The Myth of The Well-Written Bestseller
This might come as a shock to you, but there is no such thing as a well-written best-seller. It’s what everyone wants to create, and where everyone fails. Every writer aims to do well at his or her craft, and every writer wants to sell loads of books. But it appears that the two are mutually exclusive. Think about any best-seller of the past few decades that was actually well written? Some people argue that books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series were well written, and that that’s why they became great–but if you think about it, those books didn’t really have much to offer for that claim. Both had fairly simple characters with clear black and white moral outlines. Both stories also had simple plots that left some things out and didn’t answer all of the questions that readers had at the end. Books that do master all of the above (and there are quite a few) are often well respected within literary circles, but never really reach beyond that.
I concluded a while ago that people like entertainment. That’s why people read, that and that’s why they’ll read your book. Not because a teacher and an English classroom told them to or because their favorite literary journal published a favorable review about it, but because they saw it on a real or virtual bookshelf and thought it looked interesting or because a friend recommended it. I also made it my mission a while ago to make sure that my books are entertaining foremost and quality literature secondly.
The dark truth about best sellers has me worried. I want to be able to well; I really do. But I also want people to enjoy my books and have fun reading them, and being a bestseller wouldn’t hurt either. But the truth is, most writers have to choose a single definition of success to pursue. Either they can release a few excellent books that will likely never be enjoyed by the masses but that will be highly respected in literary circles, or they can release a string of popular books that conform to normal entertainment tropes and cliches but are well loved by everyone.
There’s no right or wrong here. You could defend either way. Personally, I’m at the point where I’m trying to do a bit of both. I have some books that I’ve aimed more towards the mass market so that I can get my name out there, and I have other books that I focus more on literary quality and refining my craft.
It’s a difficult choice to have to make, and hard to know where my priorities should lie. Which side will you take? How do you define success in writing? Please let me know in the comments!