Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Hypocrisy

When it comes to books like Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series and The DaVinci Code (huge commercial successes that are pretty universally acknowledged as poorly written), outrage among authors who haven't been as successful in finding a monster, dedicated fan base is generally off the scale.

I'm not going to reduce this to a simple case of jealousy, though jealousy is certainly a factor. It's more like a sense of injustice, a feeling that authors who seem to be lacking in skill or talent haven't truly earned the riches and fame being heaped upon them---particularly in the eyes of those who have labored long and hard on craft.

Anyone who aspires to authorship has been told her entire life that eventually, quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves. Fifty Shades of Grey and Jersey Shore memoirs notwithstanding, I still believe this is absolutely true. The part that angry, hardworking authors seem to miss is that when "quality work rises to the top and finds the audience it deserves," that audience may not be large enough to crack the NYT Bestseller list, nor even necessarily the Amazon Top 100.

Why does this come as a surprise to anyone?

Look at the most popular television shows, musical acts and movies in the West. And by "popular", I mean the most commercially successful. With very, very few exceptions, it's all lowest-common-denominator tripe, aimed at the 18-35 demographic, promoting the pursuit of youth, physical beauty, material gain and fame, above all else. If I wanted to put it more kindly, I might say it's escapist wish-fulfillment material.

For many of us, life is already throwing enough physical, mental and emotional work our way that when we have a few minutes or hours to spare on entertainment, all we want is the cinematic, musical or literary equivalent of junk food. We want something shiny to distract us for a little while, that's all. I'd have to count myself as part of that population most of the time, for the past few years.

Then there's the (possibly larger) population of people who never seek out anything but the shallowist escapism in their entertainment. If a movie, song or book happens to make them think a little, fine. But they're not looking for that, and if it requires them to think too much, they're turned off because it starts to feel more like work than entertainment. It stops being fun, and nowadays, consumers expect everything from driving directions to language lessons to be fun.

Guess what? Quality prose is rarely described as "fun". It can actually be quite demanding. Clever turns of phrase often hinge on historical or literary references. Similes and metaphors are built on the foundation of a shared vocabulary between writer and reader. Intricate plots require the reader to keep track of multiple plot threads and character arcs.

Writers who sweat these kinds of details in their manuscripts do so not only because they take personal pride in quality work, but because they want the reading experience to be the best it can possibly be for the eventual reader. But here's the thing: if you're preparing a seven-course, gourmet meal for dinner guests who only have the time or inclination (or both) to wolf down fast food, your eventual disappointment is both inevitable and predictable. Nobody who's craving a Big Mac is inclined to seek out haute cuisine.

Here's where the "Hypocrisy" from the title of this blog post comes in. As an author, you can strive to write prose your fellow authors and the literary establishment will admire, belittle the quality of a lowest-common-denominator bestseller, and mock the lowbrow tastes of the majority. But if you do all those things while simultaneously being angry that the majority isn't buying and loving your book, you're being a hypocrite. You're not writing what they're lining up to buy, and you don't even want to write what they're lining up to buy, so why begrudge them their choices and purchases?

In fairness, there's definitely some skill and plenty of work involved in engineering entertainment so that it will appeal to the widest possible demographic. Nicholas Sparks is a master of this, and has the piles of cash to prove it. Adam Sandler isn't likely to win an Academy Award in his lifetime, but he's amassed as much wealth as a small island nation, and is beloved by millions the world over for bringing laughter into their lives.

None of which is to say that quality writing and commercial success are totally incompatible. When art and commerce meet and play nice together in the literary world, the result is a Neil Gaiman or Nora Ephron. Authors like these, who hit the magic trifecta of talent, skill and zeitgeist time and again are a rarity. They are the Bonos, Beatles and Bowies of the literary world: hugely popular, successful, admired, respected, and influential in their medium---all at the same time, both within their own profession and in the eyes of the general public. The most that the rest of us can hope for is to achieve maybe two of the things on that list, and not necessarily both at the same time or even in the same book. Anyone can hope to become a literary rockstar, but no one can plan for it the way one can plan for a successful career in medicine or teaching.

So pick a goal, art or commerce, and devote yourself to it. Accept that while it's possible you may achieve both, it's not too likely. Accept that in fact, it's not even truly "likely" that you'll achieve either one. Accept that writers who are willing to pander have better odds of enjoying the kind of sudden, 'overnight' success enjoyed by E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, just as an Us Weekly with a picture of a Kardashian on it is the odds-on favorite to far outsell an issue of the Economist with a picture of a Prime Minister on it. But also know that the likelihood such books will become beloved classics that future generations of readers will reach for, and recommend, time and again is remote.


Linda Cassidy Lewis said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this. Excellent post.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Linda. =')

Flossie Benton Rogers said...

Thank you for the post. Well said! As a literature major and former teacher, I certainly prize the world's great literary masterpieces that often painfully stimulate a rethinking of shared reality. Usually when I seek a book these days, though, I am all for the shiny baubles and HEA that will relax me and put a smile on my face. When I write, I want to coax a smile from the reader who has given me her time.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks, Flossie. And just to clarify, let me re-post this comment I have up at Publetariat:

It goes without saying it's possible to write prose that's both fun and quality work. That's not my point. My point is that in a world where a book like 50 Shades of Grey is a juggernaut hit, spawning movies, a lingerie line and even a furniture line, it's a pointless waste of an aspiring author's time and energy to hate on 50 Shades of Grey. Either you're courting the same audience that LOVES that kind of book, or you're not. If you are, go forth and write and more power to you. If you're not, then what difference does it make how well 50 Shades is doing, in terms of your own work?

Another blog I'll be posting soon expands on this, in addressing how far too many indie authors (and other aspiring authors) are obsessed with so-called overnight success. They see this or that author hitting the bestseller list and making tons of money, and suddenly feel they're behind the curve, and it makes them angry and frustrated. But quality lit takes time to find an audience precisely because it's not lowest-common-denominator drivel, doesn't grab attention merely by courting controversy, and doesn't pander.

In other words, just because your work is a 'fun read', that doesn't mean it's not quality work.

Personally, I think the best books out there are the ones that entertain first and foremost, but are so well-written and insightful that they're edifying, too. But those books, at least when they're coming from an unknown author, aren't going to accumulate fans or buzz as quickly as something like 50 Shades. And aspiring authors need to make peace with that.

E.B. Black said...

All that makes sense. Although all I'm trying to do with my writing is make a living. I don't hate E.L. James and I don't ever, ever expect to have that much success. I want to be commercially good, but I have a certain style that may not fit what people like commercially the most. I definitely do not like to write about wealth and looks.

JVRC said...

Brava and thank you for that. You know, I love all of those books you mention. Are they the height of great lit? Hell no. But they struck a chord with those read the books and those of us who love them so. And word of mouth carried them to their successes. And I see nothing wrong with that. I celebrate those successes and I strive for my own. I refuse to denigrate those books or those authors. It's petty and ill behooves us to be that way. To do so reflects negatively only on us!

April L. Hamilton said...

E.B. & Jesse -
Thanks for reading and commenting. I think the indie author movement is definitely going through its growing pains, but professional jealousy is nothing new. It's totally understandable, and I'll not deny it angers me to see the likes of Snooki getting 6-figure book deals while more deserving authors are relegated to the shadows. In the end though, all any of us can do is remain true to our own vision and goals.

James Robert Smith said...

I dislike the term "Indie Author". It is used to encompass all of the creators of the poorly written self-published crap that is infecting the world of literature. These folk hold to that term as a badge of honor, when in fact most of them are deluded idiots who are doing quite a lot of harm to both publishing and to English literature.