First, let me tell you about the auction to benefit Terri Winding. Terri has been one of the benefactresses of the fantasy community for many years. She is a writer, artist, and editor, and writes one of my favorite blogs, The Drawing Board. She is also one of the loveliest people you are ever like to meet. Because she’s been dealing with medical and legal issues, her friends have set up an auction to help her out. The most astonishing things are being auctioned: art by some of the best fantasy artists, plenty of signed books, opportunities to have your manuscripts critiqued, and some truly strange and interesting items. If you’d like to see what the auction has to offer, click here:
I’ve donated some items to the auction as well, and when they are listed, I’ll let you know!
Today’s blog post is inspired by a post written by Damien G. Walter, the Guardian columnist who does such a wonderful job bringing attention to important fantasy works and writers.
Yesterday, he wrote a post called “Why Crap Books Sell Millions.” It’s a response to an interview with Umberto Eco in The Guardian in which Eco says, “I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
Walter has a different opinion. He writes,
“I wish I could agree with Umberto Eco (who I LOVE) in The Guardian when he says that ‘people are tired of simple things, they want to be challenged.’ And by wish, I mean that every fibre of my superior, snobby little soul is vibrating in agreement. But the rational part of my mind that retains a tenuous engagement with reality knows that more people will watch X-Factor this Saturday than will ever read any one of Mr. Eco’s sublime novels.
“When it comes to complexity in novels, it is lost on most people. Worse than lost, it will likely make a text incomprehensible to most people. Because most people, whilst literate, just aren’t very good at reading. Dense, poetic prose, rich in symbolism and thematic depth, the things us writerly smarty pants all love so much, will just confuse the hell out of most people. That prose passage you’re so proud of, the one that switches seamlessly between the internal monologues of the novel’s five key protagonists whilst expanding the narratives core philosophical argument? Most people just couldn’t make it go in to their head even if they tried. You may as well expect them to read pure binary machine code.
“Bestselling books are, by and large, simple books. Simple stories, simple language, simple ideas. But, simple is as simple does. Perhaps the real art of the novelist is saying the most complex things in the simplest ways, so that even stupid people can understand.”
I disagree with Walter’s use of the word “stupid” here because I think it’s imprecise. I know people who put one of Eco’s novels down after a couple of pages. They’re not stupid. The ones I know personally tend to be doctors and lawyers, and they’re more likely to watch (and love) Downton Abbey than X-Factor. They like to read John Grisham. They pay attention to the latest bestsellers. They’ve read The Da Vinci Code and Eat, Pray, Love. They like nonfiction, such as Atul Gawande’s books on the medical practice or books by political figures.
Bestselling books are generally simpler, I think that’s true. Two summers ago, I was staying at Lake Balaton in Hungary. The house had very few English books in it. I ended up reading a John Grisham. After a while I began skipping, because I realized that if I read random pages, I could still follow the plot. And I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.
I mostly liked it, although it lost me toward the end, when Santiago turned into the wind. At that point it became too religious and mystical for me. I lost the connection the book had made, all along, between my personal journey and Santiago’s allegorical journey. And for some reason, I didn’t like that Santiago’s journey was to find his treasure, while the journey of the woman he loved was to find him – her love. She should have been on a quest to find her own treasure. I don’t think your treasure can be another person. (Imagine the pressure you put on someone, expecting them to be your life’s goal!) But I could absolutely see why the book had sold as well as it had.
It’s a simple book, in that its meaning is immediately accessible, and I think Walter is absolutely right that simple books, without the sorts of erudite complexities that one sees in Eco, appeal to a much wider audience. So often when we sit down to read, we want simplicity: a clear path into the book, an easy escape from the reality we’re leaving behind. If the book contains a lesson, we want it to be evident, not hidden from us.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Simplicity can be done badly, or done well. The Little Prince is a lovely book, and it’s simple, accessible. The novelist has to make choices, and one of those choices is prose style: between “dense, poetic prose, rich in symbolism and thematic depth” and something else. I suspect the reason Eco’s supposedly simpler book did not sell well is that it wasn’t written in his style. When people buy Eco, they want Eco. They are prepared to be challenged. If they weren’t, they would buy something else.
So I suppose what I’m doing here is, first, saying that “simple” and “crap” are not the same things – that simplicity is an important tool for the writer, that there is a reason simplicity sells, and that it can be used well. And second, I’m saying that what Eco claims may be true for Eco. Readers may go to him when they are tired of simplicity. What is true for one writer may not be true for another – after all, Eco’s best-selling book is The Name of the Rose, and how many readers put it down when they get to the chapter in Latin and just watch the movie? Simplicity and complexity are tools for the writer. You need to know which tool you’re using and why, and also know yourself – which tool is appropriate for the writer you are.
(I write this as someone who has been advised in the past, by a kindly relative who no doubt wanted to see me on a bestseller list, to read Dan Brown and write more like that. Just so you know.)