Classic or Commercial?

really old book pixabayLet’s do a little thought experiment. Pick your favorite classic of literature. One of those books you were forced to read years ago in school. Make it something old enough to be in the public domain. I’m partial to A Tale of Two Cities myself. Your choice is probably different. Maybe Pride and Prejudice, Tom Sawyer, or even (God forbid) Moby Dick (just call me bored stiff). Now pick something more modern, but still a classic you might have read in school from fifty or a hundred years ago. My choice is The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe you prefer Catch-22, something by Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying are a couple possibilities). Or if you prefer a book with a little more heat and your school district was much more enlightened than mine you might choose Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

What are your picks?

All of the books I’ve listed, and I assume those you picked if you didn’t like my suggestions, have stood the test of time. Presumably they were commercially successful. If nothing else, each has sold well over the years with sales to schools and libraries. Now imagine the books you picked hadn’t been published for whatever reason, but the final fully-edited manuscript was discovered and published by the author’s heirs today. We’ll also imagine they published it using a pen name so there isn’t a ton of hype about author X’s undiscovered book. What do you think the odds are that the book would sell? How would the critics react? What do you think the reader reviews on Amazon would look like?

My prediction is many of these would sink without a trace. I can imagine the Amazon customer reviews for A Tale of Two Cities now:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s enough. I get it. The first paragraph was just one long run-on sentence. And buried in the middle of that snooze-inducing opening it says, “we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” What in the Hell is that all about? Is the author some religious freak who just can’t come out and say what the Hell he means? I couldn’t make it past the first paragraph. I gave it one star because Amazon wouldn’t let me give it zero. What a waste of 99 cents.

ClassicPoor Chucky D. wouldn’t have a dickens of a chance in today’s world. Every writer has different reasons for writing and their own sets of goals and priorities. With indie publication as a viable option, widespread commercial appeal doesn’t have to be your goal. But if you want to appeal to large modern audiences, you need to get with the times. Beyond the obvious (“to thine own self be true” worked for Shakespeare, you might want to say “be true to yourself” – at a minimum, lose the thine), there are a few things that worked in the past, even just a few decades ago, that are going to turn off a large share of today’s readers. Here are a few to consider.

Cut to the chase.

When I was in school, teachers told us to give a book at least the first fifty to one hundred pages before we decided to abandon it “because a lot of books take that long to really get into the story.” That’s somewhere around a third of the book. I don’t think so. Dickens lost my imaginary reader above after the first paragraph. You’ve got one chapter, maybe two. Even better would be something exciting in the first paragraph.

Don’t tell us what we don’t need to know.

I was reading the first book in a new series when I came to a paragraph that went something like this:

Hamilton left Lauren’s house, going west on main street past Tom’s diner. Slowing down through the school zone in front of Jefferson Elementary, he turned right on Edison Lane, then took a quick left, drove around the football field and tennis courts, then into the parking lot in front of John F Kennedy High School.

“Hamilton drove from Lauren’s house to the high school,” would accomplish what is needed and use 80% less words. Some of those classics described every move a person made, every item in the room, or a bunch of background you didn’t need for the story. If I wanted a primer on the whaling trade, I’d buy one. Not a copy of Moby Dick.

Then I heard the book I had read was purposely written in the style of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels. Really? It had been a few years since I’d read one of the Spenser books, so I walked back to the library, fought through a few spider webs, scanned the shelves, and pulled down one of Parker’s books. (I’m sure glad I have a Kindle now.) Once I stopped coughing and the dust had settled, I started flipping through it and discovered he was right. If you have a map of Boston handy or pulled up Google Earth you could follow Spenser or Hawk every step of the way across Beantown. But why would you want to?

