Simpler = Best Seller?

So my sister and I ended up discussing all sorts of things a few days ago, not the least of which was the eureka moment I blogged about yesterday, and she suggested something which really made me think.

Perhaps one of the things that make certain books so appealing these days is the fact that they are not written in poetic prose, stuffed to the gills with careful literary symbolism, and released into the world to the sighs of rapturous book critics. Perhaps people like a side of simple with their story.

By simple I don’t necessarily mean the book’s story is not complex, or that weighty themes are absent. I mean, specifically that the book is written in prose–and addresses themes–which a large segment of the reading public finds accessible. A reading public which is skewing younger every year (thank you JK Rowling!). And let us not forget this is a time when publishers are happy to go after young adults precisely because young adult novels appeal to all ages now in way I don’t think they did even 20 or 30 years ago.

Or maybe it’s that they didn’t label things so carefully back then, so people just read differently. Now, I think some people focus on their labels very carefully (“I wouldn’t be caught DEAD reading romance!” – “Romance? Who cares about that? I wouldn’t be caught dead reading that scifi crap!”) and others just like what they like. No harm, no foul.

In any case, the point I’m trying to make is, perhaps in this changed world, there are so many new readers, and so many young readers, and so many readers looking for a good escape or a quick romp between the covers, that it’s no wonder some books which can be kindly referred to as lightweight have found enormous success, enriching their authors beyond their wildest dreams.

Do people want more books that can be digested as quickly (and with as little thought) as an ice-cream sandwich on a hot day?

Or did the authors just have the right book in the right place at the right time?

I worry about this because as an author, I write for myself first. And though I have nothing against ice-cream sandwiches (especially on hot days!) I fear what I write is probably more like deep fried coca cola. A bit off the wall, intended for those who really don’t mind being adventurous and not guaranteed to please every palate, whether it is cooked well or not.

Fast food–yes, that’s me, I think. I don’t pretend to write the equivalent of the gastronomic miracle that is a meal at the Fat Duck Restaurant.

(But if you ever want to take me to the Fat Duck for a meal where you pick up the tab, please feel free to contact me. You will be forever blessed with my first-born child.)

But the story, the themes–let’s just say I tend to go a bit dark. I’m unfailingly adult (well, most of the time–*sneaks at look at Viyella*), and if you let your young adults near me, I can’t be responsible for their tears.

All the same, I have worked hard on writing accessible prose because I firmly believe that good writing assimilates the story into the reader’s mind rather than who wrote it, much like good food is talked about instead of the chef. Sure, we tell people where to go and who to go to to get the experience, but we don’t think of it as ‘that time that chef cooked for me’. We think of it as ‘that time I had Jelly of Quail’.

To every rule there are exceptions, of course. I firmly believe that I would cease writing in my chosen style if I could just develop the skills of that master of poetic narrative, Ray Bradbury. But since I cannot be born again, I have to soldier on with my small talent.

All of which is to say, I wonder if there is room in this writing world anymore for the harder, darker novels that are more challenging to read, especially if they are–unlike my stories–written in a more challenging–but beautifully crafted–narrative? Sure I would like my stuff to sell, but won’t the world miss out on some truly great work if we don’t learn to read past the best seller list, or some book everyone else is talking about?

Is there room for both the ice-cream sandwich and the Quail Jelly?

I hope so. I think they both have value. Who wants to eat either of them all the time?

I would love to hear what you think. Are our reading tastes getting too simple? Or are they the same as before, just with more YA available? Do you think there’s room for a dark adult novel on today’s best seller lists? Or has dystopian YA pretty much put an end to that? What kinds of books do you wish you could see more of?

Sound off below!

2 comments

  1. This is exactly what I have been saying for awhile now! I’m sure there are lots of factors, but I do think attention spans are becoming shorter and stunted. I personally prefer reading books with prose, because writing to me is a form of art. There are so many fantastic ways you can communicate something with the written word. If I wanted a story simply fed to me, I’d watch a movie (not that film isn’t an art form too, but…). And no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot write without using prose, or I hate what I’ve written. I look at it and think: anyone could have written this. And I don’t really want to write what anyone could have written. I want to say it in my own way. I don’t just want to write a good story. I want to show readers that moments themselves are beautiful.

    But I digress. I’ll get one 5-star review because someone thought my prose was breathtaking, and then a couple 1- or 2-star reviews because others couldn’t get past it. Hopefully there’s a balance in there somewhere that isn’t too much of a compromise, because I can’t give it up!

    1. You need to do you. The world would be a terribly boring place if we all liked the same things. I think there is a huge place in this industry for someone who finds the actual words we write with to be as important as theme and story. Sure, I’m a plot/story girl myself, but it doesn’t keep me from admiring wordsmiths like you. So you keep on keeeping on. Being true to yourself will give you a better feeling than any five-star review.

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