I’ve always been mystified by the divide between literary writing and commercial writing.
It’s the difference between The Da Vinci Code and The Sea. One won the Booker Prize, but the other sold over 80 million copies.
Which book was the real success? The one the critics adored but the masses ignored … or the one the masses flocked to purchase despite critical derision?
As writers, our answer to this question is critical.
Students of creative writing programs tend to aspire to literary acclaim, but adults with families to support find it difficult to justify spending years writing a book that will only sell a few thousand copies.
Which would YOU prefer: to win a prestigious literary award …
Or to make so much money off your book and its spin-offs that you’re swimming in it?
Some people would say you’re not a “serious writer” if you chose the latter.
Serious writers, they say, don’t care about public acclaim. They’re writing for the sake of Art, to express something eternal, to challenge their readers. The masses are notoriously fickle anyway. The Dan Browns of today give way to the Stephenie Meyers of tomorrow. Serious writers know that history will reward their efforts.
For those of us who studied the literary arts at university, it can be hard to understand why authors like Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer are just so darn popular. How can people flounder through all that purple prose?
Perhaps I’d better confess up front that I couldn’t make it through The Da Vinci Code. I picked it up because I don’t like not knowing what people are talking about. I often watch a movie or read a book not because I’m interested but because I want to have an opinion about it. It’s all part of being “culturally literate,” keeping up with the zeitgeist.
I wanted to put down The Da Vinci Code after the first paragraph. I forced myself to make it through the first page. Then I had to pause and make a decision: force myself to continue in hopes that it would get better … or accept the facts? It was awful.
(On the other hand, I read the Twilight books out of loyalty. As a former Pacific Northwesterner, it excites me to see a series—even a lovesick teenage vampire series—set in the broody forests of the Olympic Peninsula.)
When I’ve spoken to non-English majors about The Da Vinci Code, they have no idea what I’m talking about. For them, the book has a good story, and the historical context makes them think. Plus, there could hardly be a more zeitgeist-approved book. Refusing to read The Da Vinci Code would be like refusing to watch “The Matrix”: social suicide.
So are English majors wrong? Perhaps being a “good writer” has nothing to do with what we were taught in English class.
We were taught to avoid clichés, create multi-dimensional characters, layer in symbolism and metaphor. We were taught that language was equally important —if not more so—than plot. A novel with a thin story but beautiful language would capture the hearts of serious readers, the only kind of readers worth having.
But isn’t it a tad elitist to do away with plot entirely…
As if plot were nothing more than a framework on which to hang visually pleasing but structurally unnecessary adornments?
If there’s one thing that all commercial successes have in common, it’s a strong plot.
Mysteries, thrillers, and romances all revolve around the twists and turns of plot. You can write a solid genre novel without a single literary flourish, and readers will love it because they won’t even notice the language in their stampede towards the final pages.
Commercially successful writing reads effortlessly, while literary writers are too busy building layers into each poetic sentence to worry about less-educated readers who won’t get it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I studied English. I’m glad to have read the literary books I read. But I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery that drives aspiring writers down the dark and winding road to obscurity.
Let’s get back to the basics: clear, simple prose that tells a clear, simple story.
Add literary flourishes once you’ve mastered the basics, but not before then.
Maybe then literary writers would enjoy the kind of popular success enjoyed by genre writers. Maybe then literary fiction would come out of the cloud of ideas where it currently floats and fall back to the earth with a heavy groan of relief.
Telling stories is really quite simple.
Imagine yourself surrounded by a group of savage beasts ready to tear your throat out, and the only thing that can distract their attention is a story.
Lose their attention, and you die. Keep them hanging on your every word, and you’ll not only live…
But they’ll also install you as their god and ruler.