DO GOOD NOVELS SELL ?
In my previous blog, I had suggested that I would discuss non literary aspects of writing a novel. In that blog, I had discussed a novelist’s problem of finding an audience for her /his novels. I had suggested that the task of marketing a novel is not necessarily to commercialize a novel, but to locate a right audience. Of course, once such an audience is found, selling that novel leads to financial gains. In this blog, I would discuss the popular belief that commercial bestselling novels are not really literary masterpieces.
The most common misconception about good fiction is that it is appreciated by only the select few. Therefore, any bestselling novel is, by default, considered to be inferior by literary standards. It is rare that any novel would be a good literature and a bestselling one too. This belief that good literature and commercial success are mutually exclusive is so deep rooted that it is held not only by lay readers, but also by literary fraternity as well. The classic illustration of this misconception lies in the fact that Somerset Maugham was never awarded a Nobel prize for literature. There was never a doubt about his literary genius, but the fact that he was popular and a bestselling author seemed to have influenced the jury. Graham Greene is another instance of this misconception, though he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature belatedly.
To be honest, this distinction between the literary merits and the commercial viability of a novel is highly simplistic. It has its roots in our popular cultural stereotyping. One always imagines a novelist (or any artist, for that matter ) to be an eccentric, impoverished and an ignored individual. The publishers, by contrast, are perceived to be money minded, greedy and inconsiderate entities. This kind of unjust typecasting is reinforced by several instances wherein what turned out to be masterpieces have had to wait for long periods of time to find a publisher.
The reality is somewhat different. Earlier, the publishing was dominated by a few organizations. Moreover, since publishing was a capital intensive and uncertain enterprise, it remained captive of few big corporations. In fact, even today, there are only a handful of big corporations who monopolise the publishing industry. In addition to this publishing oligarchy, the problem of fiction lies in the fact that there are no set parameters of deciding a good literature. Literary standards are vague and even subjective. Therefore, it devolved upon the acquisition editors to decide what to publish. As a result, there was an implicit bias that was built into the publishing of fiction. It is this combination of anxiety to recover the high cost of publishing and the subjective selection process that has reinforced our above mentioned stereotyping of literature. It must be admitted that there are some good and enlightened editors and even ethical organisations who have worked against all odds to give us good fiction.
However, the advent of online publishing has changed the paradigm of publishing fiction. It has democratised the whole process. By reducing the cost of publishing, it has enabled a few enlightened individuals to create a platform for publishing novels which would have had to otherwise wait for long periods to see the light of the day. Since the cost of publishing has considerably reduced, one doesn’t need big corporations. A new set of entrepreneurs have emerged which would eventually replace the existing oligarchy. The sheer number of these entrepreneurs would ensure that there are no monopolistic or restrictive forces to prevent novelists from publishing their works.
While this is certainly a desirable situation, the original question whether a good novel sells remains to be answered. The answer is strangely enough , both, yes and no. The process of democratisation of publishing industry would allow a larger talent pool of potential novelists to get their novels published. Moreover, with a good marketing strategy which focuses on finding the right audience would increase the commercial viability for the publishers and the novelists. Since the whole process is broad-based and unbiased, there is a level playing field. In that sense, a good novel has a better chance of selling itself.
However, this process, by itself, does not define what is a good novel. Therefore, it depends on the collective perception of the readers of what is a good novel. In that sense, the answer to the question is the title of this blog is no. However, the definition of a good novel can not be decided by the size of its readership. I admit that sounds snobbish, but the fact is that a popularity of a novel, by itself, can not determine its literary merits. There must be something definitive in defining a good novel. It is generally conceded that there are two aspects of a novel that could help one to distinguish between a good novel and a bad novel. These are the content and form of a novel. The literary criticism is a highly evolved discipline with diverse views on both these aspects of fiction. However, there is no unanimity about how to evaluate these two aspects of any given novel. Therefore, one is forced to fall back on individual opinions of the experts to decide whether a given novel is good or not
In my next blog, I would discuss an aspect of novel that decides the form of a novel. This is the role of editing in shaping a novel.