The publishing industry has been abuzz in recent weeks with the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Grumbles about quality and literary standards have been rumbling around, just as they did when Harry Potter and Twilight and The Da Vinci Code became sensations. Some in the industry just don’t like it when a book captures the public imagination and becomes a bestseller through word of mouth: ‘Have you read Xxxx yet? Ooo, you really must. Everyone’s talking about it!’ One commissioning editor told me she ‘despaired of the intelligence levels of the general public that they go for such poorly written books, rather than Booker Prize winners’. There’s a sense of panic, she tells me, a lack of control, when the reading public creates a hugely successful book rather than an army of in-house publishing staff and a carefully targeted marketing campaign.
Personally, I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, I love HP, I can see the merits of Twilight and I didn’t get past Chapter 5 of Fifty Shades, but I think ‘good on EL for her success’.
It was a relief to read a sensible take on Fifty Shades of Grey in this week’s Bookseller. Scott Peck, publisher of The Friday Project, points out that whether Fifty Shades is the best written book ever isn’t the point; any book that’s so in demand it’s selling out is great news for the publishing industry as a whole, and for booksellers. People are reading the book. And people are going into bookshops and buying it, which means they’re engaging with bookshops and hopefully buying other titles as well.
But I think Scott’s best point is this: ‘quality is subjective’. You’re free to have your opinion on the book, but just because you don’t get on with it, doesn’t mean many other readers shouldn’t.
I work with writers on a daily basis, and I see that one of the key factors blocking them in their writing is fear that they aren’t a good writer.
‘What is a “good writer”?’ I asked a client I’ve been mentoring who expressed this anxiety to me.
‘Well, I suppose it’s being respected as being an amazing writer, winning prizes, being up there with Tolstoy and Dickens and all that…’
Wow. No wonder the poor lady was struggling to get past writing Chapter 1 of her commercial chicklit novel.
‘And what’s your actual goal as a writer; what do you dream of?’
She thought for a moment. ‘Selling copies, I suppose. And being asked to read at a book group. I’d love to do that.’
‘So being buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey as one of our nation’s most treasured writers doesn’t feature in your dreams?’
‘Okay then. How about giving up on being a good writer,’ I suggested.
‘Huh? You mean just bash out drivel?’
‘Well, no – that’s not quite what I had in mind. I mean, just write to the best of your ability – and accept that you’re always learning. Just write the best you can right now, and have my support to help you develop. How about just accepting a goal of being good enough?’
I gave this advice knowing that actually the client is an excellent writer; what’s holding her back is confidence and a feeling of intimidation when she looks at literary fiction books in Waterstones. Since this chat, my client has submitted four chapters to me for review, and I’m delighted with what I’m reading. Sharp, witty, engaging. It’s certainly no literary masterpiece, but her book is shaping up to be a decent chicklit novel. And that’s good enough for her, it turns out.