As an aspiring beginner writer who wants to be an author, I keep a close watch of what is happening in the book industry as I dwell and dig deeper into the concept of writing, accumulating and remembering everything as much as I can–things I learned, studied, and perceived about the craft–enjoying these nuggets of facts while I isolate, reflect, and put them into practice.
True, I find inspiration, motivation, and courage to persevere while I consider the flow and pulse of several literary and mainstream works and its authors, yet a nagging question at the back of all these education keeps its solid vigil, a reality begging for an answer:
In spite of what the published authors or writers claimed, in spite of all the critical accolades, awards, and credits their works received from popular and reputable journals, magazines, and literary award-giving organizations, in spite of the list of PhDs, MFAs, grants, achievements and titles attached to their names, why are they not best-selling authors yet?
What keeps them from becoming one? What is missing in their writings, or what have they not done yet to achieve the fame? Were the reading fans too capricious and acting like prima donnas in their choice of mainstream or literary materials that they tend to favour more one than the other?
In this regard, what makes the Romance genre’s best-selling authors different from best-selling authors of other genres, that no matter how it is compared, the Romance authors seemed below in esteem and estimation of literary gurus and awards organizations, much less other authors, and if not for their legions of fans, I think, most of them would have already abandoned the genre?
What does it take to become a best-seller? Or in part, what makes that piece of writing acceptable to readers to elevate it to the best-selling list? What separates them from the bunch of other well-written materials whose authors have earned their PhDs, MFAs, and other prestigious awards and accolades—as if every prize invented to honour and immortalized the contribution of someone in the writing and publishing community added dimension and weight to their reputations and names—and yet, they are not best-sellers?
Is it the person?
Is it all about the author’s personality (that’s why the American literati and its followers tend to adore more and emulate Hemingway, Kerouac, or Wolfe, than say, Steinbeck, Faulkner, or Vonnegut) as some marketing strategies for selling books now includes and considers as asset in their promotional schemes? Does it boil down to “image” (as in commercialization again) as projected by the author in person or on TV, like an exquisite product packaging introduced in the marketplace, so it will stand out and get noticed during its launch, in spite of content?
Or is it the genre choice of the author that makes it a best-selling book?
One readily recalls J. K. Rowling’s phenomenal success, where Fantasy loaded with magic and sorcery cast a spell on millions of fans worldwide. There is William Peter Blatty, who possessed short-term notoriety, fame, and fortune for one devilish book of Horror, or China Mieville, rising from the clutter and clang of British acclaim and recognition, with his Boschnian-punk Sci-fi novel that defied and ignored the rule for a good title. Also, we cannot forget Thomas Harris, catching the world’s attention with a cultured villain who has a deviant taste for good food and luxury, concocting his own legend of Crimes. (I think Mr. Harris never considered it to go that far, though.) Then again, there is Stephen King, raising everyone’s bristling expectations of Horror by introducing the frightening potentials of psychic powers, thus, enjoyed the premonition of an enduring career.
I believe there are other noteworthy individuals who have done the same surprises in their particular genre, and that their achievements as a best-seller have not been duplicated—cannot be duplicated—by anyone else as easily, in spite of their meritorious skills, craftsmanship, or award-winning claims.
Are the muses so fickle that they will only sprinkle their dusts of inspiration and glory to those who aroused their interests? Why, in more than 3,000 writers and authors attempting to become a best-seller, only 200 are earning their keep? And a mere handful are legitimate best-selling authors—Grisham, Clancy, and King, to name some of the consistent few doing it with relative ease—each one may have honed an honest formula, yet only best and suitable for themselves.
Thus, I notice two things that are evident.
There are two kinds of success in writing. One, the famous author: A published author, but whose name is not popular and who does not have a best-seller yet, even though multi-awarded or had received accolades, grants, and honors from both prestigious writing organizations and the publishing industry itself. An author whose name does not stir excitement, or is well-known, among mainstream readers, but honored and revered by her or his peers and normally holds a college or university teaching position; is an academic Chair, or a writing organization’s Head, an Editor of a literary magazine, and is trying to finish a memoir or start a new novel.
The other kind rakes the gold. A popular author: A published author famous for her or his best-sellers, often interviewed in magazine articles and on well-known radio and TV talk shows, has sold millions of copies and still selling, loved by publishers but snubbed and rebuked by the literati and the academe for the mainstream taste and flavours of the books, ignored by prestigious award-giving bodies for the lowbrow contents, may give lectures but does not hold an academic position, avoids Chair responsibilities of any award or writing organizations, and is busy working on the next best-seller with already an enormous advance the envy of the writing community.
All these proved one thing: That art, and its appreciation, is always subjective. And what muddles the validity of the interpretation and acceptance of each one who looks at it or reads it, as the case may be, is the conscious insistence and persistence of the learned, the experienced, and the knowledgeable based on their practices, theories, readings, and studies—in short, their esteemed reputation and integrity aggregated through constant acknowledgements of their expertise by their own peers and patrons laid on the line—as the last word, the final adjudication that must be listened to, and held credible and sacred by everyone who holds an opposing opinion or view.
Indeed it is unfortunate, because it becomes a measuring stick, an unsatisfactory gauge used to determine the value and worth of a work of art or book, based on the prevailing and reputable view of a learned few. Haven’t we all heard an editor or a publisher’s comment that memoir or non-fiction is better than fiction now? That short story is bye-bye, only food for the dogs? How many times have we heard them utter to flavour the writing with international situations, as they kept an eye on translations, thus, cuddling unknown writers in the process with exotic personalities? Bottom line: It’s the money, the media game of selling the idea of the person writing a book, and not the content of the book.
Yet how many times have we read a sentence or a passage that seemed to have been written with the simplicity and innocence of thought coming from a child? Something that grabs and pulls us, unmindful whether it has lyrical or literary merit or rhyme, making us understand the content and comprehend the meaning as clear and vivid as a mother’s pampering advice? Or a father’s admonitions, for that matter, crisp and cracking, even if the words hurt us, taught us?
The popular opinion and choice of many in mainstream readings echo these almost plain and unfettered words and sentences constructed by the heart and not by the worried conscious mind, unburdened by the thought of literary criticisms ready to be flung at it by friends, peers, and colleagues alike. For me, this unbridled simplicity, this honesty of heart in every word, is what makes a best-seller. (One of the best reason, I think, why Romance survives on its own, far better than other genres: For how literary can one say the words I love you?).
Everyone is familiar with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, or even Poe’s The Raven, works filled with straight and meaningful lines and sentences that are easy to understand, munch, and swallow with gusto, until it leaves us satisfied, contented in our hearts. Simple but enduring classics, poetry, and best-selling literary pieces that continue to live, entertain, and haunt us, as we go on in our everyday lives.
In an article in The Writer magazine (Two-part Harmony, by Phyllis A. Humphrey, Off the Cuff, August 2001), the author discussed the differences between writers who are word people and story people: Word people “…have a fine grasp of language and love words…adjectives and verbs that create outstanding images…inventing interesting similes and metaphors…specializing in poetry and literary fiction.” While Story people are “…marked by action and dialogue; something is always happening and characters talk a lot…they prefer commercial fiction, and mysteries.” Ms. Humphrey went on to asked how each type can learn to use the other’s uniqueness, that is, tell a better story and use language effectively. In short, “language and story must blend to create memorable fiction.”
But isn’t this the real joy of writing, the thrill of concocting fiction—the actual process of merging, mixing, and blending both story and one’s own unique language called voice? I think any author will agree that while she is in the thrall of creative composition, she uses without a conscious effort both considerations, not unless, one is so mindful of reputation that every word written is evaluated thrice, or else suffer a critical black eye.
I think it is in the revisions done with an eye for the critics’ taste that the famous authors adhere to, surrendering to the stated structures, guidelines, and styles, playing to the accepted norms instead of pursuing and standing firm on their own identity, obliterating the innocence, sincerity, and honesty of their written works. (How many writers avoid using a fragment? How many considers the adverb a dirty word?) Then again, they complain why they do not have a best-seller yet.
In another article, in Poets & Writers magazine (Obscurity, The Persistence of the Unknown Writer, by Don Skiles, July/August, 2003), the author lamented his status, that despite of having published two sets of books that were recognized by award-giving bodies and organizations, he remains unpopular and without a best-seller yet. (“I have published a good deal in my life…but mine is certainly not a familiar or even vaguely recognizable name.”) Sad, but only the author can examine his own faults, and not blame it on the unsmiling muses of his fate.
