Nice Junk If You Can Write It

The New York Times once wrote of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Ultimatum, “This book may sell in the billions but it is still junk.”

Robert Ludlum’s 27 books have so far sold about half a billion copies, and I would happily trade in the good graces of the New York Times for that kind of sales.

Needless to say, Stephen King’s horror novels have been criticized in the same way. Same with John Grisham, Dean Koontz and Danielle Steele. Some people attribute this to the idea that literary critics are wary of books with high sales. Although there may be some truth in it, that is only a part of the story.

James W. Hall analyses a collection of diverse American best selling novels (Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, The Dead Zone, Bridges of Madison County, Jaws, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunt for Red October, and The Firm) and extracts the elements that they have in common in his book Hit Lit. He tells you about the 12 elements of story you should include, but not about how to include them. He neglects to tell you about the pacing of the prose or the structure of the story.

If you read books on how to write novels today, almost every book with few exceptions tells you to cut the expositions, or work them into the action. It was not always this way. Novels in the earlier part of the twentieth century still had lots of exposition and descriptive narrative. It was not until the introduction of television and other forms of entertainment that readers started losing patience for books with long descriptive passages. Books without them were considered “pulp” and “popular” fiction. Stephen King and some of his best-selling contemporaries were at the forefront of this exposition-cutting revolution. This new style of writing for the impatient reading public was what bought the ire of literary critics of the time.

If you watch a few episodes of the original Mission Impossible, you will find that even television programs were slower paced back in the day. If you have the patience to sit through Topkapi, a thriller movie by the standards of 1964, you probably enjoy watching the grass grow. Released more than a decade later, another Peter Ustinov movie, Death on the Nile (1978), was much better paced and a great movie in its day, but my children still cannot bear the slowness of the story development. By that time, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and others, young directors of the era, were already introducing faster paced movies, but the speed did not really catch on until the 1980s, by which time Stephen King had published seven novels. For at least the early part of his career, King’s books were faster paced than the average movie. It is easy to see that books written to suit the tastes of an increasingly impatient public did not please literary critics.

His early career also coincided with an anomaly in the economics of industrial publishing, which made it superficially seem that popular books were crowding out high-quality literary works. This also made the likes of King, Ludlum and Grisham become targets of critical vitriol.

But it was not all about the change of literary pace or the mechanics of the market, or even the prejudice of the critics against popular fiction. There actually are best selling books out there that are not well written but sell in huge volumes. So how do these books sell so well when almost everyone agrees that they lack literary merit? Or to put it in another way, if the book is so badly written, what is it about it that makes it a best seller?

There is every evidence that a poorly written best seller is not any easier to write than a well written one. You might argue that there are fewer best sellers with literary merit than those without, but there is a higher ratio of literary books on the best seller lists than there are in publication. Contrary to popular perception, literary novels are disproportionately well represented on the best seller lists. It seems to suggest that you are more likely to get your book on the list if you wrote a quality novel.

Of course lots of factors (including luck) can make a book a best seller. But good story telling is a major contributing factor. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated comedy South Park, explains story telling this way. Every “beat” (or segment, or whatever you want to call it) must be connected with either “therefore” or “but”. They should not be connected with “and then”. So a story line would look like: This happens-therefore-this happens-but-this happens-therefore-this happens. It would not look like this: This happens-and then-this happens-and then-this happens-and then-this happens. There must always be a cause and effect.

Japanese writer Kumi Saori once wrote that another crucial element is an image that sticks in your mind; something visual that you can see in your mind’s eye that you cannot forget. Harry Potter’s scar, for example, or Greg Stillson kicking a dog to death. That is the thing that the readers will latch on to. That is the ball you have to run with.

James Scott Bell preaches that there should be tension in every line, and of course Kurt Vonnegut says that every sentence must either move the plot forward of expose character. The so-called junk books tend to take this to the extreme. Stephen King’s earlier books do not seem very extreme today, but they seemed custom tailored for people with short attention spans back when they were first published. E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey skips along in such abbreviated form that her writing has been described as “staccato prose”.

Nobody knows the exact formula for a best selling novel. If we did, everyone would be writing them. We cannot all be Robert Ludlum. But it seems, in summary, that the best selling “junk” are the books that assume the reader has no patience for exposition, but has the intelligence to imagine the descriptions you leave out; that connect every “beat” with a “therefore” or a “but”;  that every paragraph answers the question “what happens next”; that project unforgettable visual imagery; and that contain the 12 elements laid out by James W. Hall.

Good writing is not mandatory, but can increase your odds.

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