At the risk of provoking the popular vs. good debate, aspiring writers who wish to write well should study the novels that have endured (let’s call them the works of “masters” for this discussion), not the forgettable books on the top 10 bestseller list this week.
By my definition, there is no way to know which of the contemporary writers will be considered “masters” in the future. As such, there is no point in studying contemporary writers to learn how to write well. We can certainly study them to learn how to write what will be popular. Think Jane Austen vs. Tom Clancy. Which one will still be read 100 years from now?
If we look at any list of the best-selling novels of all time (no matter how such lists are formulated), outside of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, we won’t find many novels on the list that have been written in the last 25 years, perhaps a few more in the last 50 years. This is stunning considering the massive growth in the reading population over the last two-hundred years and how the price of a book relative to average income has dropped dramatically over the centuries (which creates a bias to more recently published books).
So if we want to learn how to write engaging fiction, we should study what has endured for decades if not centuries. In such books, we will find the themes that will resonate for as long as humanity survives, and these themes will be well presented though the writing style may conform to the accepted standards of the time. As we understand that, we can then start to recognize the clever sophistication and techniques such writers use consistent with or in contrast to their time’s “rules” and techniques.
Hemingway, Austen and Frederic
Hemingway seems to be sarcastic at times (to my reading), Austen used Free Indirect Discourse to great effect, Harold Frederic (in the Damnation of Theron Ware — the 1896 novel, which I’m rereading now) carefully manipulates the reader’s perception with his narrator. But no matter how they did it in their time, I suspect all these writers would be highly regarded in any time because they understood how to present engaging, relatable characters in difficult situations. They made us care.
We can study this week’s unremarkable bestsellers to internalize the conventions and “rules” of our time, which make enduring themes easier for contemporary readers to access. Only the passage of time, though, will reveal what endures. And only what endures could we call the work of a master. These are worth studying. …and most are in the public domain, so instead of spending $9 on a “bestseller”, you can spend a fraction of that to read something really good.