Popular Fiction

I have been reading Terry Brooks, particularly the Shannara series recently.  Say what you will, the man is able to write best seller after best seller after best seller.  I’d really like to know how he does it.

There is a tendency among certain segments to dismiss popular fiction, a tendency expressed in the view that if it’s popular it can’t be good.

How do you figure?

Some make the claim that the “secret” to writing for a popular audience is to “dumb down” the story, to write to the “least common denominator”.  As one wag put it rather crudely “shit floats.”  However, if it were that simple a lot more people would be doing it.

Another claim is that it’s all from the “push” the publishers give certain works.  And there is some truth to that.  A publisher, and the book distributors, strongly backing a title, selling it aggressively to bookstores (particularly those bookstores that are counted for best-seller lists), getting end-cap displays (those displays at the ends of rows of bookshelves which feature certain works most prominently) and so forth can drive a lot of sales for a particular title . . . for a while.  But sooner or later, and usually sooner, people start noticing that a book is annoying or offensive or, worst of all, boring, and stop buying it.  Of course, by this time the publishers have found their Next Great Thing and are pushing that.

But popular fiction tends to stay in print.  People keep buying it even after the “push” (if it ever had any) is over.

Some people dismiss popular fiction as lacking meaning.  I happen to think otherwise.  You can’t write popular fiction that sells to large numbers of people, that continues to sell long after any “push” it may have gotten has faded, that continues to sell long after any “derivativeness” that let it ride on “coattails” of something else (Brook’s entree, The Sword of Shannara was actually marketed “for people who’ve read The Lord of the Rings and are looking for something else to read”) has been expended, without touching something in the psyche of the vast body of the human race.  Some psychologists might call that something “the collective unconscious.”  Whatever you call it, it’s something that you have to touch in order to be popular as I have described here, not just short term sales driven by lots of hype but to convince people, lots of people, to shell out money that could buy a meal, a six pack of beer, a couple of steaks to grill, or whatever else they might spend that money on and to keep convincing people to do that, to recommend their friends do that, to show it to their kids and have their kids do that in their turn.

I’ve used Terry Brooks and The Sword of Shannara here.  Another example is Heinlein’s juveniles.  I’ve had some people tell me that they “don’t work” anymore as juveniles because society has changed too much.  Well, that hasn’t been my experience.  Perhaps they weren’t so dated when I first read them back in the mid seventies (or perhaps they were–it was known that Heinlein’s Mars and Venus were no longer possible and Have Space Suit, Will Travel was already Alternate History rather than future fiction).  On the other hand, I read them to my daughter in installments as bedtime reading (got a little distracted before getting to Citizen of the Galaxy, which isn’t one of my favorites anyway, and I’m not happy with the new/original ending to Podkany of Mars so I’m reluctant to include it) and she loves them.  She even, without prompting, echoed my sentiment that Have Space Suit, Will Travel begs for a sequel.  Such a pity that there’s probably no writer alive who could do it justice.

Those books worked because they touch something deep inside people.  And even though “society has changed” (It Says Here) and the stories are “dated” yet they still can touch a nine year old girl so that she wants more.

That is what I want to do with my fiction.  Now if I can just figure out how Heinlein did it and how Brooks does it today.

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