Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Popular is not Good

“A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”—Mark Twain  
There is a difference between popular and good.  A lot of people like books that are riddled with all kinds of problems from story to style, right down the list.  It's not that these works don't conform to some kind of entrenched, literary credo of correct storytelling, it's just that they don't function well in terms of, say, character motivation, or consistently delivering meaningful sentence.

Many people detest the most popular of these books—you know the ones—but not only on account of style.  Bad books can be had by the cartload, and are otherwise ignored, but somehow these books excel at bringing up bile.  People hate them because others claim to love them so ardently, and they have to keep hearing about it.  The conversation gets stale.  For you, maybe it's sports.  For someone else, it’s those damn books.  This reaction is only fair.  Turnabout is fair play, after all. 

Of course no one is harmed by bad writing.  Bad ideas, maybe, but not bad writing—that is, so long as a story or series doesn't start well and slack off towards the end.  But let's face it, these books enjoy their popularity because they have reached a critical mass of expressed interest.  Put enough copies of a book on a prominent shelf and mention it enough times online, and people begin to wonder if they're missing something worthwhile.  People like to have something to get excited about together.

The merit of a book is not determined by how many copies it sells.  That is a matter of business and circumstance, not craft. 

Don’t put a match to any books just yet, though.  It's unlikely their popularity is based on charlatan hawking of otherwise worthless texts.  There has to be something about any popular book, however flawed, that got it started on its way to deification, or at least the New York Times bestseller list.  There must be at least a glimmer of real quality in a book’s premise, its protagonist, its conflict, its environment, or its tone that attracts a reader's interest.  That always has value, and deserves recognition.

Let's be clear.  No one can tell you what you like.  If you read anything that does something cool to your head, it doesn't matter what section of the bookstore it's shelved in, what press did or didn't publish it, or where it ranks in sales or notoriety.  Your enjoyment is never wrong.  But understand it is entirely possible that you like something that isn't very well done, even if you're not alone in your admiration.

What does any of this matter?  If you're an idle reader and like to turn your brain off and skim along, I suppose nothing.  But if you’re really interested in reading something worthwhile, and especially if you have aspirations of writing yourself, consider listening to the thoughtful criticism of work you've enjoyed, and works you’re considering.  Ask any person offering that criticism, and they likely have a short list of fantastic books by authors you've never heard of, or never considered. Delve.  Explore.  The reward is worth the effort.

In short, if you're only reading the top bestsellers or following the latest trend, you're missing out.

No comments:

Post a Comment