Best Sellers and Good Writing

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After reading really GOOD fiction, it’s interesting to compare it with best-seller-fiction. All fiction writers probably use stereotypes, but the good ones use them as structures to be deepened or subverted. In best-seller-fiction, stereotype is everything.

I picked up such a best-seller yesterday when I had some time to kill, and began thinking about the difference.

In best-sellers the main characters are all someone’s wish-fulfillments. The Tough Yet Caring Man, his significant other the Brilliant Forensic Anthropologist who is also beautiful and sexy, the Brilliant Computer Geek, and another brilliant character who is less easy to categorize. The problem with these characters is that I don’t believe they’re real for a minute.

All of them seem cut from the same pattern. Semi-clever conversation, the right kind of motivations, happy and fulfilling relationships and sex lives that you and I will probably never have, but there’s little or nothing believable about them. Why is that?

On  the surface some of their fears and desires don’t seem too farfetched, but the reader never seems able to penetrate beneath the surface. I would guess the reason to be that the author has never felt very deeply about anything, nor has he or she experienced the problems they try to portray.

That’s just a guess at this moment. I considered whether the fast pace of plots obscured the deeper life of characters, but don’t think so. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a good example of a fast pace building tension, but not obscuring the characters in the book, who become clearer with each page. Some authors delineate character in long conversations, but that’s not always necessary. Others find other techniques, as Bester did.

Characters in best-sellers are usually brilliant, beautiful and sexy, while most of us have no  more than one or two of those characteristics at best. Orson Scott Card, whom I’ve mentioned in these pages before, often depicts brilliant characters, but they’re often people who have also been wounded, and believably wounded. Perhaps a crucial difference in his fiction is showing more than telling. He reflects on his characters after their various incidents, and they reflect on themselves and each other. But their references are to significant incidents that FEEL significant.

For example, a parent talks to another character about a third, the parent’s son, whom the parent realized was disposed towards ,a sociopathic direction. There are probably, in absolute numbers, a lot of sociopaths in this country and the world, and its a particularly difficult problem for a parent to deal with, even if they’re able to face it. The conversation Card writes tackles a very difficult subject in a very believable way, though not every parent would be capable of the solution his character depicts.

In best-seller land, incidents are often depicted that SHOULD feel significant, but somehow don’t. Is that a lack of skill on the part of the author, or are they simply writing to a formula that doesn’t reflect their own lives and deep feelings, assuming they have any? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a formula, if you’re able to do something worthwhile with it, but by itself it’s unlikely to have the strength to stand alone.  A fiction writer needs structure, of course, but the structure alone means little, as when the skeleton of a house is erected, but left unfinished.

I’m certainly more interested in writing something when I manage to tap into a deep emotion, which is why I question whether some fiction writers feel anything much at all, or whether they keep their real emotions segregated from their commercial product. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good formula for success, though those writers are certainly more successful at what they do that I am at what I do. I guess their success is not the kind I aspire to, convenient as some of it might be. Reliable income is certainly convenient, but what you do to earn that is of some importance. The best writers show that commercial success need not be accomplished through superficial work.

One of the common mantras of writing is “Write what you know.” Best-seller writers seem often to be writing of things they DON’T really know, things that seem exotic and exciting which most of us will never experience. That’s probably part of the attraction for a lot of people: seeing one’s self in the characters described, and vicariously enjoying their actions.

That’s probably an essential part of fiction, but superficial characterization and plot leads to an experience that might be described as impoverished and ultimately unbelievable.

Wendell Berry is a writer whose writing is almost entirely what he knows. Most, if not all of his fiction is set in a fictional town based on the area where he grew up and still lives. His characters aren’t particularly brilliant, though each has their moment of brilliance or realization, but they’re real people feeling the things real people feel. What they do isn’t exotic in the general scheme  of things, though it probably seems so to people who have never farmed or lived in a farming community, something that fewer and fewer people experience now. His characters are ordinary people in an environment no longer ordinary, but related to the world in a realistic way.

No doubt there are people in the police and military who live what most of us would consider glamorous lives, but probably the police and military often find their real lives considerably less than glamorous. The same is probably true for any career (though there are probably exceptions), as EVERYONE has problems, and probably most people don’t feel they live glamorous lives, even if it looks that way from outside.

So best-sellers are frequently escape literature, as people used to accuse science fiction, my favorite genre, of being. Some of it was, of course, and still is, but one can do serious exploration in that genre, just as in any other, and many people have. But best-sellers are all too frequently the equivalent of the early science fiction love of gadgets with stupid plots. It’s possible to do better, more enjoyable for the discerning reader, and I would think, for the writer too.

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One thought on “Best Sellers and Good Writing

  1. How many best-selling volumes would you read again? It’s one time through and you’ve inhaled it all.
    On the other hand, I enjoy returning repeatedly to work that has substance. That’s rarely the case for a blockbuster hit.
    The paradox we face is the fact that a large number of book consumers can’t wait for the next round from a best-selling author. Maybe it’s the very ease of the reading material that does it for the buying public … a kind of high-sugar or salt-laden menu. Nothing challenging, either.

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