Which Fiction Sells?


On a shelf next to100_1498 me as I write are fiction books by authors I read, authors I should read (I’m told), and authors to whom I refer for hints on style and technique.

I’m currently reading Iain Pear’s “An Instance of the Fingerpost”. It is long, 685 pages, and it is long, as in slow going, yet Pears employs remarkable English prose. “Fingerpost” is about the Cromwell era of England. He offers four perspectives on his story in the form of individual testimonies from four men, participants in the circumstances in question and thus necessarily written in the style of the times.


I am also rereading “The Sun Also Rises”, by Hemingway. This novel was written in the style of Hemingway; need I say more?


I will confess to some difficulty in staying with both books. It is not a question of quality, obviously, but one of pace. I count myself among those of a generation used to a much faster pace in literature – and in everything else, for that matter. And I believe I am in the majority in this way.


What of Hemingway, then? His name continues to be synonymous with superior writing. But is he still read in this age of distraction and immediate gratification?


I decided to check it out. I googled (instant gratification) the most read authors today. I found a list of best-selling authors to date. Hemingway is not on it. Shakespeare and Agatha Christie top the list. Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele come next. Dr. Seuss is on it, and J.K. Rowling. Also Tolstoy (Tolstoy??) and Alger, King and L’Amour, Patterson and Grisham, Brown and Crichton, Cussler and Rice. But Hemingway? Not to be found.


What does that say to us? For those of us attempting to write good fiction, where is our model? It’s all well and good to say, “I write for quality, not quantity”, but the fact is, to be recognized for quality one’s work must be visible. In that sense, we must all write for quantity.

Clearly, the accepted standard for writing has changed. The pace has quickened, the rules have wavered, the length has shrunk. I was recently told by a publisher that any novel over 200 pages won’t sell – no matter how good it is. No one will pick it up. With all the books to choose from, people just won’t give the time.


Perhaps there is some comfort in the fact that Michener is on the best-selling list, and Burroughs and Hesse and Carroll. But Richard Scarry is outselling all of them by over 50 million books. I enjoy Faulkner (not on the list) and Steinbeck (also not on the list). And I enjoy Cussler (#48) and Follett (#64).


I guess I will continue to write my own way, to a standard that satisfies me, for I can do no less, and simply hope that there are other kindred souls among the globe’s billions who will read my work and be entertained and in so doing validate my efforts


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