, gives you just enough familiarity to make you comfortable, but also the illusion of originality to make you feel that you're reading something genuinely different.

'High concept' stories are also highly visual, they have a mass market appeal, and spawn the essential 'what if' question that works so well for book groups (see these sites here for examples of all of this: on high concept films have been around for ages but are increasingly relevant for novels ( This Amazon list suggest a top ten of literary novels that have used 'high concepts', which gives you the general idea:

What impact does this emphasis on high-concept have on the story you want to write? As a reviewer, what I've been noticing lately is a concentration on such 'high concepts' in new novels especially, often many of them genuinely fascinating. But I've noticed something else as well, which prompts another kind of question: does the 'high concept' concentration come at the expense of voice?

A few years ago, some critics complained that creative writing courses were ironing out different 'voices' (not different 'stories', to stress). A recent event I did at the Scottish Writers Centre sparked of a conversation with organiser Douglas Thompson about Eudora Welty, a writer I love, and sent me back to her books. Her story collection, The Golden Apples, published in 1949 is all about the voice. Look at the opening to her first story in the collection, 'Shower of Gold':

"That was Miss Snowdie MacLain.
She comes after her butter, won't let me run over with it from just across the road. Her husband walked out of the house one day and left his hat on the banks of the Big Black River - That could have started something, too.
We might have had a little run on doing that in Morgana, if it had been so willed. What King did, the copycats always might do. Well, King MacLain left a new straw hat on the banks of the Big Black and there are people that considered he headed west."

I adore this voice from the first word. The big concept? Well, that would be a missing husband perhaps. But there's no 'what if' question here, no big visuals. Who would publish Welty now? Probably a small publisher. My favourite writers all have strong, identifiable voices: Joyce Carol Oates is a good example, and perhaps the fact that many of her stories seem to be taken from real life newspaper reports is what gets her past the 'high concept' question (plus the fact she began her career before that was mandatory for literary novelists). I'd also put Megan Abbott into this category, too: a superb stylist whose latest novel has a high concept that would make a great movie, The Fever.

I'd also include Lucy Ellmann in any list of contemporary writers with a 'voice', and when I think to the past, I come up with names like Stella Gibbons and Dodie Smith. What voices for terrific dark comedy all three of them have! But are they 'high concept'? Hardly.

Why the 'high concept' should kill off 'voice', or style, isn't necessarily clear. After all, you could argue Robert Louis Stevenson managed to pull off both: another great stylist yet also highly visual, great 'what if' stories. But given how few names I can think up to fit both, I would have to argue that the emphasis on one has led to the detriment, or the lack of effort on behalf of, the other.

Does it matter, though, if high-concept content is triumphing over style? For me personally, it's the voice that hooks me and keeps me, not the concept. Am I in the minority?    


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