Saturday, January 16, 2010

If you want to write a bestselling crime novel forget about artisitic merit?

I read the following in yesterday's Irish Times.

"Three years ago a novel 'written' by Katie Price outsold the entire Man Booker prize shortlist. This year's X Factor winner has sold a gargantuan amount of singles compared with the paltry amount of albums sold by Speech Debelle, last year's Mercury Prize winner. ... There is an enormous chasm between music of 'artistic merit' and stuff that actually sells by the truckload."

I'm wondering to what extent do people think this is the same with contemporary crime fiction - are there on the one hand a set of novels of relatively poor quality that sell by the truckload (along with a couple of very good books that sell in large quantities) and on the other books of great 'artistic merit' that are appreciated by a small group of aficionados but sell by the wheelbarrow load? Glen Harper over at International Noir, posting this week, seems to think there is some merits in the argument. He stated, "but then it seems that bad writing (see Dan Brown and many others) is a requirement of bestsellerdon." What do you think? If you want to write a bestselling crime novel forget about artisitic merit?

Also in the Irish Times was a review that made me wince. "If the Americans are to be believed, All About Steve is the cinematic equivalent of genital sandblasting". Ouch!


pattinase (abbott) said...

Just like mainstream fiction never wins awards but is read by many, I think mainstream crime is overlooked in certain contests. Prizes such as the Edgar of the Dagger are for literary merit or groundbreaking story more than fan appeal. The Anthony, the Barry, the Shamus represent the fanbase more evenly.

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - I think there's a great deal of merit to the argument that what is of high quality is not necessarily what sells bundles of copies. The same is true in the music and film world, too, in my opinion.

Deb said...

Remember when Hamlet tells the players that he saw them previously in a play that was "caviar to the general" but that he enjoyed it? The struggle between something that is popular with the general public and something that has been identified as having "artistic merit" is not a new thing.

Fred de Vries said...

People nowadays don't seem to have a mind of their own and simply read what others (read: popular papers, internet) tell them to read.

With nothing to compare to, Dan Brown seems to them the best novel they ever read in their entire life.

Bernadette in Australia said...

For some reason that is completely unfathomable to me you're right (it's not unfathomable that you're right, it's unfathomable why people put up with the cruddy books). It seems that certain formulas and styles can sell in their millions regardless of the quality, whereas something good and interesting and different will struggle. There are exceptions like the success of Stieg Larsson for example (though even there I note that the publicity stuff in bookstores always highlights the sex and violence) but they're few and far between.

However it's only been relatively recently that I've been able to find good, interesting, different books. Before discovering book blogs I was relying on two chain stores in my city (the only bookshops available - we have no independent stores) and a fairly average library for information about what to read. I suspect many people are in the same boat and might, like me, be only too pleased to read other things if only they knew about them. So in part I think it's a PR/marketing problem. It's much easier to find out about interesting independent films for example than it is to find out about interesting, non-mainstream books. Only a fraction of the people who read are going to scour the internet for book blogs like I did - but you don't have to do that for films as there are radio shows and TV shows and street magazines and podcasts and all sorts of ways to find out about films and all those mechanisms will reach different people. I can't understand for example why some of the specialist publishers and/or marketing-minded authors haven't started producing audio and video media releases that can be provided to radio and TV - movie and music PR happens this way all the time but I don't think I've ever seen or heard anything like it for books. I don't mean just trailers either - you need to have some editorial content and make it a little 'package' so that the radio or TV people don't have to do much with it but air it. Also, podcasting has been happening since 2004 and there are lots of dedicated listeners - there are hundreds of film and TV and music related podcasts (both professional and amateur) but only about 3 book related ones (all produced by 'public' radio like NPR in the US and the BBC in the UK) and no crime fiction specific ones (though the guys at Do Some Damage have just started one but unless they improve their audio quality they'll struggle). So I don't think it's entirely the fault of the great unwashed public - there must be others like I was - crying out for good stuff to read but not having any information and that's where publishers and writes can help and I don't think they've taken the bull by the horns when it comes to that aspect of things.

I'll step down off my soapbox now.

Rob Kitchin said...

I'm sure marketing/PR are is part of the issue, but even where an arty/serious film gets a buzz it still has much lower audiences than blockbusters. This is probably the same with fiction. Something by Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, Declan Burke, Allan Guthrie or Reed Farrel Coleman will struggle, I suspect, to make it onto the small kiosk in an airport that only stocks 50 paperbacks. I guess, in the main, people want to entertained than challenged; relatively bland fluff over prose and social/political commentary. I guess the secret is to appeal to lowest common denominator but do it with quality stuff - something that Michael Connelly seems to have mastered. I think crime fiction actually holds up better on this front than general fiction. Last year I was talking to the manager of a large bookstore who described the book of the week - written by a minor celebrity - as 'pure muck'! I'm not sure many crime bestsellers deserve that label.

Maxine said...

It is bizzarre to see how some authors go down in quality (Patterson, Cornwell) as their sales go up. Karin Slaughter looks to be going this way. Very strange.

However, there are other authors that maintain their quality and are bestsellers, eg Michael Connelly. Harlan Coben has the odd wobble but he's also pretty cool.

Lots of good authors appear in the bestselling charts each time they have a new book out, eg John Harvey, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, Simon Beckett, Ian Rankin, etc etc. I don't suppose their sales are as high as the "top top top bestsellers" (eg Stephanie Meyer, groan, and DB of course) but I think they are pretty good nonetheless.

Randolph said...

Dear Rob:
Thank you for bringing this up and I'm grateful for the insightful follow-up comments. As someone who does not like to approach any piece of writing through the lens of genre (i.e., I even find myself reading advertising blurbs against the larger canvas of all writing), my own disappointment/continual surprise comes from how people use genre to dismiss fine writing. I suppose it is easier for the self-imagined literati to dismiss vast tracts of potentially threatening writing of quality by simply holding one's nose and whispering disdainfully "mystery" or "farce".
By way of consolation for all of us who care about fine writing, a glance back at the best selling authors of years past suggests one shared fate for the vast majority of them: oblivion.