The reality is, you’re probably no Robert Parker. He’s had a bazillion years to build up his fan base when people’s expectations were different. Since he’s no longer with us, Ace Atkins was picked by Parker’s estate to continue writing about the further adventures of Spenser until that fan base trickles down to nothing from natural attrition in a few years. If you want to copy Parker, fine, but realize that few readers are going to be willing to wade through your extraneous cross-town trip reports. They’ll complain in the customer reviews on Amazon. And I’d better not see any whining on your facebook page about your lack of sales.

A little dialect goes a long way.

“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.”

Most modern readers aren’t willing to translate your dialect to their native language. Some advice I’ve seen says to never use it. Word choice, syntax, and cadence can serve the same purpose: for characterization or to provide a unique voice. Personally, I’m okay with some dialect, regardless of what some experts advise. One book I read recently had an Italian uncle who spoke in an Italian dialect. Although he was a minor character, by the end of the book I was cringing every time I came to a scene with him. It seemed like every word-a he a-spoke was, you-a-know, in dialect. I suggested in the review that the author might have toned that down. A little bit of dialect the first scene with the character when the reader is first getting to know him and a bit more sprinkled in might accomplish the same thing.

There are authors who can pull it off, using dialect for a character through the entire book and hitting the right balance between giving the character a unique voice and not making the reader work too hard translating. In fact, one book that is near the top of my recommendation list (and written by an IU contributor) did it, and pulled it off to my satisfaction. But different readers might have reacted differently.

What else?

The only thing you can be certain of (other than death and taxes) is change. I discussed three things that have changed in what is acceptable for the average reader in a novel. What others can you think of?

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

38 thoughts on “Classic or Commercial?”

  1. Times have changed. What we want to read has changed. I certainly agree about overdoing the descriptions. Another ‘rule’ is to not talk down to your readers, don’t explain what they can gather from the context. That was one good piece of advice Nino Ricci gave me.

    But as you say, dialect can still work if not overdone. I created one to distinguish the uneducated paupers from the gentry in my books, but I kept it simple enough that readers would not need to struggle to ‘get it’ and I used it infrequently. I do believe it added depth to the characters and to the setting.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Yvonne. I think, as with almost anything to do with books, the acceptable level of anything is going to differ depending on genre, too. I seems to me that fantasy uses dialect more and, presumably fantasy readers are more tolerant of it, if it makes sense for the story world.

  2. I think you’ve hit on the main things. Description is one that was obviously a big part of “classic” literature. People didn’t have televisions, the internet or even photographs, so they yearned for really detailed descriptions so they could know what the world was like outside of their own little community. But, today, we can get away with more impression than detail.

    Good post, and I loved your description of going to find your book. The dust, the spider webs, etc. E-readers are the best way to keep healthy when re-reading the classics we read long ago.

    1. I hadn’t pondered the reasons for the change, RJ, but I think you’ve hit on one that makes a lot of sense. Which means that the reasons people read would have evolved as well. I suspect all the reasons people read in the past are still reasons people read today, but frequencies would have changed, as in more people read to understand other people and less to understand the world outside their community, for a couple examples.

    2. This is a good observation. When someone wanted to experience the American frontier in Cooper’s time, The Leatherstocking Saga provided a view of it–even if seen through Romanticized perspectives. Nowadays, we have the History channel, Discover, and YouTube to get some visuals.

      Also, sitting down for a break after the day’s work–what was the rush? Many of the early novels were serialized, too–A Tale of Two Cities was. Length was to the author’s (and publisher’s) benefit as long as the author could keep the public hooked–much like today’s weekly TV series.

  3. I think mine goes along with your “Cut to the Chase,” Al, but I recently read a book about Hemingway which spurred me to reread some of his work. I like Hemingway, but as I was reading, “The Old Man and the Sea,” I couldn’t help but notice all the repetition. “It will uncramp though, he thought. Surely it will uncramp….It must uncramp. It is unworthy of it to be crampled.”

    That sort of writing style is what Hemingway was known for (and like I said, I like his writing), but I don’t think the reviewers would let it slide these days.

    1. I can almost guarantee I’d notice that, Melinda, and probably get a brain cramp. (I assume you noticed my reference to one of your books in this post.)

