I must admit that I get annoyed sometimes (well, maybe a lot) at the popular myth that some people are “natural” writers and can produce a blockbuster novel without effort or craft. Since I am interested in all kinds of writing, today I am going to look at three recent examples of huge popular fiction successes and note two things – the authors were knowledgeable about popular tastes before their successes, and two of the three were very experienced writers, although only one was an experienced novelist.
Sex Sells: EL James
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about EL (Erika) James and the phenomenal success of her book Fifty Shades of Grey? I didn’t buy the book for one simple reason. I read once that in order to write a best seller, you had to read all the books on the best seller list to see what is selling. I tried valiantly, but most of it was incredible tripe. So I am very careful before I spend my hard-earned disposable income on a blockbuster.
Regardless of my lack of interest, I was trapped into various conversations about the book during which I was regaled with tales of how James was a naïve young girl from some backwater with a rare natural gift until I read an actual interview with her. I found out that she is actually a former TV executive, lives in West London, and is married to a screenwriter. No rube she, but a woman attuned to popular tastes. She freely admits that she wrote almost obsessively for months before she produced a book. I also like her advice: “Stop thinking about it – just do it.”
Serial Killers and Twisted Family Chronicles: Stieg Larsson
Books about serial killers/rapists/child molesters and twisted family chronicles also sell – note the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson. I finished Larsson’s second book (The Girl Who Played with Fire) first and couldn’t put it down (I love a good page-turner and a good mystery). But I was puzzled that I had found the first book such heavy going. Then at a business lunch a few weeks ago, I learned the secret to reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Skip the first hundred pages where Larsson is busy learning to write a novel because after that the book becomes irresistible.
I loved the way Larsson paid tribute to other mystery writers (all women) by having his alter ego Blomqvist spend his spare time reading Elizabeth George, Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid (the only novel he mentions specifically), and Sara Paretsky.
Larsson chose the writer-models well. Mermaids Singing, for example, is a classic page turner that introduces two wonderful characters: the tough-minded policewoman Carol Jordan and the damaged but brilliant profiler and psychologist Tony Hill (yet another Sherlock Holmes archetype like Salander). McDermid began as a journalist, and published seven or eight crime novels before her success with Mermaids Singing.
Marital Mayhem: Gillian Flynn
Mysterious disappearances and marital mayhem are also popular. I recently flew through the anti-romance Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which is not only riveting but a lot of fun too. It’s about two people (both nicely drawn characters, appealing and hateful by turns, and all too human) who deserve each other. No neophyte, Flynn had already written two well-received novels and had started out as a television critic at Entertainment Weekly. Where else can you get a quick, in-depth education in popular taste and plot lines than as a television critic at Entertainment Weekly?
Although I admire Larsson’s monumental inventiveness, I have to admit that I think overall Flynn’s book is the better novel and in many ways more difficult to pull off and sustain since we are in the heads of only two characters throughout the entire book — and there’s no romantic ending.