Quick, Get Me A Flashlight

My friend Dave Freer posted on Monday about writing what sells… for the new market.  As so often happens, we were in a similar place mentally.

Monday morning in the shower (yes, I think in the shower, deal) I found myself thinking about how we don’t know what sells.

Now, we might know what has literary merit, but literary merit is a matter of opinion.  I read someone today talking about how Harry Potter is totally devoid of it, which it very well might be, but compared to what?  The comparisons this person pulled up were Dickens and Tolstoi.  Dickens wrote by the frigging word, so what principle of literary value are we applying?  And as for Tolstoi, I treasured his work and kept it by my bedside for years.  You see, I suffer from insomnia and I could never go more than fifteen pages without falling asleep.  So, I’m willing to concede it’s very important to the history of literature.  At least I hope so, or I’d hate to think of all the trees that were killed to print it.  Just don’t make me read it.

Frankly, though I gag at the idea that Harry Potter is the most inventive piece of fantasy evah – it’s rather like Enid Blyton boarding school mysteries with magic – I gag even more at the idea of people putting it down because it doesn’t “illuminate the human condition.”  I don’t know about you but when I want to illuminate the human condition, I get a flashlight.  (Wait, that’s the human basement.  Never mind.)

Doesn’t matter anyway.  Literary value is a will o’ the wisp and has been used for centuries by those-who-know-better to tell the masses what ’orrible little people they are and what ’orrible ’horrible taste they have.  (Shakespeare.  All that blood.  Ghosts.  Inaccurate history.  Rotted the mind like cheap candy.  A favorite of truculent apprentices and low brows.  Why, he had the violence happen right htere on the stage, while all the well bred people knew the way to do it was to have a messenger come and announce it.  In the more fraught plays, messengers crossed back and forth on the stage, but it was good taste.  Everyone knew that.  As a literature major I’ve had to read those plays.  They’re very illuminating of the human condition.  Like Tolstoi.)

What literary value is not is a predictor of sales, unless you are talking ONLY sales to a small subset of status-insecure people who want to show how intelligent they are.  Now, there are any number of those and there are scam– er… authors who make a living off them, but I am not an artist – I work for a living – and I’d rather sell stuff people genuinely enjoy.

The question is… what is that?

Until recently, if you wanted to be read by the largest number of people, the path was easy.  First, you had to impress the gatekeepers.  Fortunately the gatekeepers were a small clique living mostly in NYC and all attending the same parties and reading the same books or – more likely – watching the same movies.  And they weren’t shy with their opinions, either.  They talked all the time, because you see, living in an echo chamber, they viewed their tastes and opinion as symbols of their status and intelligence.  So, attend one or two conventions, and you could psyche them.

Failing that, there were slews of books, seminars and workshops that taught you how to think the way they did, for the purpose of creating stories they’d love.  Then they’d make sure your book got in all the bookshops, and then, if you were lucky, a miracle occurred and your book appealed to the public also.  But that was secondary because a) first you had to catch your rabbit – or editor – and b) the public selection was limited, and often constrained to the current fad.  So if all editors wanted purple swans, (shud up you.  Actually it’s barely less plausible than things they did want: romantic inoffensive vampires; female detectives who thought only of shoes, etc.) you wrote purple swans and if your purple swan was a little better than average you were gold er… purple… er… the purplest of them all.

Recently, while trying to cut down on the number of dead tree tomes around the house, I went through my how-to-write-shelf and realized most of those books are now useless.  All of them, openly or not, teach you to write the book the gatekeepers will love.  So other than the grammar books and the Swain (which you’ll pry off my cold dead hands) they’re mostly useless.

This was confirmed for me when a writer of far more experience told a group of us to “Put it all out there, even the things you think are bad.  Don’t judge your own stuff.  Writers are horrible judges of their own stuff, and these days we just don’t know what sells.  We don’t know what people want.”

But the thing is, I’m a wussy.  Oh, not in most circumstances, but when it comes to my writing.  I sent stuff out DESPITE my fear it sucked and kept sending in the face of rejections because I’ve got a quitting dysfunction, not because of any self confidence.

I hated having to jump through the hoops of the gatekeeper’s opinions, but at least I could study the books, and know I was getting better, as defined to ‘closer to the goal.’  Now, it’s like… gravity is gone, we’re all floating free and, like Thena, in Darkship Thieves, my internal sense tells me I’m always upside down, no matter how I turn.

And awards are no indication of what is good or what will sell.  SF writers are horrible at judging their peers.  It devolves to either status seeking or personality contest.  And fans are only slightly better because the fan awards usually are voted on by only a subset of fans.  (The Prometheus is perhaps the best predictor of sales, and I say that, not just because I got it, but because I know people who read every winner as a matter of course.  Of course, I run with that set of people, so my opinion is biased.)

