Better to write “great” lit or “mainstream” lit?

A few months ago this article was published in The Telegraph and few people picked up on it, though I think for those who like to write, this is an important topic and question:

1. Is it better to write “respectable” literature, say 1984, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, or “mainstream” lit like The Fault in Our Stars or ye olde vampire romance?

“Last year, when literary fiction seemed to fall either into the category of formal experiment (Ali Smith’s How to Be Both; Will Self’s Shark) or into an essentially 19th-century tradition (Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others; Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), one book cut through all that by simply being intimate, direct yet oddly mysterious. Last Tuesday, it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, a belated flicker of attention for a novel that deserves far more.

Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief was published last September to excellent reviews, and was, to my mind, one of the most beguiling novels of the year. It was the third book by an author whose 2009 debut had won significant prizes and seemed to promise further fame. It was published by Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, arguably Britain’s most respected editor of literary fiction. It had the marketing and publicity machine of Penguin Random House behind it. Its cover – admittedly a sombre and indistinct affair – carried a blurb from Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, who referred to its “profound beauty”. In The New Yorker, the influential literary critic James Wood singled it out for a sustained hymn of praise, calling it “a beautiful, tentative success, a novel with no interest in conformity”. In short, Dear Thief couldn’t have had more going for it.

But just a few months after its initial hardback publication in the UK last September – and a long way ahead of its paperback publication in autumn 2015 – few people had heard of it, and even fewer could lay their hands on it. In bookshops, it was barely stocked. By last week, it had sold just over 1,000 copies in Britain (compare that with sales of Martin Amis’s books, which generally reach about 25,000).

What happened? The story of Dear Thief is the story of how our best fiction can get lost, and how hard it is for readers to find the books they’ll love.”

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Now this is a separate argument from whether you should self-publish or not. This is going on over at Goodreads, and I would argue that you have no choice. But for those of you who don’t care about whether a major publisher picks up your work,

First off, I am all for contests and prizes, yada yada. But let’s face it- a lot of these “lit” contests are run by folks who generally look down on writing styles which aren’t “sophisticated” enough for them. I did not read this book, and while I don’t want to see Ms. Harvey’s book struggle to make sales, perhaps it’s true that getting the respect of their Most Exalted Holinesses of the English Lit and Creative Writing departments at Ye Olde college/university wasn’t the same as convincing Joe and Jane Smith on the street, who may not even be avid readers, to pick this book up. I should know: I tried twice to nominate work for the Narrative Magazine prize. Me not winning wasn’t what bothered me; it’s what did win which made me think, “Hm?” The winner’s writings were typically kind of…boring. More focused on artsy prose to show of the artistic flair and not on getting to the point that the average reader could understand or be interested in, especially in this day of endless content on the internet. I tried reading a few of the pieces and yes, the writing was sharp and focused. But it wasn’t compelling.

As for me, I write what I feel most comfortable doing. Since it isn’t like I have a choice anyway, I will leave it up to the public to distract themselves just long enough to see if my work is something they would be interested in. Regardless of whether you want to write “artsy prose” or “tabloid trash”, just make sure you don’t a) insult the reader’s intelligence and b) Please, don’t make the writing boring, with endless paragraphs about the backstories of minor characters. Believe me, authors do this, even the bestsellers.

And if you or I writes something that is both “great” and “mainstream”, well kudos to you/me then.

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