Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bestseller Checklist: Why I'm a Cynic

Over at his blog today, author Arthur Zulu offers a wonderfully detailed and well researched article on bestselling/famous/enduring authors and what helped them get to where they are (the first in a series). But while I agree his pointers are, by and large, excellent advice for writers, I'm not convinced any checklist can make a bestseller.

Am I a cynic? Or perhaps it's the naivety of thinking good writing transcends checklists?

Well let me point out, it's probably not so much the latter. I am well aware certain kinds of writing dominate the bestseller lists, but I'm also well aware that the criteria by which these books were chosen is mostly different to the criteria which saw Dickens get to the top.

You see, I think it's a lot to do with marketing. Which is the cynic in me. I also think it's a lot to do with accessibility. People are omnivorous when it comes to entertainment and culture now: more people are reading, they're reading more formats, and reading is a less high-brow pursuit than it might have been a hundred years ago (and necessarily so). But people are also tweeting, watching a greater variety of TV and film, and generally enjoying creative output as widely as they can (in a suitably disposable fashion).

Note that I don't think there's anything wrong with this. I'm glad some forms of culture are no longer the domain of an educated elite, but are becoming part of the readily-consumed mass media.

But I think this lends a different culture of success. It's no longer, strictly speaking, the best writers who are lauded and/or successful (if indeed they ever were). The bestsellers are your celeb (and I like the term 'sleb' here, for its mirroring of the term 'pleb') autobiographies, your cinematic thrillers, and whatever's on Richard & Judy's Book Club reading list. Often great books become great not because of how well written they are, but because they create a space for social discourse. (We mustn't forget, too, that Dickens and Shakespeare were, in their time, popular writers, although with clearly more talent than some similar writers of today.)

Dan Brown echoes our obsession with TV thrillers, but also the increasing weight given during times of war to conspiracy theories, and our increasingly agnostic/atheistic unease with organised religion.

Harry Potter not only allowed adults to re-engage with their own childhood, but it also allowed them to reconnect to kids who might otherwise be drifting away with the advent of computer games and Facebook.

Similarly, you might want to argue that Twitter has grown as a conduit for self-expression as governments increasingly fail to listen to the people they're said to represent and commercial entities gain further control over representation and popular ideology.

So . . . yeah, this has turned into a rant. But to summarise: I think there's more at work at shaping the bestsellers list than good writing (for better or for worse). But go check out Arthur's post anyway if you're at all serious about good writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment