I’m often surprised at how many other writers believe all bestselling novels are bad books. I know writers who won’t touch a bestselling novel, on the assumption that any book that appeals to the masses must be junk and any writer who has made a long, slow climb to good sales has sold out, cheapened his or her product to make money.
The harshest critics, the most resistant readers, any bestselling author will have are aspiring writers and published writers who feel they aren't as successful as they deserve to be. A writer unsatisfied with his or her own status will take grim satisfaction in tearing down the books of a bestselling author. We can't change the fact that millions of people love that author's work, but we can convince ourselves that all those people are stupid or deluded for loving it.
Envy is the monster that camps out in our souls and gnaws away at us until we’re incapable of taking pure pleasure in anyone else’s work – the kind of pleasure that led us to become writers in the first place. We say the bones of the story are showing (something we would never allow in our own work). We scoff at the author for overusing favorite words (a sin we never commit), as if that habit alone ruined the book. We wail that aspiring writers trying to get published and lesser-known writers struggling to stay published are held to a higher standard while bestsellers can coast and break all the rules and still be assured of success.
I’m as guilty as anyone else of saying and thinking such things. I can do self-torture as well as anybody I know. (Ask my husband. Ask my friends Carol and Cat and Babs. They’re the ones nodding and muttering, “Ain’t that the truth” as they read this.) But in saner moments I try to refocus, look past the obvious flaws and learn from what the popular authors are doing right. Believe me, anyone whose books sell hundreds of thousands of copies is doing something right.
What bestselling writers all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a dynamic fashion. They may not be great stylists, but they are entertaining. This is the one skill that beginning writers -- and many who have been writing for decades without success -- often cannot master. The story doesn't have to be perfect. The characters don't have to be stunningly original. The plot might be over-the-top, outlandish (I think The DaVinci Code fits that description, and so do almost all of James Patterson's novels). But the author has the magical ability to tell a story in a way that will keep readers turning the pages.
Members of a mystery e-list I belong to have lately been arguing over whether Agatha Christie was "weak" in any aspect of writing. Some devoted Christie fans see her books as flawless and any criticism raises their hackles. Personally, I think Christie's books are shallow, with one-dimensional characters and static protagonists. I prefer modern crime writers like Thomas Cook, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, who try to produce complex stories with complex characters, even though they’re not always fully successful. Yet Christie is still read, her books are all still in print throughout the world, films and TV programs are still being made of them, and she is considered the queen of mystery. Obviously, Christie did something right. She entertained readers who wanted to be kept guessing right up to the end. I can learn something from her about constructing a puzzle and weaving in clues and red herrings. I can’t learn anything from focusing on Christie’s flaws and grumbling that she doesn’t deserve her apparently eternal success.
It’s sad but true that the more a writer writes, the more critical a reader she becomes. It’s hard to enjoy a book when part of your mind is trolling for faults to gloat over. It’s hard to banish jealousy from our hearts and accept that not everyone, perhaps not ourselves, can be wildly successful. All we can do is write as well as we know how, without imagining the book bumping the latest Patterson out of the #1 spot on the NY Times bestseller list. We can try to enjoy the writing itself. Isn’t that, after all, the reason we started doing this in the first place?