To look into this concept of “famous and popular” and “word and story” differences between writers and authors, one can pick a literary journal (those with short story or short fiction) and read and compare the authors’ styles to see my point. In my case, I had the chance to read and evaluate stories in two different magazines: Zoetrope: All-Story magazine (vol. 13: No. 4, winter, 09/10) and Oxford American: Best of the South (spring 2006, Issue 53). In Zoetrope, two stories grabbed my attention (unforgettable, that I re-read them both twice) while in Oxford American, I came across contrasting styles that best illustrate the “word and story” premise cited earlier, and made me look deeper into the idea of considering success in publishing books.
First, the stories in Zoetrope:
I am referring to “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston” by Ms. Elizabeth McCracken, and “Griefer” by Mr. Austin Bunn, two short fictions with exciting premises, creativity in composition, excellent command and knowledge of subject matter, but still—“Griefer” stood out for me.
Griefer ends better with a clear and satisfying resolution of the mystery and conflict, and made the reader not only a part of it, but mingling with the characters in it, nodding and smiling in the end.
But don’t get me wrong. Ms. McCracken’s words crackle with superlative harmonies that are music and excellent illuminations to Ms. Humphrey’s premise, to quote my favourites:
The children knew nothing about palmistry, little about life lines, less about
love, but they believed in lifelines and love lines the way they believed in
mercury thermometers: they meant something, but you probably needed
a grown-up to read them.
But the ages of objects excited them. When Karen Blackbird disappeared,
the graphite in her palm was thirty-three years old.
In this case, and no other, “Once upon a time” means late summer, 1982.
Ms. Elizabeth McCracken is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. She holds the James A. Michener Chair in Creative Writing of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. (Zoetrope: All-Story, same issue.)
“Griefer” on the other hand, explodes with the now, the mood of the present, the charm of the age, the craze of the new millennium, filling one’s mental interface with the addiction and gameplay of the story, settling in the end with the ease and simplicity that is only too real and true for each one who have experienced being in the zone of cyber alternate reality: A tap or a pat, back home.
“There’s so much world left to see.” Jocelyn let the line hang there,
between us, until I remembered it. Until I finally understood.
“How about a tour?”
Mr. Austin Bunn’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the anthologies The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Fantasy; The New York Times Magazine; and elsewhere. (Zoetrope: All-Story, same issue.)
In Oxford American, here are the two stories:
One writes with words, and the other, story. Both were outstanding, their approach to creative concept exemplary and yet, the popular style of writing wins hands down, i.e., good story with simple, clear language.
“The View From the Seventh Layer” by Kevin Brockmeier is a story so dense that even though it ran for a good nine full pages of the magazine, paragraph breaks are few and without much dialogues. Again, a perfect example of a “word” writer:
During tourist season, she worked as a map vendor at the marina, operating a stand that also carried umbrellas, candy, and prophylactics. She sold more prophylactics than she did maps, and more candy than she did prophylactics, and more umbrellas than she did either. The rain came every day, starting at 3:15. It was as though someone hovering behind the clouds had opened a spill-valve. The water fell in coin-sized drops that knocked against the masts of the boats with a sound like a bamboo wind ornament, and then, at exactly 3:45, it stopped.
Mr. Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel is The Brief History of the Dead. He lives in Little Rock. (Oxford American: Best of the South, same issue.)
“Flashes”, by James Whorton Jr., tells a simple, realistic story that can be sad and funny at the same time, while balancing the dilemma of the past as it comes to terms with the inevitable: old age.
He felt happy and fortunate. Once, Margaret had been one girl among all the girls in the world, and now five-tenths of a century later she was the only person whose absence he could not imagine.
Mr. James Whorton Jr. comes from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He taught at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, Tennessee, for eleven years and now teaches at SUNY-Brockport. He has composed two novels, Approximately Heaven and Frankland. (Oxford American: Best of the South, same issue.)
Popular or famous, word or story, whichever is your style, let the future decide as you write.
Most of my sources are print magazines that were back issues, though I hold them important and still relevant and inspiring to most of my writing needs and wants. For someone living in a third world country like me, their presence is precious and rare.