I was reading a posting on the blog of my writer friend Chloe Banks (http://madebythepotter.blogspot.co.uk/) about the writing of Agatha Christie. I’m also a Christie fan, but Chloe was talking about how Agatha’s literary abilities are sometimes criticised – and it’s true she broke some ‘rules’, and when I’m reading her books the editor
in me always wants to get the red pen out. But she could write a good old fashioned story, and her popularity speaks for itself. It set off a chain of thoughts. The first is that in a sense Agatha was writing in a sort of literary twilight zone, a transitional period between the “Victorian” way of writing and the modern. When I’m writing critiques I often have to advise aspiring children’s writers of a certain age to avoid trying to replicate the style of favourite authors from their own childhood. And that applies to adult fiction too – other than in a tongue-in-cheek way, the rather wordy, sedate-paced “Dear Reader” style is unlikely to get you anywhere today. (Which is kind of ironic considering that those same books do still sell today – perhaps a subject for another posting).
That train of thought led me on to another, related one – what I believe to be a more important and more interesting difference between today’s writers with big ‘literary’ reputations and those of the past. This is that the giants of old were mostly also consistently best sellers. The general public eagerly devoured their stories because they loved reading them, which is still the case today of course.
I’ve read that some of today’s big literary names are paid ridiculous advances that publishers know the writer’s sales will never recoup, but that they are prepared to do so to keep the prestigious name in their ‘stable’.
I may be wrong, but many of today’s ‘literary’ writers are more popular with literary prize judges and middle class intellectuals who like to discuss such things at dinner parties, than they are with the rest of us. There is even a distinct classification difference now – which I think would have bewildered writers and publishers in Dickens’s day – between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction. How many novels by today’s ‘literary’ authors are pounced upon by the ordinary working man and woman in the way Austen, the Brontes, Hardy (I want to include Dickens I hesitate to because of the “literary versus populist” debate regarding his own writing) and the like were?