And I’ve already disqualified myself from literary merit.  So, what remains?

Funny, but Dave and I both arrived at the same conclusion more or less at the same time.  Go back to the beginning of the field, to the things that caused the explosion.  Many of those are now marred by archaic language and style.  But any person with half a brain can tell the things in the story that appealed to people.  Well, I can tell you some of them that appeal to me: Resourceful and daring heroes; strange lands; bravery; larger than life characters.

Mind you, I don’t know if my tastes are universal.  But I know what I like.  And I’d bet you there’s at least ten thousand people out there who have the same tastes I do.  Probably, more like a hundred thousand.  And although it might take time, the new market place gives me a chance to find most of them – or for them to find me.

The new net of friendships between kindred minds spans the globe, so if I find someone who likes me, and they talk to their like minded friends… well…

Will this make me as rich as Rowling?  Who knows.  Probably not.  Besides, I can’t have everything (where would I put it?  Who would dust it.)

Making a comfortable living writing the stuff I like for people who like it sounds like paradise to me, compared to the last ten years of competition contortionism to fit the square peg into the round hole of expectations.

It’s good enough.  It will do.  And it’s enough to aim for.  (And illuminating the human condition can wait for the flashlight.)

36 thoughts on “Quick, Get Me A Flashlight

    1. ???? I thought that The Cabell’s oeuvre was largely out-of-print. Is this finally the impetus needed to push me into buying an E-reader, or do I need to finance and justify the killing of more trees?

      I do love me some JBC.

          1. Bleagh – I already spend too much time reading things on the computer; I much prefer the contrast of plant blood on tree corpse for recreational reading. But thanks, I have been ready to buy but resistant to actually bestirring myself to go to the store. Now I’ve reason to stop in when next near there.

              1. What for I need colour for to read B&W? Just the sort of useless extravagance what is driving this country into bankruptcy!!!!

                Eh – stopped at B&N with Deranged Daughter after picking her up after classes (parking???? Feh – easier Beloved Spouse or I drop off/pick up) and talked her into buying the Schnook 2 (or whatever is model — is $139 as opposed to Nook 1 at $89, but doesn’t talk, surf interwebs or run out of electricalicity nearly so quick) and I buy her Nook 1 for $90. Methinks I getting raw end with no warranty but also don’t pay state for privilege of buying … and I now have privilege of grousing at daughter whenever my “new” schnook displays character and/or personality. Win-Win. ; )

  1. I think that what has appealed to me about the early Heinlein and later Pratchett works is precisely the “illumination of the human condition.” Not all of the human condition is deplorable, however “literary” that may be. The Heinlein juveniles, especially, focused on young folks’ discovery of honor, etc.

  2. Ah, but you forget… people aren’t interested in what’s entertaining, but the morose education on studies of the human condition in the form of literature… /snark

    I *hate* the human condition stories. If I wanted to be that morose, I’d grow emo grass then watch it cut itself…

  3. Speaking of sparks–

    I’ve always loved “lost world” stories, and no one does them any more. Time to go back and re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt.

    1. Sadly “lost world” stories worked a lot better when the world was less thoroughly explored. We’d have found The Land that Time Forgot by now and have at least satellite pics of Opar. 😦

      1. But not Pellucidar. Of course that would mess up plate tectonics. But what if the top 100 miles of the Earth’s crust moved on ball bearings? They’d have to be very special ball bearings, something like say, Neutronium. But that might be just plausible enough.

        And it would explain where all the missing Nazis went to.


      2. There’s always strange weather phenomena causing mirages and peculiar energy fields covering craters lost to human memory.

        I hope . . .

      3. There are vast kingdoms on this planet, hidden by dimensional interfaces that the untrained mind cannot perceive. But occasionally, when the stars align and the moon is bright, the walls between worlds thin and some find their way through.

        Or you just go down to the corner, make the right turn and there you are.

  4. “HUman condition stories” = naval gazing. Wasn’t it you, Sarah, who said something like “If you spend your time naval gazing all you’re likely to find is lint. I’d rather look at the stars”?

  5. I’ve also often wondered why “human condition” must always mean gloomy and depressing. I mean, I have a fairly nice life. Yes, I have problems but they’re not overwhelming and I generally get through them. So while without conflict you don’t have a story but can’t folk face their challenges with courage and determination and even, occasionally overcome them by story’s end? Isn’t that part of “the human condition” too?

    1. We’re not the first to wonder why grim and dreary is more literary than beauty and hope:

      “Is not the passion flower of East Borneo as real as the gasometer of East London?”

      –source–a 19th century author whose name I have forgotten and whose words I have probably mangled.

      1. Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Loise Rame. From “Romance and Realism” in “Frescoes and other stories” (1883)

        “But the Vatican Hermes is as ‘real’ as the Japanese netzke, and the dome of St. Peter’s is as real as the gasometer of East London; and I presume the fact can hardly be disputed if I even assert that the passion flower is as real as the potato!”

      2. “Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Loise Rame. From “Romance and Realism” in “Frescoes and other stories” (1883)”

        David, you’re good!

        but then, I think my mangling *was* for the better . . .

  6. A note (or rant) about literary merit.

    It’s BS.

    I’m reminded of something from my own discipline. In 1897, the art critics and well-heeled intellectuals of Paris were asked to come up with a list of the French artists of the day that would still be renowned one hundred years in the future.

    They chose Gerome, Meissonier and Bouguereau.

    Anybody heard of them? Exactly. (This is an exceptional crowd, so I suspect some of you have, but ask yourself if they are even half as well known as Monet or Cezanne and you get the idea.) Bouguereau has been relegated to greeting cards, the other two are largely forgotten. The “greats” of the 19th C., like Manet, Pissaro, etc. weren’t even also-rans, they were never-was’s who only got recognized after the ascension of modernism.

    Tastes change. Huck Finn and Moby Dick were once just adventure novels. There were countless American authors of the 19th C. that were thought o have far more “literary merit” at the time. No one reads them.

    Now think back to ages past. What works of fiction from the ancient or middle ages survived to today that are still being read regularly? The Odyssey? The Aeneid? The Arthurian Romances? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What category do these fall into except fantasy?

    My kids love mythology. They HATE literature. This is also largely a western thing. Adventure & Fantasy is THE baseline for literature everywhere, except in our own time and culture. What the heck happened to us?! ( Rhetorical question. Don’t answer that. I know. Modernism failed and Postmodernism crapped on the remains. Moving on. )

    Did anyone here ever read James Joyce unless they were forced to in college? My daughter is reading Kerouac now. It’s painful. And no one will read him in a hundred years from now. Does anyone think that Tolkien WON’T be read a hundred years from now?

    Write what you like, and screw any pretensions of literature. The new world will help us find the freaks that like what we like and sell to them.

    Applying the title of “literature” to anything less than a hundred years old is just politics.

    Side note: I agree Rowling isn’t that original (she’s just a really good wordsmith and story-teller) but I will forever praise her name for smashing the regime of “my parents got divorced and my friends want me to take drugs” realist crap that was the YA market before her. Ugh.

    1. Literary merit exists. It is a body of conventional wisdom used to differentiate the U from the Non-U, the Elect from the masses. It is a form of secret handshake by which The Right People are trained to identify one another. That is the sum total of Literary Merit, its purpose and definition.

      It is a fashion statement for the purpose of distinguishing the cool kids from the geeks, the jocks from the dorks, the “in” from the “out”. I have 8,765.75 hours every year and literary merit is a terrible method of determining the allocation of those hours spent reading. My taste may be “all in my mouth” but in the end that’s where the pudding meets its test. I am not expert in what constitutes “Literature” but I am quite the expert on what I enjoy reading.

  7. I have often mused on the undeniable fact that the two most widely recognized characters from Western Literature, Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan (perhaps not the two, but undeniably in the top five and I’ve no idea who the other three might be) are, quite arguably, hack-work.

    1. John Carter of Mars, Conan (Howard’s stuff, not the pastiches), Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Kimball Kinnison, Oliver Twist, The Continental Op…

      The list goes on and on. None of it is “Literature” according to conventional wisdom. But damn, does it sell.

      Of course conventional wisdom is wrong about what literature is. According to Dictionary.com:

      1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
      2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
      3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.

      4. the profession of a writer or author.
      5. literary work or production.

      Conventional Wisdom doesn’t know what it is talking about. According to the Dictionary “Literature” includes non-fiction.


    2. There was Kit Marrow, Green, and several other playwrights who wrote at the same general time as Shakespeare. Shakespeare was reviled as a hack-writer, who wrote ‘trash for the unwashed masses’ and was certainly not anywhere near as talented as the ‘good playwrights’. Give it a couple centuries and nobody has ever heard of the others except for as names written in fictional novels based in Shakespeare’s time. Certainly almost nobody reads there work any more, and I’ve never heard of one of their plays being reinacted.

      Combine Shakespeare, Borroughs, Hitchcock, L’amour, Scott (all of his popular novels today he wrote under a psuedonym because they were hackwork, not literature) and the list goes on and on. What sells now is considered hack-work, (garbage, pulp, pick whatever term you want) but in a hundred years it stands a good chance of being considered literature. If it is deemed literature when it comes off the press, don’t buy it unless you suffer from insomnia.

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