  4. Good post Al. Yesterday I put an excerpt from Hemingway’s “the Sun Also Rises’ (the first 4 paragraphs of chapter one) into the Hemingway App, and guess the results? He scored a 12 (clear concise writing should be 10 or less) He used 7 sentences that were hard to read, 5 sentences very hard to read, 9 adverbs and 6 passive voice incidents. All in the first 4 paragraphs! This would not pass editor muster today. That said, we need to be wary of should do this or that – there are all kinds of audiences. One thing I think crosses all readers is using dialect badly. It can be very tricky, so if you don’t know how to do it well, better not to do it.

    Here is the app to check your writing
    Here is the Hemingway excerpt

    1. I agree, Elisabeth, I don’t think there are many absolutes in writing, only rules of thumb. As for audience, people do still read the books I referenced. There is an audience for about anything, including books that break everything I mentioned above. The point I hoped to made was that some style choices that would have been a hit at points in the past (some, not very long ago) aren’t going to get the same reaction today,.

  5. Interesting post, Al. Just yesterday I started reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, and altho Verne did cut to the chase immediately, the over-the-top dramatics are eyeroll-inducing. I’m enjoying the book almost just for the camp (which of course was never the intent). But you’re absolutely right about our modern minds–I find I don’t give new books much of a chance; if it hasn’t grabbed me within the first few pages, it’s gone. Just goes to show how we must not only start with action, but also introduce the characters with heart and not do a prolonged info-dump. Easier said than done!

    1. I think ebooks have probably made abandoning a book early on even more common, Melissa. In the past you might have started a book, thought “this isn’t really doing it for me,” but not had an alternative other than doing something instead of reading. Now, you’ve almost always got an alternative a couple of keystrokes away.

  6. Great stuff, Al. Just as in baseball stats, you can’t compare era’s. What was good then just doesn’t stand today.

    1. Are you saying we aren’t going to have anyone bat .400 for the season again, Jim? (I may have exhausted my baseball knowledge in one sentence. 🙂 )

  7. Up to a point, I agree, but I think you are trying to compare apples with oranges. Or maybe a can of Red Bull with a 1963 Chateau d’Yquem. To say Faulkner and Hemingway would not be commercially successful because of their writing style is to miss the point of what they were trying to do. Most of the books you cite are literary fiction; what the vast majority of us ‘indies’ write (the stuff that has to cut to the chase, pare down description and get on with gripping the reader) is genre fiction. They are totally different animals (or drinks, or whatever!)

    Consider Hilary Mantell, Ian McEwan, Will Self, and all those literary writers you see reviewed in the Sunday papers. If they ‘cut to the chase’ there’d be very little left! Does this mean they write bad books? No, because they are not writing mass-market genre fiction. Are they commercially unsuccessful? Compared to Dan Brown, maybe, but there’s still a huge market for ‘high brow’ books. It’s nothing to do with changing times, it’s to do with comparing like with like.

    In a hundred years no one will be reading our genre novels (except maybe the very top one-in-a-million). Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? I doubt it, but Wolf Hall will be on the twenty-second century school syllabus.

    I think it is a real pity that there aren’t more ‘high-brow’ indie authors. Indie publishing, with its tacit acceptance that few of us are going to make much money, should be the ideal vehicle for the relatively rarefied and select world of art writing. I think this will come. As the Big Six continue to race for the bottom, Indie publishing will become the home of quality literary fiction. We are the new Bohemians! It could even be argued that writers of literary fiction might be more commercially successful than the average genre writer, precisely because the time will come when the professional reviewers in those influential Sunday papers will start to look at the Indie world for quality writing. And those are the reviewers who can push an author into the big league.

    So before you dump all the poetry of a long description, make sure you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or the Chateau d’Yquem!

    1. One quibble: Dickens was not writing literary fiction. His novels were published in newspapers as a serial. And I think a number of other so-called classics were published first in the same way.

