There’s a discussion going on right now in the NaNo forums about bad books that inspired their readers—if only in the sense that if someone could write something this horrible and get it published, then the odds of one of us being able to pull that off should be pretty good, right?
It’s a pretty tempting thing to believe, but there’s one essential problem with the argument: it assumes that literary quality is a mitigating factor in book publishing. Marketability is what matters most to a publisher, not the stamp of “quality” applied by readers or book critics. As with the movies, it’s the retailers (the theater chains) they have to please and not the consumers (us shmoes who fork over $10 for a ticket).
So what about all those books that come out of nowhere and don’t fit into any established mold and eventually become classics of their kind—the To Kill A Mockingbirds or the 1984s? They’re the vanishingly tiny exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of what finds its way into print is not designed to last, because a) no profit-driven enterprise I know of is capable of seeing past the next couple of fiscal quarters and b) nobody knows what people will be reading 50 years from now anyway. John O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick was a massive best-seller in its day; today, you can barely find copies in a public library. (The last printing I can find on Amazon was from 1985.)
Books are meant to sell to whatever coherent demographic the marketing people can squeeze out of their sales figures. The whole business of “books for the ages” is a by-product of the current system, not a result of it. Just because a guy can get a book published doesn’t mean he’s produced anything you’ll want to read. I should also add this does not mean people who follow the DIY route are automatically undiscovered geniuses—it just means the whole “I could write better than that” argument doesn’t take into account the whole picture.
I’m also not saying, don’t try. I would love nothing more than for someone to get fired up and write a great book because they read thirty bad ones and were convinced they could do better. Hell, Summerworld was borne from something very much like that: after slogging through hectares of bad fantasy, I decided to do something about it by writing something that broke every single one of the clichés. But I was also fairly certain it wasn’t something a publisher would pick up. Maybe my certainty in this regard will be my undoing, but I’ve had enough exposure to the finicky, now-how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-sell-this? attitudes that publishers labor under to know this wouldn’t be something they could get to the right people. I decided to do that job myself.
I can’t recommend this to everyone, of course, but so far I’ve had the kind of fun I used to have to pay people to give me.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind