One of my interns last summer was working on a PhD in English Literature. On a long drive back from a meeting, we got to talking about what defined good literature. For someone who has been out of academia for more than two decades it was a useful “reality check” – and highly motivating.
“Character and character development” were the two most important features that this PhD-candidate identified as the basis of great literature. Not suspense or thrills. Not relevance or trendiness. Not utility to the reader. Not originality of delivery. Not creativity or outlandishness. Not even plot. A piece of literature is not about what happens, it is about the human experience.
I found this motivating because it reminded me of why I write. I write to inspire people to go on living. The “telling of good deeds is like alms and charity; it is never lost labor, but always has its reward,” as Chandos’ Herald wrote to explain why he was writing a biography of Edward of Woodstock. So too I write about people, whose experiences overcoming adversity or discovering spiritual strength, can serve as inspiring examples to others.
However, the answer would have been very different if I had asked about what made a “best seller.” Best sellers have to be trendy, have to hit a collective nerve in society, appeal to current tastes, or focus on a current concern. A best seller tells us as much about the society in which it resonated as about the book itself. Today’s best seller is tomorrow’s dud, and few of us would even finish many of the books that were “best sellers” in other generations or cultures.
Every author needs to be clear about his/her objective. If the goal is to write a best seller, then it is very important to understand the market: what do people want to read about, how do they like it delivered, what length sells best, what genre is “in.” On the other hand, if the goal is a work of literature, then one can (perhaps should) ignore current trends and follow one’s inner compass.
Of course it can theoretically happen that one’s inner compass is in sync with current trends and a book written from the heart can also capture a mass audience. Yet trying to serve two different masters at the same time is usually a formula for disaster.
Therefore, I have decided that this year, as I write about a truly remarkable character, who I hope will be an inspiration to those few readers who discover him, I will close my hears to the clamor of the market and focus on my inner voice. This year, I want to write a good book, the best book possible – regardless of whether it will sell or not.