The Atlantic has an interesting article in defence, really, of Stephen King. Essentially, it says that despite the fact his prose is neither beautiful nor poetic, he writes excellent stories that are worth reading. That’s not exactly full of praise, but I suppose it’s a start:
What’s not really arguable, I think, is that such tales are worth writing and worth reading, even if beauty of language and subtlety of characterization get sacrificed along the way. Not all stories have to do the same things.
In the original argument over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, the debate was over whether King’s books are over-sentimental and poorly plotted, or whether he’s somehow tapped into the American psyche and is able to reflect America back to itself – an obsession with the American novel that I might talk about another time; after all, nobody’s ever trying to write the great British or French novel, that I’m aware of.
Selling doesn’t mean selling out
Literary critics are snobs. Readers are (often) not. As both, it’s sometimes an odd dilemma. As an English teacher and long-time student, I developed an idea of what ‘quality’ writing is. There are certain books that I wouldn’t advise my students to study or reference in an exam, and there are certainly books that I would rather teach them because, from a literary analysis standpoint, I believe there’s a lot more to say and explore about them. But that’s not all that books are. While studying an MA in creative writing I had a lot of discussions on similar lines, and usually didn’t agree with the people I was talking to. It was a varied course, and there wasn’t really anyone on it whose work I didn’t enjoy one way or another, but some were very dismissive of authors like King and Grisham who do sell in the millions. My brother found the same when studying film: plenty of students refused to watch or discuss Spielberg because they were too busy watching independent French cinema (watch out for the inverse snobbery coming through there!)
What is it that seems to make people who study the craft, and want to do it themselves, disdainful towards those who have succeeded beyond many of our wildest dreams? I have to admit, a little bit is probably professional jealousy. Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most talked about novels of the year. Twilight sold incredibly well and the movies have too. The Da Vinci code had a seemingly out-of-nowhere explosion of good fortune. Surely part of this is that we have to look at these books and say that, for whatever reason, they’ve hit the sweet spot of publicity, success and ability that we all wish we could achieve. Ability doesn’t have to mean writing style; one of my ex-students commented on facebook that Fifty Shades had potential to be an extremely compelling novel but the writing severely let it down, an opinion that seems to be shared by my colleagues. I haven’t read it yet, but I admire the fact that she’s somehow evaded copyright law entirely to create a fan-fiction of a book which became a film, which has been e-published, paper published and sold to be a film. How very meta of her (miaow).
What these writers can do is hold your attention. Whether it’s a dynamic character, a thrilling fast-paced plot or a sense that this in some situations could be you, it doesn’t really matter. That is a crucial skill for all writers, no matter how poetic or pedestrian their prose.
Writing does matter
That said, every writer I know wants to succeed on their own terms, and that is very difficult. You have to maintain a balance between writing something you’re proud of and writing something that will earn you a living, which is apparently increasingly difficult to do. I think I could probably write a 50k story that would be suited to a Mills and Boon type market and sell a few copies, whether to them or online. I don’t really want to. They’re not the stories that I usually read, and I want to write something that I would like to read. Then again, I also wouldn’t want to write an achingly aren’t-I-cool-and-shocking indie novel either. Again, not my cup of tea. I did read some advice on writing (I forget where!) which suggested a ‘love the one you’re with’ approach – look at the market, decide what sells and when you start writing it, learn to love it while you’re doing so. When you’re a million selling literary author you have some freedom to then write a random scifi novel if that’s your passion (although whether publishers would let you do even that in the current market…) but until then, accept you have to compromise. So the balance is a hard thing to find, between writing what you want and what sells, and writing something that other people enjoy for whatever reason.
Whichever way you go, the goal stays the same. Write something awesome, that you love and that other people love too.