Monday, January 11, 2010

Commercial Fiction

This is by definition fiction that is intended to reach the widest possible number of readers, fiction that can earn its authors millions of dollars, as long as the royalty check doesn’t bounce. Ah yes, commercial fiction, the lifeblood of book publishing. There are bestsellers and blockbusters, runaway bestsellers and must reads. There are even bestsellers that don’t make it to anyone’s bestseller list and bestselling authors whose books don’t make back their advances. If any of this makes sense to you, it’s likely you’ve been working in publishing way too long. Bestselling fiction is the embarrassed raison d’ĂȘtre of the book industry.

The strange thing is there are commercial novels that are terribly written, some that are not written by the author named on the cover, and some that are very well written indeed. At first glance, neither publishers nor the reading public appear to distinguish among them.

Nevertheless, thrillers are meant to thrill, and if they do not, they will disappear rather quickly, shredded or remaindered. Unless one happens to be Dan Brown. It really isn’t my intention to denigrate this writer to any great extent. The Da Vinci Code was wildly successful because it relied on a very powerful myth, that of Mary Magdalene, a sort of meta-myth for the subjugation of women under Christianity. The curious thing is that Dan Brown not only didn’t invent this myth, but he actually borrowed its contemporary iteration from a book that had been on the nonfiction bestseller lists some 20 years earlier, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Nominally nonfiction, this volume was the brainchild of three English writers, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The idea of a very human Christ whose wife survived him and whose descendants are still among us is strangely compelling.

Without the Magdalene myth, Dan Brown is pretty standard fare. I’ve actually read the opening 50 pages of Angels and Demons, his first novel. It isn’t exactly terrible, but nor was I compelled to read further. As for The Lost Symbol, Philip Hensher writing in The Spectator unleashed about as devastating a review as I would want to see. And if you want secret conspiracies about who really rules the world, I think Taylor Caldwell used to do this sort of thing a lot better.

Genre—or Not

Now aside from blockbusters, there are genre titles, another species of commercial fiction. This would include writers whose individual titles may or may not make it to the bestseller lists but whose books sell successfully, one after another. Nora Roberts, and one presumes her staff of writers, actually writes quite well, given the genre she is working in. She most definitely writes for her audience, in the nearly 200 books she’s published. If she truly does write each and every word of the novels herself, she is indeed a genius of sorts.

And I have to admit I have a soft spot for Dick Francis, the former steeplechase jockey who has written several dozen mystery novels, some set in the world of horse racing, some not. It would be difficult to dislike a man who was on his way to winning the Grand National in 1956 when his horse skidded to a halt on its belly some 50 yards from the finish line for no apparent reason. Neither horse nor jockey was injured. The photos can be seen in Francis’s autobiography, The Sport of Queens.

Not quite selling on this level, there are a multitude of novelists, most commonly authors of well-crafted mysteries, who publish book after literate book. Iain Pears and Michael Dibdin come to mind, but I would also count writers of historical mysteries here—Caleb Carr, Ann Perry, David Liss, and Ross King, to name just a few. The irony is that the best of these books are better written and more intellectually engaging than many self-styled literary novels.

I’m not in any way qualified to talk about horror or science fiction, as I haven’t read anything in either genre for many years. But writers everywhere should be grateful to Stephen King for two reasons. The first is for demonstrating in 2000 that a writer could release a novel directly on the web and make serious money. The second is for championing the late Raymond Carver’s initial drafts against the pernicious and generally creepy editing of Gordon Lish.

When bestselling authors realize they don’t need publishers at all, the game is well and truly over.

One of the more bizarre episodes connected with the blog was an e-mail message from an angry individual who was convinced I had written something positive about Dan Brown. Now, it should be clear that Dan Brown is an atrocious prose stylist. This is obvious and has been demonstrated by dozens if not hundreds book reviewers around the world. I did not feel it necessary to repeat what others had written. As for my correspondent, there was something familiar about the hectoring tone. It then occurred to me that he might be a grumpy middle-aged writer of my distant acquaintance who remains strangely impervious to the uses of understatement and irony.

There is something about Dan Brown’s financial success that renders grown men extremely unhappy. Whether his wide readership has been achieved in spite of or because of his lurid adjectives and deficient sentences I will leave as an open question.

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