Friday, August 28, 2015

For writers: why you hate the bestsellers

Are you a writer (aspiring or otherwise) who claims to "hate" the bestsellers? Do you feel nothing but contempt for the likes of James Patterson and Stephen King? Do you wonder why the rest of the world fails to share your refined literary tastes?

Perhaps I can explain. And since I'm a writer myself, I'm going to do that by telling you a story – – a true one from my own past.

When I was a callow lad of fifteen, I decided that I was going to become a rock 'n' roll guitarist. So I did what all suburban kids with such pipe dreams do: I took guitar lessons.

This was 1983, and AC/DC's album, Back in Black, had just gone quadruple platinum, or something like that. I was a big fan of AC/DC myself. (Yes, I was quite predictable. But I was fifteen, I'll remind you again.)

I expected that my guitar instructor would share my enthusiasm for AC/DC. After all, he was a long-haired, chain-smoking guitarist who would have looked right at home on the cover of an AC/DC album.

But when I asked my guitar instructor what he thought of the Australian heavy metal band, his answer nearly shocked my 15-year-old soul:

"I probably hate AC/DC more than any other popular rock band right now," he said simply. 

Then, apparently having decided that some explanation was in order, he elaborated. "The problem is that AC/DC songs are ridiculously simplistic." 

Then he added: "If I wasn't a guitar player myself, I would probably like a lot more bands than I currently do."

I never became much of a guitarist, but I learned enough of the nuts and bolts to gain an appreciation for what my instructor was saying.
Musically speaking, there isn't much to an AC/DC song. Most AC/DC songs rely on a small number of chords, and their solos are not particularly complex.

But that is missing the point. Few rock bands write songs for other rock musicians (or aspiring rock musicians). And if they do, they seldom  achieve megastar status.

When I asked my guitar instructor which music he did like, he informed me that his favorite rock act was Jeff Beck. 

That doesn't surprise me, in retrospect. A lot of guitar players like Jeff Beck. (This was especially true during the early 1980s.) Jeff Beck is to guitar playing what Saul Bellow is to the literary world.

The analogies between Beck and Bellow don't end there. Both men have strong followings among their fellow artists.

Saul Bellow's novels are mostly read by other writers, and readers with extremely refined literary tastes. Stephen King writes for the masses. Saul Bellow wrote for the literati. (When I was a freshman in college, I asked my English Lit professor who his favorite writer was. He predictably replied: "Saul Bellow".)

So what is the takeaway here? Am I saying that you should deliberately "dumb down" your writing? 

No, I'm not saying that. 

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that all artists, be they guitarists or writers, can fall prey to the pernicious habit of navel-gazing. 

Artists also fall into the trap of trying too hard to impress other artists in their field. (This is probably an even bigger problem.)

Art should, in the final analysis, be produced to appeal to the wider masses, not to claustrophobic and self-referential artistic communities.

When you sit down to write a story, you would do well to write for your non-writer friends, rather than your writer friends.

You may still decide that you simply can't bring yourself to like James Patterson or Stephen King. (I doubt that my guitar instructor ever learned to appreciate AC/DC.) 

But you will take an important step toward finding a wider readership. 

As a writer, you should be a storyteller first, and an "artist" second.

No comments:

Post a Comment