My last post, which mentions in passing how with a potentially shrinking ebook market, some authors might be tempted to abandon the innovative and write for the market, aiming for what will sell well rather than trying for originality, may have struck some readers as rather dismal in tone.
That wasn’t my intention , though, and I hope that wasn’t the impression I gave.
As Mari Biella commented and as I later amended my post to mention, there are always exceptions ( I stupidly forgot to put in that).
Sometimes an author, in following the well known advice to ‘write the best story you know how’ the story that you just have to write, the one which is bursting to come out, in fact – crafts a story that breaks all the rules that tedious, unadventurous market research insists on, and gets a commercial success with something that’s original and anything but the sort of thing you’d think would sell well.
This may be by bending the rules of a genre, or through taking up a theme that was done to death eighty years ago and never revisited since, or creating something astonishingly new in the way of a fantasy world, but whatever it is, it’s a reaffirmation that nothing, including the tried and tested rules of writing for publication, ever stays static for long.
I’d be dismayed if my somewhat cynical surmise discouraged anyone, though I don’t flatter myself I’ve got enough people hanging on my every word for that to be the case. I suggested that some authors might well go over to writing the purely commercial in order to keep up their share of a possibly contracted market; after all, generally, more innovative writing does carry the risk of being seen as ‘too cross genre’, of critical misunderstanding and sometimes, poor sales.
Of course, there is always that possibility with writing something that breaks the rules. But there’s also the other, very real possibility of recognition, of being the one who stretched further those boringly rigid borders kowtowed to by so many, and of succeeding despite that.
In her comment, Mari Biella mentioned the ‘Wool’ series; I haven’t in fact read it. Classic geek as I am, I may have read obscure novellas by Pushkin, startling ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ of the late eighteenth century and many volumes of sententious prose by Richardson, but my knowledge of many areas of modern fiction is as full of holes in as my first attempt at knitting (I’m still bad at knitting, by the way).
So, while I seriously doubt that anyone reading my last post threw down their pen (sorry, keyboard; I’m probably the only writer who first writes first in longhand in a notebook) and slavishly decided to give up on writing something that branches out from the ‘Market Requirements’ ( Yuk, Yuk ! how I hate that phrase), I thought in this post I’d mention a few people who wrote stories now world famous classics which broke the rules.
Most ‘How To’ books on writing will tell you that you ought to write about ‘sympathetic lead characters’. I presume they mean by that, people with whom we can identify; people who may be mistaken in their actions, but who basically are decent human beings.
So, a book with a lead male character who broods obsessively about past wrongs and his one failed love affair and who devotes the rest of his life to revenge, who’s stingy, kills a dog for no reason, hits women and bullies children, would seem to fail that test at once. Then, if we add a female lead who has tooth gnashing tantrums and wants to string two men along, the whole project would seem doomed to failure. Though personally, I admit to grudging admiration for such a self-centred Byronic woman, most readers would hardly take to her now, let alone in the England of the nineteenth century.
Of course, I’ m writing about ‘Wuthering Heights’. While I detest Heathcliff”s horrible acts and pity the tormented character (as I’ve a;ready said on here more than once) and I don’t find Catherine particularly sympathetic, I’ve always found it a fascinating flawed masterpiece of Gothic. This reaction, typical today, was hardly true of the critics who originally howled it down as the disgusting product of a warped mind. While I agree that Emily Bronte should have made it more clear to the obtuse that she in no way endorsed Heathcliff’s actions (she probably thought that was so obvious it didn’t need emphasizing) her portrayal of these highly unsympathetic characters is far more fascinating than those of many a likable pair.
Of course, it wasn’t an immediate success; if Emily Bronte had lived instead of dying of TB at twenty-nine, she wouldn’t have found her earnings from its sales any good for starting up that school she’d always wanted to open along with her sister Charlotte. But if she’d lived to be old, she’d have seen it start to be acknowledged as an exceptionally strong piece of writing.
Then, on the theme of taking up areas that have fallen out of fashion (as Mari Biella commented that a certain J K Rowling did with the boarding school story) the whole Gothic theme of vampires was seen as hopelessly dated and outmoded, the stuff of silly horror films, when Anne Rice revived them in ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and its sequels. An astute publisher saw the potential for that…
Then again, in the years following World War II, a time of only moderately paced technological innovation on all fronts but the one connected with weapons of mass destruction, a dystopia based on mass surveillance might have seemed bound to fail, however prescient it was to our own era – yet 1984 has become another classic. This book also, by the way, features some of the most wooden characters I have ever encountered, though part of that may be deliberate – people in this age had lost their individuality.
Almost all current ‘How to Books’ on writing stress the necessity of an exciting opening chapter for a novel –it’s meant to be ‘your hook’ the thing that draws the reader in. Victorian writers were lucky here; the middle class readership, with long evenings to spend, wanted their money’s worth and a thorough introduction to the characters – to be told what they’d be getting, in fact.
Interestingly enough, though, and someone else commented on this, but I can’t remember offhand where , Stephen King’s best selling novels do open in a fairly leisurely way. Whether this is because he became famous in the eighties, to some extent before the infamous modern ‘Culture of Hurry’ it’s hard to say, but he continues to do slightly well from the sales point of view.
I do wonder; will some author write a book that starts s-l-o-w-l-y, without a noticeable hook, and yet becomes a success anyway? And will this challenge common assumptions about the desperate necessity for that hook?
And finally, on ‘writing for the market’. I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s not possible to do that, and still write something outstanding.
One William Shakespeare did just that…
And he had to write so as to avoid attracting the unfavourable notice of a censorship which was far more savage than the one offered by ‘market forces’. His fellow playwright Thomas Kidd, found in possession of some ‘atheistic literature’ (it may have belonged to Christopher Marlowe) ,was arrested, tortured, and died of the resulting injuries about a year later.
So, on that jolly note, to end this post – whatever the situation regarding publishing or the supposed tastes of ‘the average reader’ (whoever that mythical beast is) there always will be exciting new works appearing, and some of these may well go on to be popular successes.