A post by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write (and the discussion that follows the post) has got me to thinking about how books become blockbuster best-sellers, even if they really aren’t very high-quality. Of course, there are several factors that play into this. Sometimes a promotional campaign just happens to strike a chord with readers. Sometimes there aren’t a lot of books by established successful authors coming out in a given month, so a book gets more notice. There are other factors, too. One of them (and this is where the discussion I refer to comes in) is what you might call the “herd instinct.”
One can look at that instinct in two ways really. One is that if a few people buy and “talk up” a book, suddenly everyone’s talking about it. That’s especially true if the few people who start the conversation are very well-respected. In no time at all, the book’s a major best-seller whether or not it’s actually very well-written. I’ll be candid here; publishers and others in that business (many authors too, if truth be told) count on that instinct when they’re trying to sell books. That’s why major reviewers and bloggers are always getting complimentary copies of books and invitations to do reviews. It’s also why extremely successful authors are always getting requests to do book blurbs and recommendations. I don’t have to list examples here of what I mean; you can probably think of lots more than I can.
There’s another way one can look at the “herd instinct” too. It’s often happened that a novel becomes a bestseller, and then publishers and sometimes authors rush to put out very similar novels. The hope is of course that if the first novel has been so successful, other novels like it will be too. We see that in all kinds of fiction really and certainly in crime fiction.
One example of this is the case of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. That’s the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist and his researcher Lisbeth Salander. In the novels that feature them, Blomqvist and Salander uncover corruption, abuse and murder at the highest levels of business and government. And in their personal lives, each (but particularly Salander) has to cope with some awful events. Readers have had a variety of different reactions to these novels. Many have absolutely loved this series; others not so much. But the main point is that the series has sold millions of copies. It’s been the talk of book clubs, blog reviews and films for several years now.
The tremendous success of the Millennium trilogy has arguably made it much easier for Scandinavian crime fiction to be translated and marketed to audiences in other parts of the world. Of course highly talented Scandinavian authors such as Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö, Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg and Karin Fossum have been writing since long before the Millennium trilogy came to English-language markets. But since that time, the work of those other authors has enjoyed a re-birth of interest. And authors such as Åke Edwardson, Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff, and Åsa Larsson have had the opportunity to get their work “out there” in markets that might not have been available to them had it not been for the phenomenal response to the Millennium trilogy.
And that is one of the positive effects of “the herd instinct.” When an author from one place or who writes one kind of book has success, this can open the door for other authors who might otherwise not have the opportunity to get their work noticed.
Another positive effect of this phenomenon is that issues and topics that need to be discussed can be brought out into the open. For instance, the Millennium trilogy addresses issues of the status of women, high-level corruption and other important topics. The more people talk about those serious social problems the more chance they have of being addressed
There are of course negative effects too of “the herd instinct.” One of them is that novels may be published primarily because they’re superficially similar to the blockbuster novel, not because they’re really high quality in and of themselves. Here’s just one example. Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and later The Silence of the Lambs are compelling portraits of a brilliant but psychopathic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In those novels we learn just a little about how such a person’s mind works and why a person might be a truly psychopathic murderer. Those particular novels are (in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) well-written and well-executed.
But here’s the problem. Publishers, agents and authors saw the success of those novels and the films based on them. That success arguably opened the door for many, many badly-written, truly gory and gratuitously violent novels featuring serial killers. If you’re a crime fiction fan, you know how many novels there are out there with serial killers in them. Some are good; many are not. If you’re a writer, you know that there can be a lot of pressure to write that kind of novel.
And it’s not just the serial-killer motif that’s arguably been overdone. For example, Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly are very different writers in a lot of ways. They have in common though that their respective protagonists John Rebus and Harry Bosch have a history of going up against authority figures. And both authors’ series have been extremely successful. That “maverick” streak works for both Bosch and Rebus in part because they are otherwise well-developed characters with interesting backstories. In part it works because both Connelly and Rankin are talented authors who create interesting and absorbing stories and have worked hard to build their characters.
The fact is though that because these authors’ creations have been very successful, there’s arguably been a rush to create protagonists who have trouble with authority and have the reputation of being “mavericks.” Some of those characters are well-written and interesting. Others…are not. And there is lots of extremely well-written crime fiction where the protagonist isn’t a maverick who constantly has conflicts with authority figures.
The “herd instinct” can make it very tempting to write in a certain way or to buy one or another author’s work. But that’s not how very good books get written. So in my opinion (don’t be afraid to differ with me if you do), it’s just as important for authors to write good stories regardless of what the latest trend is. It’s also important for readers to be aware of this “herd instinct.” Savvy readers already are.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles’ song.