The game of writing has changed. It is no longer the case, as it used to be, that the people reading books are as informed as the people writing them. In the days of Hardy, of Dickens and of the other Victorian masters, for example, only the rich and the well educated reached for their spectacles and, removing their books from their libraries and reclining at ease in front of their fires, placed trembling fingers against the pages’ edges. A shared pool of knowledge and appreciation led to wonderful sprawling tales, decedent language and testing moral questions.
Lest you think I am an Imperialist hankering for the days of British dominance (which I am) let me tell you some American books have made it onto my radar. Of course they are still English, so to speak, in as much as they are written in the Queen’s language, but I’m willing to grant them a certain level of independence. Where now would you find a writer of Steinbeck’s ilk, for instance, whose fantastic Grapes of Wrath opens with a long and languid description of the red dust towns of Oklahoma, where the harsh beauty of the characters’ surroundings resonates fiercely with their struggle to survive the Great Depression? And Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville – how are we now to find a book so intelligently littered with classical references?
All that once was, is no longer now. No more is reading restricted to the hobby of the refined, us plebs can join in too. Of course this can only be a good thing, but, as one finds with Socialism, there are certain disadvantages to the spreading of wealth. As more and more people began picking up books it was inevitable that the delicate balance between writing and reading earlier described could never be maintained. Many new and shiny markets emerged where previously there might have lingered only a few old and dusty ones. In short, reading became popular, the curse of all things once great.
It is simply not feasible to write a book in the style of yesterday unless you are satisfied with the fact that only a very small percentage of the world’s audience will be interested. Books that used to take the fancy of the traditional reader do not take the fancy of their modern cousin, whose tastes are rather more fleeting.The overwhelming majority of today’s readers are all about fast plots and catchy themes.
Of course it is not the case that a book can no longer be beautifully written, indeed it often helps if it is. But the times are long gone where an author might go on for pages at a time about the gnarl in a tree trunk, or move their readers to tears simply by describing the way in which the gentle winter sun catches the shining grief in a character’s eye. Descriptive language is subservient to plot; it must be there for a reason. If it isn’t then the book won’t sell. Simple as.
To my mind, at the moment the books bringing home the most money (not always the best measure of value) tend not to be remarkably written. Indeed it seems there are only two things you need to produce a successful book these days, and neither of these actually has anything to do with writing. The first is a smouldering front cover, preferably featuring some hunky looking young men without many clothes. The second, of course, is an attention grabbing lure along the following lines – “She married him for love, he married her for blood…” The bait is thrown, the fish is caught, hook, line and sinker.
Indeed, this powerful combination, if put to correct use, creates so much hysteria that the fact that the book could have been written by a less than gifted five year old does not appear to matter. The success of the launch can then be measured according to how many screaming teenage girls wet themselves awaiting a signed copy.
To see this phenomenon at work one must look no further than the US box office, where the film adaptation of Breaking Dawn, the final instalment in the disturbingly average ‘Twilight‘ series took $139.5 million on its opening weekend. Now compare that, if you will, to the paltry $5.135 million taken home by the Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s take on Hunter S. Thompson‘s Puerto Rican romp. I have not seen either of the films, indeed it might be the case that Breaking Dawn (film) is better than the Rum Diary (film), but as a measure of interest it is clear where the power lies. The books, of course, are incomparable.
Do not take me for a snob. I am one, of course, but I would like to hide that fact. I am not a particularly gifted wordsmith; I am not writing this post out of frustration because I am not able to tell the stories I want to tell – I would not be able to tell them anyway. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that, when standing in Waterstones surrounded by all the books about Vampires and Werewolves, an honest reader can sometimes feel a little lost.