How to write a bestseller

Posted in: Blog Feminism Publishing

Why do badly written books become bestsellers? It’s a question that banged against my consciousness as I tried to read 50 Shades of Grey, E L James’s unintentionally hilarious erotic fanfic tribute to Twilight. An ebook, it has become a self-publishing phenomenon, earning the British author an eye-watering advance from a traditional publishing house.

With lines like ‘My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves’ and dialogue as excruciating as ‘Anastasia, you are going to unman me’ it’s as erotically charged as a Stannah stairlift. Ms James must be feeling like the luckiest author on the planet.

Even publishers agree. As trad houses scrambled over one another to throw money at Ms James, I had lunch with one who confessed: ‘None of us can believe how badly written it is, I mean really badly written, but the money being offered is getting ridiculous, we have to look at it,’

Even the plot, he whispered over our confit de canard, was predictable. Heroine Anastasia Steele, is a 21-year-old-never-had-a- boyfriend (but doesn’t look like Ann Widdicombe) graduate. She forms an oh so predictable sado-masochistic liaison with Christian Grey, who is the kind of off-the-peg billionaire even Mills & Boon would blush to publish.

Of course, that Ms James is not the first author to strike it lucky in a market where unpublished rivals are told to sweat over every word, then write a perfect cover letter and synopsis so that they stand out from the pile of slush washing through agents’ doors. She has successfully bypassed that route by, it seems to me, piggybacking onto the fan base of Twilight – how Mormon Stephanie Meyers feels about this remains to be seen.

But there are plenty of traditionally published megasellers that rival authors – published and rejected – must read and weep because the prose – including the plotting – is so poor.

Take Dan Brown, no please, take Dan Brown. As author and journalist Chas Newkey-Burden pointed out to me on Twitter, you know it’s going to be hard-going when you find the word ‘renowned’ in the first paragraph. Or take James Patterson, whose thrillers are pumped out at an industrial scale by a team of writers who work like apprentices to Renaissance painters, though without the same artistry.

Among a myriad of zedlebrities depositing ghostwritten novels on an already over-crowded market we have Katie Price. I had to read one of her ‘novels’ – Crystal – for a competition. By the time I finished throwing it against the wall of my office I needed to redecorate. It left me feeling her fans were being short-changed by characters as deep as nail varnish and a simplistic plot with the allure of a photo love story without any pictures.

And let’s not forget Twilight, which in its odd way spawned 50 Shades, a fact that may explain why Ms James’s readership are unperturbed by the writing. I am sure you have your own nominations for the How Did They Get off The Slush Pile? Award.

With zedlebs the allure for publishers is easily explained: they are brand extensions to add to the perfume, shoes, clothing and other lines of tat marketed at fans. Though personally I have never understood the desire to smell like a celebrity, I can see that these products – and make no mistake, in this market books are products – sell for the same reasons Brut for Men did an eon ago (my earliest olfactory memories are seared by the not so Great Smell of Brut). Market something heavily enough, endorse it with a ‘name’ and shop shelves empty.

What is more perplexing is that authors whose execrable prose rivals well-written page turners clean up before receiving substantial advances for equally dire future work. Of course these advances are guarantors of success for the sheer reason that no publisher wants egg on his face, so everything is done to keep copies of the next book out of the hands of critics and to create an ‘event’. These force the public to buy blind on the day of publication. Who needs word-of-mouth when you can get News at Ten?

The breakout books by these authors had no sizable advances – Dan Brown received less than £5,000 from Transworld for The Da Vinci Code – a guarantor of little or no marketing. Yet, according to sales data monitoring agency Bookscan, it has sold over four million copies in the UK alone, turning it into the biggest selling book of the past 10 years.

Entertainment value is often cited as the reason these books do well. They are plot driven page-turners with short, sharp chapters that draw readers in. But I am not talking about literary versus commercial. I am talking straight-down-the line commercial, and there are plenty of better written rivals that fail to sell in the same quantities.

I think 50 Shades hints at why certain books catch on whatever the quality of the writing. The explanation is thematic. Overwhelmingly reactionary, they tap into contemporary anxieties about our lives in a way publishers fail to predict (if they did they’d be paying more in the first place).

The Da Vinci Code hit the spot as distrust of global organisations and big government reached new levels of paranoia; Twilight tapped into teen angst about sex and the increasingly sexualised environment into which teenage girls mature; on some level 50 Shades taps into discomfort about the role of women and their relationship to power in the same way that the rise of work by the new feministas does. As a feminist, I find the popularity of books like 50 Shades deeply disturbing as they represent a resurrection of the Madonna/ Whore archetypes of Freud, archetypes, which the overwhelmingly female fan base indicates, many women buy into.

What unites these and far better written global phenomena, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Harry Potter series, is they hark back to traditional worlds. Whether stratified according to ability and class (Harry Potter in his boarding school) or gender – the idea that a woman’s ultimate role is wife or girlfriend (Bridget was doing this one long before 50 Shades’ Ana) – they inhabit a traditional universe.

More general trends in publishing reflect this tendency too – how else explain the sweep all before it success of historical fiction?  These are worlds where women know their place: even if they strain against the bodice, they cannot escape it without help from the patriarchy.

Even memoirs like Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife, which topped the charts long before Miranda Hart donned a nurse’s uniform, hark back to a traditional world. Furthermore, by concentrating on childbirth, they emphasise the most traditional role of all for women, that of mother and carer.

What is behind these phenomena is not deliberately misogynistic, but I do believe they offer a disturbing insight into wider attitudes towards women. They seem to say, ‘Try as hard as you like, sister, you’ll still be either a Madonna or a whore.’ That they are predominantly bought by women concerns me as much as it perplexes me. Maybe conscious or otherwise, the fantasy of readers is that they will be thought Madonnas, even if they act like ‘whores’? Whatever the answer to that question, what they definitely tell me is that if you want to write a bestseller: forget the writing, remember tradition. That is what you need to tap into.

© Danuta Kean 2012

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46 Responses to “How to write a bestseller”

great pub quiz names says:

In other words, they go against the grain of the careers their parents had.
I believe my exact words were “I don’t want to be your dirty little secret. The decline of the East side blues scene was disheartening, but, it also gave rise to the need for a fresh start, which came in the form of the next blues-only venue, Antone’s, founded by the late Clifford Antone, during the summer of 1975.

Paul says:

I didn’t read the 50 Shades book but I’ve heard many other people talk about the low quality of the writing. At the same time, I’ve seen many books that were very well written sell very few copies.

I think it really comes down to marketing, pr, the type of book/genre, and a little bit of luck and/or being in the right place at the right time never hurts either.

Meliha says:

Nice post! Agree 100%

What worries me… Never mind, I can only hope people will recognise their anxieties and move on to cure them and not create a whole new set, which I think this culture of ‘escapism’ could do.

I’m all for freedom of choice and what not, but aren’t publishers strong enough to have some effect on what sort of books will be made strong out there? I value readers, but… Let’s face it: Readers (by large) are members of public who follow whatever is ‘trending’, whatever is ‘cool’. And problems are huge. I noticed something along these lines when I was young and moved from a school in A country to a school in B country – in A you were cool if you knew stuff, in B you were a nerd, which turned out to be a bad thing – I think this speaks volumes.

Anyway, the topic is really deep and wide. Thanks for writing this.

Dean Crawford says:

Great post. The success of the “breakout” novel probably has more to do, as you pointed out, with timing than anything else. A few years’ back, a small book became an outrageous hit in Japan: it was about how to commit suicide, which was apparently much on the minds of teenage Japanese at the time.

I’m one of the lucky ones – I got the big deal and the bright future as a thriller writer, but I had to work hard for it. Sixteen years, in fact. Despite being happily published, I still find it hard to swallow that such appalingly written books achieve not just success but global domination when they just don’t deserve it.

If you’re an aspiring author, the best advice I can give is to ignore the bizarre injustice and keep working at it. Sooner or later, talent will always shine through, and ( hopefully ) you won’t have to worry about your writing being universally slated…

Voula Grand says:

This is such a fascinating topic…. it reminds me of a film clip I saw once of Lee Childs speaking about his books, and being asked whether he was sorry not to receive critical acclaim. He said something like…. “For the literary elite to comment on popular fiction is the equivalent of a flea commenting on the dog that is it’s host…”
I am torn, on the one hand, surely the measure of a books success is that it is widely read? On the other hand having dedicated many years and hours to the study of creative writing in order that I can write competently, those who knock out some poorly written book that hits the zeitgeist and sell a million… well, frankly, they hit my UNFAIR button!

Alan Dean says:

Interesting post, and one that got me to wonder what we mean when we refer to bad writing. Do we commonly assume it means work that is grammatically bad, or neatly, conventionally written work that is in terms of content, cardboard drivel with characters no more convincing than those in a breakfast advert (or any other, come to think of it)?
There’s a ridiculously short, self-published story on Kindle that is only 1800 words (I guess the author ran out of steam very early on) which is grammatically poor yet very well liked by readers who happen to have found it somehow. The story is about the Devil’s daughter and it contains many interesting quirks, so much so that the grammar matters far less than the original content. If this short story is compared to the polished but exceptionally weak “Da Vinci Code”; there simply is no contest from a story-telling point of view.
In cases like this what comes to mind is that in Shakespeare’s day, there were no rules of spelling at all and English was far more flexible than now. Perhaps our obsession with writing having to be ‘correct’ sometimes gets in the way of enjoying a good story, and is nothing more than a reflection of a still-present authoritarian culture within literature (one which other forms of art of often struggle successfully to counter and undermine). The same force, perhaps, that still seems to fail to grasp the significance of the rise of self/independent publishing?
Success from poor writing in the cardboard, cliché-ridden sense is, though, as baffling as you suggest. But, then again, look, for example, at television, journalism, the cinema, Damien Hurst and the whole Young British Artists movement that came into being in the 1990’s. There’s plenty of questionable content out there keeping many people happy and earning some small fortunes.
Maybe what we need to do as readers and writers is to work out what we want to produce and leave others to explore the worlds they enjoy creating? After all, there are many models out there we could copy, perhaps, if all we wanted was vast amounts of money. I suggest starting with an alpha male and a ‘princess’ in jeopardy, and add one or more of the following: a conspiracy, a unicorn, some elves, blood (esp. if for drinking), a hidden secret, the end of the world, impending, probable, tortuous death …
I know some of what I’m saying is politically questionable, but it seems that people have liked the same kinds of stories for millennia simple because they somehow reflect meaningfully, on perhaps a subconscious level, the way most people see the world. If we want a literary change, I’d start with a global, compulsory rewriting of nursery rhymes. If you look closely, very many have appalling content from liberal perspective – my 22 month old daughter has not yet heard the official version of “Tree Men in a Tub” (knaves, really?) or “There was an Old Woman Who Loved in a Shoe” (Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed). We could also turn off the television and drive out Hollywood by never again going to the cinema, renting or buying a DVD, or having anything at all to do with watching anything they produce online or via cable. Or, perhaps we could bring back certain educational priorities in literature, science and math? Maybe then, a few more people might buy one of my books.

James Kidd says:

Hi Danuta

A very interesting post. Hunger Games fits your thesis nicely I think. Though I was as troubled by Stieg Larsson’s depiction of women as impressed.

I guess bestselling authors tap into something zooming around the global consciousness– Meyer hits the nerve of everyone who wanted the best looking person at school to fall head over heels in love with us. On the downside, they offer what might crudely be called an ‘easy’ read. Patterson’s staccato sentences for eg are just perfect for the kindle.

But so many bestsellers mistake pace for narrative excitement. Just because your chapters are shorter than most of Henry James’ sentences doesn’t make for a thrilling read. Indeed, my own interest in Brown, Meyer, the Patterson factory et all is as much in narrative structure as terrible prose. (By the by, Niall Ferguson made exactly the same comment about Brown’s ‘renowned’ hero to me in an interview a couple of years back!).

My problem with Da Vinci is that the plot is simply one damned thing after another – which is also why I read it in one rainy afternoon. There is no character development, only puzzles to be solved. You could argue this is what Beowulf does, but Mr Brown doesn’t have the excuse of writing in the 9th century The story doesnt take you anywhere – which for good and mainly bad Ms Meyer’s does.

My problem, by a slightly different token, with Twilight’s narrative is that SM promises drama and friction (will Bella be a bad vamp, whatever will her father think etc, has Eddie damned her to hell) and then resolves all this conflict without any problems. It simply all just works out with a wave of the authorial wand – read the final confrontation in Book 4 if you don’t believe me. No one earns their happiness – sadness just goes away. The vaguely interesting notion of vampire as evil has become vampire as superhero. And don’t get me started on werewolves falling in love with babies.

I guess one is all surface plot and no feeling, the other all feeling and no plot. Either way, it makes for easy, compulsive, but slightly queasy reading.

James

Gloria says:

While whispered, gossipy, mean girl dialogue with a publishing mogul over comfort petard sounds fun, I’d rather be converting my undeserved advance into pennies and swimming through it naked any day.

Jade Cary says:

Eh. Misogyny is a word that is overused, I agree. I think you got off topic by bringing up the ‘tradition’ of the whore/Madonna, and I’m not entirely clear on your point. As a writer in the genre, what most offends me is the bad writing, and the idea that ’50 Shades’ is being marketed as erotica.

http://www.jadecaryromance.com

Linda says:

Very interesting blog post. I made a similar reflection in a blog post a few weeks back, touching the phenomenon of clichés and trends in the Publishing industry. It’s all about timing: some books, upon hitting the market, contain an element that strikes a need in their readers at that certain point in time – which undoubtedly will lead to success for the writer. Most often, after all, the heart rules over the head!

Lori Compton says:

If only you had been at my girlfriends lunch yesterday. I felt like the only woman on the planet who does not have a desire to read this book. When I first heard the title, Fifty Shades of Grey, and heard how excited women were to read it, I assumed “grey” referred to hair color and the book would be about a mature woman’s romantic adventures. I live in a fantasy world, I know.

By the way, I did read DaVinci Code and was appalled at the lack of any sexual liaison. Perhaps the two books could be melded together and then we’d have something interesting.

Rhoda Baxter says:

Twilight was about power too. Bella has no power and Edward has lots. I’m guessing 50 Shades mirrors that power dynamic (I haven’t read it, so can’t really comment).

Books are about escapism. I know I read to be in someone else’s life for a while. I can read bad writing if the story is compelling enough, but there is a tipping point when the urge to take a red pencil and edit becomes too much (This is why I’ve only read one book in the Twilight series). Likewise, I have been known to give up on beautifully written books in which nothing happens.

I suspect most writers write what they would like to read – Why else would you spend all that time with your characters running around in your head? The rest is down to promotion. And luck.

Kristin says:

Excellent post, and comments. Thanks, Danuta.

As an unpublished novelist, I find it frightening that my path to publication might be easier if I first obtained a spot on the X Factor or Big Brother.

Blonde on Blonde says:

i derive some sort of satisfaction when a bad writer busts through the ranks of literati critical acceptance to amass scads of dosh for dross. It’s a rather delicious irony this book sought no acclaim in the Times Literary Review, as if. Its author gets the last laugh. Why sell filet mignon to those with a voracious appetite for a plate of chips. It all comes down to the consumer. And, we want what we want!

Matt says:

I think BJ Kerry above had it right. Most people just enjoy the story. They don’t analyze a piece of literature looking for deep meanings or what-have-you, they just want an escape. Most of the population doesn’t have the literary skills to differentiate between a literary masterpiece written by a Ph.D. in English and a mass market success like “Davinci Code.” As long as the story is good, and it’s written in reasonably decent English, it passes muster. Looking for socio-political meanings just doesn’t enter into the equation.

Clodagh says:

When it comes to romantic fiction, I think there is possibly a simpler explanation for the appeal of books such as Twilight and the rise of historical fiction. The fact is, it’s very difficult to write a contemporary love story, because there’s very little potential for conflict. The former barriers of class/money/social mores no longer exist for the majority of people in the Western world. Any two people who like each other are free to get together, and there’s nothing at stake – which is lovely in real life, but it doesn’t make for much of a story. I think it’s one reason why romance writers are increasingly setting their books in the past, or writing about supernatural beings.

    Jenny Haddon says:

    You may be right, Clodagh, but I don’t think it has to be so.

    Money/class/social mores are extrinsic causes of conflict. Apart from class, which is probably dead, one can surely find parallel barriers to true love in the 21st century: race, for instance, or education or (horrors!) peer group pressure.

    Anyway, the central conflict in passionate romantic relationships, at least in literature, is intrinsic. My own view is that it is all about ceding/retaining power, not in a socio-political way but personally. As one mediaeval philosopher put it, the power to injure is already injury enough. So falling in love with someone brings its own resistance movement along with it.

Marie Evans says:

Excellent article. There are female authors out there writing great books that don’t follow these ridiculous trends, characters that you can engage with and don’t need to be either whores or madonna’s or stay at home mom’s or whatever. “Crocodile on the sandbank” – has two strong female characters and is a great read if you like a mystery, or for something a little different try “When Red is Blue” for a unique look at a young woman struggling with mental illness and alcoholism in her family, inspiring.

Cathy says:

I really enjoyed reading this and agree, with my agreement speakers turned up to 11. I do have a slight feeling that Pliny and Tacitus were probably writing similar despairing analyses of cultural decline (although obviously not from a feminist point of view – so this is progress). Perhaps what we’re seeing is people seeking refuge in archetypes during stressful times, like reverting to default settings because it’s too hard to work out the clever new apps. Maybe fighting the good fight is a luxury we can’t all afford all the time. Defaults are seductive. With fantastic, uplifting news about teenage feminists in the news yesterday, and much else, I think we’re doing quite well.

    Danuta Kean says:

    I think you are spot on. What worries me though, is that the popularity of such works is then used as justification for discriminatory views of women – a bit like the ‘she says no but look at how she is dressed’ argument. Just look at the coverage of so-called ‘mommy porn’.

oddly active says:

Ouch! Got all the way down to the final paragraph and then that horrible word ‘misogynistic’ surfaced. Okay, I’m stretching the point a teeny bit in this case because you at least soften it with a ‘not deliberately’, but it is a word that these days makes me shudder in the same way that the word ‘chauvinism’ did a decade or so ago. I honestly believe (I really do, as Kay Hope might add for emphasis ;)) that misogynist and variations thereof will go down in history as the most over-used, inappropriately used and casually used word(s) of the early 21st century (another one that gets me champing at the bit is ‘draconian’…). I can’t help but feel that were the words ‘misandry’ and ‘misandrist’ bandied about with the same gay abandon by men as a convenient label for 99% of the female population there would, quite rightly, be a huge backlash. ‘Hate’ is a strong word, and though the fundamental meaning of misogyny has been tempered by the feminist relabelling of it as a catch-all term for negative societal attitudes towards women I still think it’s an insidious and offensive term ripe with wider connotations. Which is not, of course, to detract from the very real issues of gender prejudice and the power dynamics surrounding those prejudices. I’ve just yet to see any mathematical equation that shows 2 wrongs equal a right…

Anyhoo, soapbox away I think there has always been and always will be a major trade-off between prestige and popularity, but it’s far more complex than just looking backwards. I think readers do find reassurance and comfort in ‘old’ values, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the defined sexual roles that are comforting, but a misplaced nostalgia for the idea that things were generally better then. It’s not so much wishful thinking for an age when men were men and women were grateful for it, but people buying in to the belief that (i.e.) marriage was sacred and worked then, that love could overcome everything, and that good, ultimately, triumphed over evil. It’s all bolleaux, of course, and the reality for women who didn’t live happily ever after far more horrific than today, but the Cinderella fantasy is one that is harder to reconcile with our current society than it is with an idealised version of the past. It’s only been a few decades since Bridget strutted her funky stuff and won over her Mr Darcy, but already she seems on many levels far more dated and unbelievable than Jane Austen’s original heroine, and her ‘happy ever after’ less assured.

So in a nutshell I don’t think it’s the stereotypes people are buying into but the wider cultural dynamic that those stereotypes seem (completely inaccurately) to inhabit. And though I don’t read much romantic fiction I imagine that those stereotypes are manipulated to make them more palatable to a modern audience – just as they were with Bridget Jones – so that the women can have their cake and eat it with big, strong, heroic men who can protect and provide as well as being – with a bit of nurturing – caring, attentive, metrosexual Mark Darcy’s and female leads who, like Bridget, can be simultaneously flawed yet flawless whores AND mothers…

As a writer, I guess, the bigger question is how much one is willing to compromise on writing what you want to read rather than what the market seems to be demanding. If you’re lucky (?) enough to want to write stuff that sells like KFC by the bucket (and my guess is that most writers who write this stuff aren’t actually compromising – they’re writing what they want to read as much as for anyone else) then fine and dandy – Mr Dicken’s did okay with caricatures and plots that owed more to coincidence than self-determination, after all – but if you have higher aspirations you might have to wait a bit longer. I still think that the publishing industry looks beyond the purely commercial and that there will always be a place for good, powerful writing. It’s the Dan Brown’s etc, and the ‘dear readers’ buying them, that make that possible by providing the income that keeps the presses turning. And if in these troubled times nostalgia and cardboard cut-outs are what a large percentage of readers want wouldn’t it be churlish to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Oh PS: I bet you’d be surprised what could be achieved in terms of erotic potential on a Stannah stair lift! I expect Jackie Collins or someone has written such a scene if you could but track it down.

    Loelia says:

    I don’t quite understand the argument in your first paragraph. Who exactly is wronged by the word “misogyny”? Men, whose negative attitudes towards women are wrongly labelled? But that comes dangerously close to saying that all men have (at least mild) negative attitudes towards women, or that all misogynists are men – neither of which is true.

    So are you saying that the word “misogyny” is hurtful towards… society in general? Or those people, men and women, who happen to have negative attitudes towards women without feeling actual hatred? It may be an overstatement to say that my relative consciously HATES women just because she thinks women don’t have the brains to become doctors or lawyers and thus she’d never trust a woman in those professions, but I’m pretty sure that opinion springs from a place of misogyny nonetheless.

    What kind of a word would you prefer, if you think “misogyny” isn’t nice and pleasant enough to describe this phenomenon?

Nina Bell says:

A good post. But I think that some best-sellers in the past have challenged a traditional view of women: Erica Jong (Fear of Flying), Olivia Goldsmith (The Ex-Wives Club and similar)and all the feisty Barbara Taylor Bradford and Shirley Conran heroines. Crime fiction, where there’s alot going on at the moment, is currently finally letting women behave like grown-ups (ie solve crimes rather than run screaming into a man’s arms). Perhaps there’s a recession-driven nostalgia, based on the shortage of jobs or perhaps a yearning to give up and say ‘OK, let someone else solve the problems.’But, as for the bad writing, it’s inexplicable. And I can think of a few ‘literary’ best-sellers that are badly written too.

    Danuta Kean says:

    I take your point, but those megasellers were quite some time ago. I can’t think of any recent sellers of the level of 50 Shades that match them. And yes, I am hoping one of those kick ass heroines in crime will break out and go global in the way Girl With A Dragon Tattoo did

Paul Wood says:

Definitely there is a connection between bestsellers and reactionary politics – think of Sapper and Dennis Wheatley. Read Claude Cockburn’s book Bestseller. (Cockburn was a Stalinist like many gifted writers.) But there have been some good reactionaries. Evelyn Waugh was probably the best 20th century novelist. There have also been quite a few extreme leftist popular writers including Jack London and Eugene Sue. Another interesting thing is the number of political extremists who wrote children’s books. Arthur Ransome was a Communist and married Trotsky’s secretary. Henry Williamson was a fascist. There are other examples which I do not call to mind at this moment.

