Sunday, 17 May 2009

Writing 'craft' and commercial fiction

My writing group had our brunch meeting yesterday, and although our numbers were a little down (being only four) we were in fine form on the discussion front.

One of the things we talked about was the definition of commercial fiction and its merits. So what is commercial fiction? Fiction that sells. Is it possible to have commercial genre fiction? Absolutely! The majority of fantasy out there on the shelves at the moment is 'commercial'. It sells very well. We may scoff at 'the quality' of much of it, but we have to face the fact that the general public is happy to read it. Sometimes, when we hobnob with other writers, critiquing each others' work, we can lose sight of the fact that maybe most readers just don't care about some of the things we agonise over for days on end.

Most of the writers in my writing group are purists -- we want to write the best we possibly can. Good story, original ideas and good craft. So far so good. None of that is specifically non-commercial. However, we are all aware that not all commercial fiction exhibits good craft. It's just not the key element in the equation.

Story wins every time, and I suppose that's fine. But what I want to know is why, if there are writers out there willing to hone their craft as well as all the other story-telling aspects, there's any need to publish fiction that is not well written. Surely that extra degree of finesse should make a novel all the more marketable?

I know the immediate comeback to this question is what I've already mentioned -- most readers don't care about craft. They simply can't identify when something is badly written. But to counteract this, I know plenty of people who can, and many of them are not writers.

And also, what about the authors? Why don't they care about it? Why aren't today's mega best selling authors taking the trouble to be the best they possibly can? Why do they sell out just because they can? If the writers in my writing group care about craft, why don't all the authors out there as well?

I've talked a bit about MR on this blog recently, with most of the reader comments tending towards the sentiment: would you really want to write like him? Of course the answer is no. But why does HE want to write like him?

Looking at my writing group again, I think most of us are writing (or trying to write) fiction that is fairly commercial. Only a couple of us have a distinctly literary style. Most of us are trying to tell a good story in moderate language that will appeal to most readers of our chosen genre, whether traditional science fiction, epic fantasy, horror or a variation thereof. But unlike many of the published 'commercial' SF authors out there, we do care about craft.

And this is because we are readers too, and I for one am sick of reading commercial fiction that scores high on the story front, but bombs out when it comes to craft. Sure, sometimes I can overlook when something is badly written and still enjoy the story. But why should I have to?


  1. Firstly: Sorry for being a no-show! I woke up and realised I had no money for lunch, then forgot what time it was meant to start, and realised that I didn't have anyone's number to call. Quite the mess. Sorry!

    Secondly: I think it's less a question of authors choosing to write without craft, or of purposefully Selling Out (them's fightin' words!) than it is a question of native style and taste. Just as readers like different things, so too do authors. Sure, if the execution is terrible, it's hard to focus on the story, but above a certain level, most people are simply in it for the narrative. That doesn't preclude them from having literary preferences, and craft acumen certainly helps to tell a story better. But in some instances, I think, the type of story and the type of craft go hand in hand, and not necessarily to the detriment of either. To take an opposing incident, some books are so literary as to be dense beyond enjoyment: we plough through them, not because they're fun to read, but because we like the story, or perceive some greater reason to do so. 'Dense' is still a relative term, of course, and there are books other people read for fun which I wouldn't touch in a million years. And vice versa.

    To a great extent, I believe, nobody gets to choose their own writing style. We might work on a certain voice or set of technical skills, but unless we are deliberate mimics, it's a rare writer who can sit down and elect to sound exactly this way, or exactly that. I can enjoy an author's style without wanting to write their kind of book; or at least, when I wish enviously that *I'd* thought of that, or that I could be like them, I understand that it's not actually in my control. But notwithstanding this, many of us are dissatisfied with our own style, or fail to see what makes it unique, or prefer someone else's. And depending on what we want to get out of writing - whether we are in it purely for the story, or the money, or the words, or all three - our opinions will be different.

    Point being, just as nobody should dictate which books you read, you should be free to write what you want - even if it's not up to someone else's standards - on the understanding that you are open to critique from people with different tastes. And so on.

  2. Hey Foz - we missed you too!

    I think there's a difference between 'style' and 'quality' - and I suppose I am using the term quality very loosely. Certainly I agree that different styles/weightiness/density/whatever appeal to different readers, and the publishing world does need to cater to that.

    The point I was trying to make is that even when writing mass market fiction and not delving into anything too cerebral (a la MR and friends), there is still room to get the basics right. I mean the foundation stuff that's covered by every writing text out there. Many authors do this extremely well (I'm thinking Sophie Kinsella!), but others don't.

    I just think it's sad that so many authors either don't care or are unaware that despite being great storytellers, they can't put the sentences together. (And I'll insert here that we're calling them WRITERS as opposed to storytellers.) It's a sad indictment on our society that no-one seems to care, or notice anymore.