It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start.
But lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you, when you pick up a book from the front tables, or gaze at the 48-sheet cross-track poster, or read the reviews? You may relish your own or others' declarations of the death of the novel, the triumph of the up-their-own-arse lit'ry types, the attack of the barbarians at the gates, or the pixel-poisoning of the common reader, but such declarations don't help much when it comes to you finding readers for your work So, when you're struggling to coordinate your writing self, the publishing industry, and your potential readers, you're much more likely to get a sense of how it might all fit if you start from the assumption that there are good reasons for things being as they are.
In other words, when you encounter a published book which you think is bad, instead of being scornful, outraged or depressed that it got published
- ask yourself what the writer was trying to do, and where and why they've succeeded in doing it (which is, not coincidentally, the start of John Updike's rules for reviewers)
- ask yourself why a commercial organisation with perhaps centuries of experience in matching readers to books has decided that this book will sell, and sell enough to make money
- ask yourself what this particular combination of good-and-saleable* consists of
When you encounter a book that others say is "hyped", and which certainly seems to be everywhere, ask yourself
- why so many reviewers might honestly say it's a fantastic book
- what pleasures it delivers that so many readers are talking about it
- why a commercial organisation thought that lots of readers would love it if the organisation spent lots of time and trouble bringing it to their attention
When you hear of another writer getting an excellent deal or lots of support from their publisher, ask yourself
- why a publisher thinks this is good-and-saleable enough that they're prepared to gamble that money and effort (and publishing is, first and last, a gamble).
- again, what pleasures it delivers to readers
When you encounter someone who doesn't read - or doesn't read fiction - but loves other forms of narrative
- ask yourself what they get from those other forms that they don't get from fiction and non-fiction
- ask what that means for what you write. A move towards what film or television does so well? Or a move away from that, towards the things that only prose narrative can do?
When you encounter an author behaving like an arse - shouting on social media without listening and talking to others, being over-the-top assertive at an event, grumpy, odiously self-satisfied, or merely drunk - ask yourself
- if they're deeply introverted and hating every minute of being on show
- if they've misinterpreted how social media work
- if they're out of contract, five publishers have just rejected their MS, and six the idea-and-synopsis of the next one, and the effort not know show that their confidence is in bits, has made them over-compensate
- whether they are an arse, and if so, why their writing is nonetheless good-and-saleable enough that commercial organisations are willing to put up with them
When you encounter a self-publisher who seems to be actually earning something like some of a living at it, ask yourself how much of that is
- sheer frequency and quantity of titles
- price-cutting or even free downloads
- the right mix of good-and-saleable for their kind of reader - and what mix that might be
When you consider J K Rowling,
- try to imagine what difficulties and damage that kind of success would inflict on your writerly self
And if you really, really don't have enough imagination to do this last one, then consider the possibility that you shouldn't be writing fiction at all, since our fundamental skill is being able to imagine what other people's lives are from the inside.
And that includes other writers, and other readers. It's not that "I wrote the book I wanted to read" isn't an honourable driver for a writer. So, too, is "I read Book X and thought 'I can do better than that'." But ultimately, whether you're trying to get your bonkbuster thriller or your poetry collection published, you're more likely to hit that good-and-saleable mark if you look at what good-and-saleable books might be doing right, than if you spend energy huffing and puffing about what they do wrong.
* Not that "good" is a simple concept, in the context of writing. I explored what we might mean by "good prose" here, but the same question applies at the wider scale: do we mean good as in fit-for-purpose or good for that kind of book, or good on some absolute scale of aesthetic merit? My phrase "good-and-saleable" is an attempt to articulate the industry's sense that the two are separate but related, and the fact that to ignore the saleable bit is to head swiftly for the bankruptcy courts.