Joanna Cannon says:

Such an interesting post and I completely agree. I am sitting here trying to think of a best seller that doesn’t fit the template. Sadly, I’ve not managed to come up with anything. I’d be very interested if anybody can find one … it would definitely leap to the top of my To Be Read tower.

BJ Kerry says:

Good Post. I find myself reading ‘bad’ writing often because its a good story. However I will always give up on ‘good’ writing if there is no story or its boring. What happened to books as a means to escape everyday drudgery?

Viv says:

Excellent article but it makes me despair still further of our culturally challenged people.
When Katie Price was due to come to the small coastal town where I live to sign copies of her “book”, there was a queue outside Waterstones reaching from halfway up the high street all the way to the station (about a hundred yards). Some folks had set up camp and been there in the rain since early morning. A rapid glance at many of those in the queue confirmed the likelihood that most would not actually READ the book. For the record, she got bored by Great Yarmouth and didn’t bother turning up.
I attended a signing of the literary fiction recent release, Dead Men by Richard Pierce, in another Suffolk town a few weeks ago. Despite it being the centenary of the death of Capt Scott, about whom the novel is written, there was no queue. A few people drifted by to get a book signed. It’s a wonderful novel, well researched and with a gripping plot and memorable characters.
Yet people turned out for a ghost written novel, the “writer” of which didn’t bother showing up.
There is something very wrong.

Carol McGrath says:

Well, indeed, this piece is very thoughtful and exceptionally well written. I cannot in all honesty disagree with you. Roles for women in a mysogynistic world are, sadly, so established. Interestingly,I told one publisher,who remains nameless here, that I had written a novel about a suffragette circa 1910-12. I was told that suffragettes are not in great demand. Titanic, in fact, hovered in the background but, of course, she wanted to read about people who nearly drowned! Historical fiction can be difficult since fiesty heroines are generally popular and often in popular fiction they behave anachronistically. One award winning Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, provides such example. There can be much present past involved in such depictions, never mind the sensational. Yet, written with integrity, any feminist can see how we are now through reading well written historical fiction. I like Sarah Waters for instance. The academic, Diana Wallace writes a fascinating account of The Woman’s Historical Novel. Sometime you must take a look at her work.

    Danuta Kean says:

    I love Sarah Waters’ work, but I am talking of hardline commercial rather than literary. There is a huge difference. And yes, it’s a fair cop Carol, I am making a sweeping generalisation here. that is the problem with only 1,000 words!

      Carol McGrath says:

      Yes of course you are looking at them in general and the stuff spoken about yesterday of which, sadly, there is too much. I loved your analysis-very thought provoking!

Marilyn Rodwell says:

Good post. Very interesting insight! When you say remember the tradition, do you mean the tradition in general, or referring to the role of women?

    Danuta Kean says:

    I mean tradition in general and in particular about the role of women. It’s one reason why, I believe, in much crime fiction women are victims and men saviours, even though in reality men are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than women.

      KC Herbel says:

      Yes, but who wants to read reality? I can get that from the newspaper.

      On the subject of traditional women’s roles – perhaps it is simply a matter of: we are what we are. Despite all the changes and propoganda of change to our respective roles, women are still women and men are still men. Sometimes it’s enough to want to be what we were born to…the path of least resistance. It’s also hard to shake all the ideals we are raised with. No matter how we grow or try to change our destiny, they always seem to haunt us.

James Miller says:

good post – although you seem to blur your argument between why badly written dross sometimes sells very well and why some of these books also propogate reactionary stereotypes about women. Are you suggesting a large proportion of commerical best sellers are also reactionary? There is after all a link (I would argue) between reactionary politics and bad art – fascists never like the avant-garde – what might be the wider relationship between cultural/political/ social trends and literary form and, more importantly, how can the serious and committed artist subvert these forms and breathe new life into them (there is always a link between artistic form and political ideology)?

    Danuta Kean says:

    I agree. I am talking particularly about global megasellers rather than bestsellers per se. But I take your point.