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RFP: Literary Credibility–A Meaningless Distinction

Few fiction writers make a lot of money from their writing. Talented or not, only the lucky few ever make it big with a book on the bestseller lists and a hefty pay check in their pocketbook. Writing is largely pursued without pay, hence the old stereotype of the starving artist. Mind you, for those who do make a living by writing and selling short stories and novels, the money can be (though rather infrequently) quite good, sometimes alarmingly so.

This past week Forbes.com ran a list of the ten highest paid fiction writers in the world. Thriller writer James Patterson topped the list, bringing in $84 million in the past fiscal year. The other names on the list were who you’d expect, including Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and Stephenie Meyer.

For one reason or another, many readers seem suspicious of popular and affluent writers. There appears to be an underlying belief that if you are raking in the kind of dough that Patterson and King are, then you must be a hack. This isn’t always stated outright, but it is often implied.

The CBC, for example, concluded their online coverage of the Forbes.com list by asking readers who of the top ten highest paid authors has “the most literary cred?” Readers could then vote on who they thought to be the best candidate.

But this is a silly question. After all, judging who writes better than whom is not as easy as it looks. Providing basic grammar and spelling are adhered to, what criteria do you look for in determining the best writer? Must “good” writing always be complex and rife with literary devices? Must a writer’s vocabulary be demonstrably large and ever expanding? Why can’t simplicity be just as effective? But this is all beside the point. To write a great piece of fiction, you need to be more than just a great writer; more important than anything else, you must be a great storyteller.

Even so, I’m still not sure what any of this has to do with literary credibility. There seems to be an underlying assumption that writers of “Literature” do not write bestsellers. That’s nonsense, of course, but I understand the reasoning. Generally, when we think of bestsellers, we think of genre or popular fiction, such as science fiction, romance, or suspense novels. General thinking suggests that: pop fiction is often plot driven, whereas literary fiction is often character driven; pop fiction often adheres to certain genre conventions, while literary fiction often tries to transcend or subvert those conventions; and pop fiction is, as its name implies, popular; literature, the thinking goes, usually doesn’t fair so well.

Read much and often, and of all genres

As is often the case, however, general thinking is generally wrong. Let’s not forget that William Shakespeare was a popular writer of his time. So too were Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Even today, writers such as Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle) and Yann Martel (Life of Pi) find great success writing literature (in fact, Martel was given an advance of $3 million for his last novel, Beatrice and Virgil).

And let’s not dismiss our genre writers. Far too often we pass over their writing before actually reading it, when in fact their writing is some of the strongest out there. I’m thinking of novels such as Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
With all that in mind, it strikes me as being particularly ignorant for the CBC to ask which of the ten highest paid authors has the most literary cred. It’s an impossible question to answer with any real certainty, and it’s a question that serves only to widen the gap between readers of literary and popular fiction.

But there need not be any separation. Indeed, if words are truly powerful, then we only weaken them by creating such divides.

And that, friends, would be a true loss, and not worth even all the money in the world.

Rowing For Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe.  Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated.  If you like what you read here, please subscribe.


2 thoughts on “RFP: Literary Credibility–A Meaningless Distinction

  1. Alas all is meaningless!
    If you have something to say – say it –
    I don’t think any real artist is motivated by success — they just have a need to express – to create.
    The North American measurement of most things is how much money it made or can make – If you look at the music and film industry and TV — you can see where that has led !!!
    Hardly art !! aimed at a mass consumer. Look at he actual storyline of Avatar or any Harry Potter movie —- talk about B movie material !!

    Posted by martinf1 | August 23, 2011, 8:43 am
  2. A lot of the distinction that exists between because of the ‘educated elite’ (meaning those who teach high level classes in literature at universities). Any book that is extremely popular (i.e. Twilight, which I haven’t read, or Harry Potter, which I have) is doing something right, oftentimes it’s just a matter of a book being released at the right time to where it catches the market just right.

    Professionals in the field often have the loudest voice in the field, and too often they dismiss popular fiction books as trash because they’re popular. Oftentimes these people are writers themselves and they’re probably on some level jealous of the success that these authors have for writing ‘popular’ fiction.

    Posted by Adam | August 23, 2011, 10:04 am

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