    2. Alan (great name, BTW), you make some good points. A fair number of the examples I mentioned are considered literary fiction. However, I struggle with defining what makes something “literary fiction.”

      For lack of any other basis to talk from, I’ll go with this from Wikipedia ( ):

      Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.

      Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”.In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”

      Literary fiction is usually contrasted with paraliterary fiction (e.g., popular, commercial, or genre fiction). This contrast between these two subsets of fiction is highly controversial amongst critics and scholars who study literature.

      In many ways this strikes me as one of those “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” kind of things. “Serious” as a quality of literary fiction seems vague (nobody can convince me that the heroines in Harlequin’s entire output aren’t serious, as is the subject, not just to them, but to most of mankind). It seems to me that the biggest reason the classics I listed are considered literary are that they’ve stood the test of time.

      Lynne makes the point that Dickens wasn’t writing literary fiction. I’m sure this is true if for no other reason than the terminology wasn’t in use at the time. Many of the classics also fit today’s genre classifications or, in some cases, would if they were in a contemporary setting. I’ve been assured by many authors of romance and chick-lit that Pride and Prejudice is chick-lit. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could be considered something like YA or Middle Grade action-adventure and what is Moby Dick if not a whale sized thriller? Last, it is obvious that Jules Verne pretty much invented science fiction.

      I don’t think we can predict which of today’s books will be considered classics in 25, 50 or 200 years. So much of that is going to depend on the world at that time and the social mores at that time. It could well be something considered a decent genre novel of some kind now might be held up as a classic.

      As for your contention that literary fiction will do better in the indie world as time goes on, I absolutely agree. I even think your theory as to what will cause it (the big name literary critics giving indies who write literary fiction a boost). As for literary fiction becoming more commercially successful books in the more popular genres, I have my doubts. Anything is possible. But has there ever been a time in the last hundred years when that has happened? Or possibly I’m reading more into your statement on this than what you mean.

  8. Great post, Al. Am I too naive in thinking that metaphor and character-driven fiction can be classic and commercial? (Also, Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. Maybe that’s part of my problem.)

    1. Laurie, there has to be a joke involving Melville and Freud here, but if so, I don’t dare try and tell it here. But yes, that may be part of your problem. 🙂

      However, I don’t think it is impossible for metaphor and character-driven fiction to be both classic and commercial. In the definition I just posted of literary fiction one of the words it used was ‘multi-layered.’ If the surface layer is reasonably satisfying on its own to a reader, that’s enough to be commercial. But the deeper level (the metaphors in your question) are often what makes it a classic, IMO, if for no other reason than it gives literature teachers more to talk about. 🙂

      An example of a classic is The Old Man and the Sea, which I just checked and found it was a big commercial success right out of the gate. On the surface, this could be viewed as an action adventure for a man’s man (the kind of guy Hemingway liked to paint himself as being), but it is also a book rife with metaphor (or at least many people have interpreted things that way).

  9. I hear what you’re saying, Al. A lot of our classic literature includes not just long-winded description, but melodrama, which readers today just roll their eyes at.

    And then there’s Kurt Vonnegut, whose work would probably be considered drivel today. Ditto Richard Brautigan, who was one of my favorite writers in high school, even though I never did quite figure out everything that was going on in “In Watermelon Sugar”.

    I’ve had a couple of reviewers say that my books start slow. I guess I need to start having somebody shapeshift in the first paragraph. 😀

  10. I know you’re right, Al, but it still makes me sad because the books I love to read still straddle the line between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’. They have prologues, they include beautiful, lyric descriptions, they build tension and expectation instead of catering to a 3 second sound byte mentality. They break all the new rules.

    -shrug- I guess I’m one of the dying breed of dinosaurs who wants more, please.

      1. One of the great things about the way the world of books is evolving, Andrea and Jeri, is that even a dinosaur is going to be able to find new books that fit what they want. There are authors who want to write everything imaginable and readers who want it. A point I made when I was the guest on a blog radio show a few months ago is that there are very few niches so small that someone who wants to write to that niche couldn’t potentially find it worthwhile. What I was trying to point out with this is that Dickens would be selling in Hugh Howey numbers, if he was putting his books out today.

        1. I made my famous typo of dropping the n’t on words. I meant to say that Dickens wouldn’t be selling in Hugh Howey numbers. I think you caught me. 🙂

          1. -grin- Not many would sell in Howey numbers. Sadly I think we’re heading towards an era where the George Elliots and Dostoyevski’s will be viewed the same way we view The Canterbury Tales today – as curiosities rather than as works you read for pleasure. What truly scares me though is that the Heinleins and Frank Herberts probably aren’t far behind – too slow, too many unnecessary philosophical passages, not enough punch. 🙁

  11. Moby Dick did not sell well in its own time, and deservedly so. See But Melville’s worst was Bartleby the Scrivener. Arguably the most singularly annoying piece of literature on the planet.

    No, I’m not resentful of my ex the English major (but then so was I, gods help me), who decided listening to Moby Dick unabridged on cassette (this was in the 80s, and I’m still scarred) was a good idea.

  12. Call me weird, but I read Faust on my own when I was a sophomore… surely that must have something to do with why I became an English teacher and now edit books. The patience to read the style of many classics comes with time. Besides, Shakespeare can actually be fun and all that jazz 🙂 High school students rightly view literature as being all about entertainment, but in reality some books are just meant for a deeper reader than others. The books that have resonated with me over time haven’t been light reads. Listen to me, once an English teacher always an English teacher.

  13. One must wonder if, in thirty years, high schoolers will be using their Google Implants to inject Twilight and 50 Shades for their reading assignments…

    1. I expect you’re right, Rich, except Google will have gone the way of Blockbuster Video and Google Glass will be considered quaint by then. Those implants will be made by some company we’ve never heard of. 🙂

  14. And what the heck is wrong with Moby Dick? It’s a good book. I’ve read it twice, cover-to-cover. More people are amazing that I got through Sam Delany’s Dhalgren than for reading Moby Dick, which should tell you something about that one.

  15. I don’t know. I think I’d rather be abandoned by the reader than abandoning my style.

    1. Nothing wrong with that, Frank, as long as it is a conscious decision. This post was inspired by some specific authors (I won’t name, names, but you aren’t on the list) who choose to write in a style that is going to limit their readership and then complains about having a small readership. I don’t see any reason for an author not to write what they want and aim for a small niche, even a niche of one, but they need to adjust their expectations. If whatever strange and obscure niche they aim for (maybe sparkly vampire teens) turns out to be the next best thing, that’s great, but odds are against it and they need to adjust their expectations accordingly.

  16. Good article, Al.

    I have read everything Dickens wrote including his letters, and have read some stories more than once – I have a 1908 edition of an18-volume set of his books. I love them. I have read many books written in previous centuries and enjoy most of them, but I have always been different than the average person. When I was in high school I liked classical music and never enjoyed contemporary music – could not have listed the top10 on the hit parade if my life had depended on it. Most kids thought I was strange. 🙂 I probably am. I have one friend who says I’m the only person she knows that she can have an intelligent conversation with about old books.That’s not to say I would attempt to write in that style, though. I realize most people today would not enjoy those old books.

    I do read contemporary books as well, and enjoy many of them. As to the description element, I like word pictures because I am a person who visualizes what I read, but I always had a problem with James Mitchener’s opening chapters that are so filled with details that go on and on, I wanted to skip them and get into the story – cut to the chase. I tried to read Sir Walter Scot’s Waverley novels (a huge1849 edition), but the dialect was so thick it was like plowing through clay soil with lead boots on even though the “translation” was in footnotes for some of it. But I do like a little when it is part of a character’s

    So I guess it boils down to having things in a good balance. And, of course, personal preference.

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