Thu 5 Feb 2015
Can sophisticated palates coexist with a hankering after Cheez Whiz™ on white? Mais oui, dude.
Popular fiction can be great—even superb, like a freshly-made soup from a good deli department—and be worth more of your money and your time than anything the cognoscenti might be touting.
I’ll take John Le Carré, Elmore Leonard or Eric Ambler over most literary prize-winning authors any day. I like something I can get my teeth into and savor, without vaporously yearning characters spouting five hundred pages of angst. I admire authors who can make every word of spare lean prose do the heavy lifting where someone else might inflict a fifty-sentence paragraph on me.
And I’m not ashamed of enjoying a well-worn Agatha Christie paperback either.
There’s some stuff, though, that I can’t choke down even if I’m climbing the walls for something—anything! to read. There’s Cheez Whiz™, and then there’s Cheetos™, and even with a rumbling stomach I find that there is a junk food too far.
A lucky few writers have become very, very rich from truly awful books. And with tears in my eyes and a ragged throat I cry “more power to them,” even if I find it more pleasurable to read the text on an orange juice carton than a chapter in any of their works.
What does all of this mean?
Before you can write bad stuff for big profit, you need to learn how to write well.
You need to know the difference between a commercial decision and an inability to produce good prose.
Publishers are always looking for their new blockbuster flagship author. There’s plenty of competition. They don’t have time to deal with amateurs who think it’s got to be easy to do a knock-off of Mary Higgins Clark. They want professionals who can grasp not just that something sells, but why. Who can write to an editor’s request or a division’s need.
Fellow readers often respond to my critiques on comments threads as though I’m Attila the Hun’s cranky sister. Why must I be so picky? Yeah, someone’ll say, the story had a few holes in it but heck, I gave it five stars anyway!
That’s a fine way of encouraging a young, hopeful writer not to get any better.
Maybe this is your first publication, or your third, and your critique circle and your MFA instructor have all been incredibly encouraging, and finally you can call yourself an author. And now all these readers out there are patting you on the head. Except for the mean one who’s managed to find an absurdity or some slightly overheated prose, and call you on them.
People read stories for a lot of reasons, all of them equally valid. Some just want a quick entertainment that hits the mood of the moment. Some hope for something memorable and moving. Others are trying to refine their own craft, and the story and the reactions to it are both valuable.
For real writing success, you need to know what’s good, what’s bad, and why, and then reach for the audience that suits you best.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)