An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about the sorts of stories authors write. On the one hand, authors have ideas for stories they want to tell, and ways in which they’d like to tell them. On the other, there’s the reality of what publishers, editors, and readers want.
For understandable reasons, many publishers concentrate on themes and sub-genres that are selling well. And that can mean that there’s pressure on authors to write books in those sub-genres and with those themes. For instance, after the success of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer novel became very popular, and a number of writers created books that featured serial killers. And there are plenty of readers who enjoy serial killer novels. There’d been novels featuring serial killers since long before the publication of Harris’ novel. But after that novel became a best-seller, it’s no surprise that publishers saw what the market was buying, and that most likely had an impact on what authors wrote.
At the beginning of the Golden Age of crime fiction, there were established ‘rules’ (S.S. Van Dine, anyone?) for writing a whodunit. Some of those rules (such as the ones related to ‘playing fair’ with the reader) still make sense. But those rules arguably made for the expectation of a certain sort of plot, certain sorts of suspects, and the like. And books like that were (at least at the time) successful. Some of Agatha Christie’s first work, for instance, followed the expectations publishers and readers had for whodunits. Of course, as Christie fans can tell you, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd flouted those rules. And so did several other novels she wrote. What’s interesting is that she got a lot of criticism at the time for not writing the sort of novel everyone expected her to write.
There’ve been many highly talented Scandinavian writers whose work’s been out there for a while and been well-regarded. But with the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Scandinavian crime fiction became more and more popular worldwide. This arguably meant that a lot of Scandinavian authors who hadn’t gotten as much notice were now getting more attention, and in that sense, the push for more Scandinavian crime fiction was a positive thing for the sub-genre. It also meant more pressure for translation, and that’s had an impact, too.
With the success of novels such as Julia Crouch’s (e.g. Cuckoo and The Long Fall), publishers began to see that people wanted to read what we now call domestic noir. There was an eager market for novels that explored the dysfunction that can take place in families. This meant that people who wrote domestic noir had more opportunities for sales and visibility. And it wouldn’t be surprising to me if it also meant that there was more pressure to create that sort of a plot. After all, lots of people do enjoy reading domestic noir.
We might say a similar thing about some of the other trends that we’ve seen in crime fiction. For instance, once publishers saw that dysfunctional main characters (I’m thinking, for instance, of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor) were selling well, there might easily have been pressure on authors to create characters like that. And many people do enjoy reading about them.
And that’s the thing. When publishers offer books that people want to read, we could argue that’s a very positive outcome of paying attention to what sells. And, of course, it’s good for business. So, on several levels, certain kinds of pressure on authors isn’t at all surprising.
I wonder, though, what sort of impact that has on people who don’t write books that follow best-sellers’ models? If an author is already very successful, it may not have as much impact. But for ‘no-names,’ it may very well mean that there’s a lot of pressure to do a certain sort of character, or novel.
It’s important to note that, no matter what sub-genre, main character, or plot line an author chooses, the key is to write an engaging story that readers want. That’s arguably the secret behind the success of authors like Christie, who created well-enough written stories that people stopped caring whether they followed the ‘official’ rules. I’m sure you could list dozens more authors, both classic/Golden-Age and more modern, who’ve done the same thing. A well-written story is a well-written story.
That said, though, I do think about the impact of best-seller topics and lists on writers. After all, if you want to sell a lot of books, you need to write books that publishers want to market. And you want to write what people want to read. Does that influence what you write?
If you’re a writer, how do you balance writing what you really want to write with the reality of what publishers say and the market says? If you’re a publisher, how do you leave the proverbial door open for writers who do something different, but still respect your need to make smart business decisions?
Thanks, Michael, for the inspiration. Now, folks, speaking of good writing, may I suggest you check out Michael’s blog. And do try his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You won’t regret it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay.