1. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    literary merit vs. market success

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Justin Rocket 2, Jun 23, 2016.

    I've heard the argument that an author should focus on his creative vision rather than on what will sell.

    My personal opinion is a bit complex and nuanced. I believe that every author has a message they want to express. Maybe they feel a certain way about bullying vs. real leadership. The author might not _consciously_ inject their views and opinions into the story, but as the author's writing is personal and heartfelt, those views and opinions are going to find their way into the story because they are part of how the author views the world. This creates theme. Theme is important to the author and it is probably the strongest organizing force in the story. The book will better if the theme is clear to the reader (not beating the reader over the head with it and not necessarily _consciously_ clear to the reader). So, the author is faced with the challenge of making the theme appeal to the reader. The author must take the theme to where the reader is living, metaphorically speaking. The ability to take the theme to where the reader is living will make the book appeal to that reader. If he can do that well, the reader will want to read the book. So, the author's mastery of expression creates market success. Literary merit and market success are joined at the hip (though a book can endure while society changes, so they might not sustain their market success).

    Despite what dusty old English professors believe, I do not believe that a book has literary merit if it doesn't have market success (unless the author intends to appeal only to a thin slice of readers).

    What are your opinions regarding literary merit vs. market success?
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I feel it is entirely up to the writer. If a writer wishes to write commercial fiction, tailoring it to what she thinks is most likely to sell in the marketplace, more power to her. I'm glad not every author does that, and I think those who wish to write for message, literary merit, and artistic quality should also be encouraged, but neither approach is wrong.
     
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  3. KPMay
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    KPMay Member

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    I disagree with you on this. I take my evidence from the fact that literary classics sell way less than books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey. Does 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird have less literary merit because it doesn't sell as well as those? (I can't come up with better examples at the moment but there are many many classics that didn't actually sell well at all) No way. These classics have value and are widely regarded as some of the best, and numbers of book sales don't effect that.
     
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  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Not only that, some works aren't successful at one point (such as during the author's life) and become highly successful later. So if it was true that market success determine literary merit, then the exact same book would not initially have literary merit and then be transformed into having it by suddenly becoming successful. Makes no sense.
     
  5. newjerseyrunner
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    newjerseyrunner Contributing Member

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    To me it has a lot more to do with staying power than sales. 1984 was written 68 years ago, I wonder how many bookshelves Twilight will still be on in 2060. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is 150 years old, I doubt people will still be making 50 Shades of Grey movies in 2150.

    As for marketing success vs merit, I think the music industry is an easier analogy. Remember that you can market shit and people will buy it if you do it correctly. Justin Bieber's last album has sold more copies worldwide than Pink Floyd's The Wall. One is focus-grouped crap mostly controlled by executives in board rooms, one is the results of two musical geniuses. One will stop being played on the radio after five years or so, one has enjoyed steady air-time since the 1970s.
     
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  6. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't think things are so cut and dried. By the same token success should imply literary merit? There's lots of authors that have sold millions of copies of absolute drivel. Gothic romances, P.I. stories from the 60s, cheesy mysteries, Goosebumps. Usually packaging - stories behind the story - output - or racy ideas are what counts for marketing not it's literary merit. Literary merit is like it's own genre. I read the Newberry books, I read Pulitzer Prize winners. It's a selling point sure but it's a selling point to it's own readership. I think the only crossover between Prize winners and financial success is again - one of the following - story behind the story - ( Sarah by J.T. LeRoy ) - Packaging - ( Everything is Illuminated ) - output - Cormac McCarthy ( he does like a novel every year ) - racy ideas - Lolita, The Color Purple etc.

    If you want your writing to have merit go for it and don't worry about marketing. The idea could seem boring -Jonathan Livington Seagull - but that could be it's selling point.
    I'm of the camp that believes marketing is about word of mouth, and right place right time and great cover. An idea is all fine and dandy but it's not going to be as important as impression.
    Write your story first. Be passionate about it. Find a good tagline and then go from there. Nobody forces a good story. They write about something they're passionate about and readers feel that passion.
     
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  7. Raven484
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    Raven484 Contributing Member

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    Literary merit to me is more important. It's all about the story and how the author draws me into it. I read a lot of best sellers and most to me are mediocre at best. Yet, I have beta read story's here that were well written and the stories will stay with me forever. Most of them might never hit the shelves. It's just my preference though. I really like the Justin Bieber analogy above, I still can't believe he sold more than Pink Floyd.
     
