A PhD in literature at a renowned European university and I were recently 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,” Chandos’ Herald wrote in the late 14th century to explain why he was writing a biography of Edward of Woodstock. I too write about people whose experiences overcoming adversity or discovering spiritual strength can serve as inspiring examples to others.
|A modern biography of Chandos' hero: Edward of Woodstock|
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 period in which it was written and the society with which 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 people want to read about now, how 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.
It is only a rare exception when a book can be both “literary” and “best-selling,” but for an author trying to serve two different masters at the same time is usually a formula for disaster.