Saturday, July 22, 2006

Commercial vs. Critical Success

Though I don't have the time or the energy to try to back this up with all sorts of stats and examples, it's the rare film that enjoys both popular and critical success. Take a look at the movies that are nominated for Oscars - many of them turn out to be small,intellectual films made by people who are more interested in saying something than reaching wide audiences. The movies that enjoy huge box-offices and sold-out audiences - well, those aren't the ones that will be hailed by the critics.

There are exceptions of course. But for the most part, it's difficult to have it both ways.

I think novels face a similiar problem. Someone recently wrote an e-mail to one of the dozens of loops I'm on about how she's not interested in being brilliant, she just wants to write entertaining books. And that got me thinking quite a bit. Because it would be very hard to do both.

I have another friend that would likely be considered one of those "brilliant writers". I don't even want that friend to read my books.
Chip MacGregor mentions the word "brilliant" regularly as he writes posts on The Writer's View and mentions names of those he sees as the best of the best. I hear reviews of author's "lilting prose" or "beautifully written characters".

I read novels that make me ache inside I so long to write as well.

I don't have any delusions of grandeur. I know I'm not brilliant - and that I may never be. But that begs the question - whose opinion really matters? I mean, yes, we are supposed to write unto God - for His good pleasure and for His purposes. His opinion is the only one that counts.

At least that's what we say.

But truly - there are lots of opinions out there that count in some form or another. There are the readers themselves. The reviewers, the bookstores, and the sales people all make decisions about the worth of your book. Already, just a few years into this world of publishing, I find myself evalutaing my ideas in light of all these opinions. It's not enough to have a good story idea - that's only part of it. You have to have a hook for the marketing people to sink their teeth into. You have to have a way to make your name known. You have to be brilliant enough to capture the editors attention.

I find myself simply wanting to write. To write so much that I simply have to get better with each manuscript that is completed. Like a painter I long to experiment with different mediums and textures. What would happen if I did it this way... I wonder what this story would look like told this way...

But there is so little room for experimentation. Unless you don't care about your work being published. And I don't know if I would be content to simply write for writing's sake. Because the interaction with the readers that are touched by your stories - well, there's just nothing else like it.

So ultimately - I want it both ways. I long to write a book that someone, somewhere might declare brilliant. But at the same time, I want to write books that actually reach readers - not just judges and reviewers and the few people who have the patience and appreciation for brilliant prose.

And I'm not sure I can have it both ways. An editor once asked me what my goals were as far as publishing was concerned. And my answer then is the same as it is now:

I want to be able to keep writing books - for the rest of my life.
I want each book I write to be better than the last.

I suppose, in the end, that's all I can really try to do.