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  8. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    Compare Twilight to Harry Potter. I do believe that Harry Potter has a lot more literary merit than does Twilight. I do believe that 'tweens 5 decades into the future might be reading Harry Potter, but not Twilight.

    When I think of dusty old men with liberal arts degrees discussing which books have literary merit, the brain cells that I think that with are awfully close to the brain cells which remind me of the Sokal hoax. It stinks of elite-ism.
     
  9. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    I didn't say success should imply literary merit and I don't believe it. Books can have staying power and popularity without having literary merit (e.g. the Sherlock Holmes books).

    I am saying that stories such as "War of the Worlds," "Lord of the Flies," "Moby-Dick" etc. have literary merit and an essential part of that literary merit is the ability to go to where the readership lives. I am asserting that this is an essential feature of stories with literary merit.

    The gold standard of literary merit is Shakespeare and he tied that literary merit up in stories which appealed to the reader (or theater goer in his case).. If he hadn't, he wouldn't be even a footnote in history.
     
  10. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    I'd like to be able to strike a balance. The thought that I could die in poverty knowing that someday, somewhere, high school students will be forced to analyze my work has no appeal for me. On the other hand, I don't know if I could laugh into my money when random strangers were starting blogs about how much my work sucks either.

    The one thing that has given me a grudging respect for the writers of "bad" fiction is how damn hard I found it to do myself. Not claiming that my stories are great, although I hope they're pretty good, but a while ago I set myself the challenge of writing a stereotyped "Harlequin Romance for Men" style story (think Richard Marcinko or Mack Bolan).

    It's not as easy at it would seem.
     
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  11. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    I also don't like to bash YA stuff. I don't enjoy reading it, and haven't since I was a kid (The Tripods Trilogy, by John Christopher, still has a special place in my heart), but I'm not the target market. As an author, I really don't care if all the dystopian "teen saves the world" stuff is just feeding off itself and full of Mary Sues and Gary Stus, because if the kids, with their undeveloped literary palates, like it, they're going to grow up liking reading.

    And someday, they might buy my books. If I ever write them, that is.

    But there's nothing worse for developing a love ot the written word than jamming Steinbeck or Dostoyevsky down some kid's throat and making her think that reading is a chore to be completed. I'd rather my niece spend her junior high school years obsessing over Harry before moving up to Team Jacob in high school than not know where the library is or how to download an e-book off of Amazon. If that means Stephanie Meyer has to drive a Ferrari to Bloomingdale's, I can live with it.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I go for literary merit. Trying to write a bestseller is tough because you can't predict the market, so what's popular now may not be popular 6 months from now. Considering it can take years for a book you've just started writing to hit shelves, it's best to take your time and write something of very high quality. In other words, don't pull a Stephen King.
     
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  13. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Depends on your goals. My goal is to be published traditionally and read by lots of people. To achieve that goal I need to write something that will sell to a traditional publisher and be enjoyed by ordinary, average readers. IMO the best chances of doing that come from writing to the market, so that's what I do.

    My goal is to be invisible as the author, so I use simple language. I wouldn't want any reader to be thinking how clever I am, because that means I'm not invisible.

    My goal is to get good reviews from ordinary writers, not literary critics or academics or whoever, so I focus on writing a good story instead of a literary masterpiece.

    I think writing what you want vs writing to the market is a false dichotomy, like many things in writing. There are things in my genre that sell very well (alpha-hole heroes, for example) that I won't write because I have issues with them. But there are lots of beloved tropes that I find fun and challenging (like enemies to lovers, a trope in my newest book) that I can have fun writing to the market.
     
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  14. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    I'm not sure that's really fair. King is a great writer. He is, perhaps, the goto author alive today for learning how to write suspense (not "suspense genre," though he can clearly do that, but suspense in general which _any_ story can benefit from). Study King. Learn from King. He's got a lot he can teach even though he's not studied in the hoary halls of academia. Well, his old stuff anyway. I feel he has deteriorated over time.
     
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  15. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    I can't cite things at the moment, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that many of the things King writes are cliche because he either invented, or at least popularized, the "cliche" ideas in question.
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, King is a good writer as well as popular. James Patterson would have been a better example.
     
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  17. ashurbanipal
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    We are doomed if literary merit/art is based on what the 'markets' make of it! I can think of a number of works which only started to sell well after the author's death because they weren't deemed 'marketable' enough at first.
     

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