Best Smeller Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-05-03 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

Recipe for a bestselling book -

A person who can’t fathom why the public fell in love with Lisbeth Salander or Edward Cullen is probably not going to be able to write something they’ll like just as much. Whiling away a couple of summer afternoons reading a trashy novel is a harmless way of wasting time. But writing a book even you wouldn’t want to read? That’s just killing it.

There's some good meat in this article, but the presumptions at the end are ludicrous.

Nobody I know of, and nobody I have ever heard of, writes books they themselves would not want to read. I speak for myself on this one: the reason I write my stuff is because I wanted to see such books come into existence. Nobody else was writing them, so I wrote them.

That they are not selling trillions of copies means nothing — and, in fact, if they were selling trillions of copies, that might be a problem of its own as well.

I'm reminded of Irving Berlin's formula: the reason they call it "popular music" is because a lot of people like it. A lot of people can like things which are terrible for them, which have no sense of craft, or which are just artful enough to get away with it. None of this stops those things from becoming popular. For whatever reason, it catches some wave, and it becomes the current big thing. A year later, it's a trivia question. (I will wonder why in another posts.)

That's why some writers scream and gnash their teeth and gnaw on the platens of their typewriters when they hear things like "You know, you'd reach more people if you only wrote this kind of book." They hate the idea that the only way to get peoples' attention is to become a meme, a buzzword. They want to work to stand on its own and speak for itself independent of the time in which it was written — but that almost inevitably comes at the expense of being welcomed with open arms by a contemporary audience. (Pace the list of things which we now recognize as groundbreaking and culturally significant but which at the time were greeted with head-shaking and sneering.)

It's the same reason anyone hates to find themselves at odds with popular taste: they think they have something important to give to the world, and then they find the world doesn't want it. The world wants junk food with too much salt and fat and empty calories, and forever defends its bad taste as freedom of choice. But the alternative to that should not be a form of aesthetic fascism, which replaces the tyranny of the masses (which is at least protean and therefore mutable) with the tyranny of a single conceptual view (which exists by defending itself against all such change).

One of the comments in hat piece was right: some of us don't particularly care to write things that would be quickly labeled as best-seller fodder. I have a friend whose father was goading her to write Clancy-style techno-thrillers, out of some mistaken sense that "she knows this stuff" and "she would be good at it." She doesn't write those books because those books are not interesting to her. I've read a few of them myself, and while they're passable, they're not the kind of thing I want to dump into my brain over and over again. I'm only modestly more interested in them than she is, and I don't want to write such things at all, because they bore the living hell out of me too.

It's hard to explain such things to people who do not write for pleasure; they seem to think that writers are like jukeboxes of words that can simply spit out Techno-Thrillers or Love Stories or Iambic Pentameter if the right buttons are pushed. I am not convinced such people can be made to understand that when you want to write, that means you want to put yourself in a chair every single day and write something that is beautiful and meaningful to you, and the last thing any such person wants is to make the prospect of doing that physically repellent by forcing themselves to write something they hate, hate, hate.

How hard is that to understand? If you're a fellow author, not terribly. If you're only a reader ... it's anyone's guess.

* * *

That said — as I've been documenting in posts here recently — I keep thinking the tension between "popular" and "literary" work is largely a red herring drummed up by people who have a vested interest in either side of the equation. I'm not sure I want everyone and his mother to be reading Joyce's Ulysses. For one, you could pick a hell of a better book, even from Joyce, as a crown jewel for literati.

Okay, let me rephrase that: I'd love nothing more than a world where people picked up and read books as challenging as Ulysses with the same ardor that they reserve for the latest glop-buster. Yes, and I hear JetBlue plan to use winged pigs for their new domestic routes, too.

Tags: writers writing