Some years back I was teaching a short “intro to fiction” workshop at a local independent school when a woman in the group asked me, “How does Danielle Steel do it?”
I responded flippantly, “If I knew that, would I be teaching for twelve dollars an hour?”
But the woman already had her own explanation. “Well, I think she just doesn’t care if she writes a bad book.”
I was flip no longer. “Now, wait. Millions of readers love Danielle Steel. And thousands of writers are trying to imitate her. I don’t know ‘how’ she does it, but she’s touching something in those millions of readers.”
I had not convinced the lady. She sank back in her chair, folding her arms over her chest, looking skeptical, and quite disappointed with me.There is a commonly-held belief that popular fiction is much easier to write than literary fiction. I can even see an argument for it: Popular fiction has more conventions, and conventions can be learned. Still, the criteria for a “good” book of any genre are highly subjective. Does good mean entertaining, enriching, high-quality? And once you’ve established your criteria, who decides whether or not you’ve met them?
Each reader for him or herself, that’s who.
Sure, there are cynical people sitting at laptops caring more about future movie deals than they do about expressing a new and profound truth. But the idea that bestselling authors are laughing their way to the bank is so ludicrous that the memory of that conversation still gets me worked up.
I found it equally irritating when I recently came across an article by a linguistics scholar analyzing Dan Brown’s prose in order to point out its flaws. Apparently, Brown’s worst offenses are redundancy and mixed metaphors. But to me, criticizing Dan Brown’s writing is a little like making fun of Laurence Olivier for not being a great comic actor. The scholar might as well have written, “Life isn’t fair when someone who isn’t as smart as I am can become rich and famous.”
Articles such as this are usually intended to bemoan the impoverished state of Western culture. But since when is this news in a world that stops turning to follow the adventures of Jon and Kate Gosselin?
In fairness, almost any writer who pursues his or her craft for more than a short time will learn that a noble soul is not a short cut to good writing. And it will always pain many of us – a little – to see writers receive what we believe is undeserving praise.
But we live in a country where we are free to read whatever books we like and thank God we don’t need permission from a linguistic scholar to buy a “bad” book. No matter how laughable the prose.
I don’t know what it was about The DaVinci Code that captured the public’s imagination. The fast-paced plot? The recognition of the feminine principle in theology?
But if I knew what it was that would capture the public’s imagination next, I would be writing it. As fast as my fingers can type.