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Why crap books sell millions

Look, I don’t mean to give you a big head here, but if you’re reading this then you’re probably a pretty smart cookie. Statistical research suggests that people who stop by this way tend to be avid readers, and probably writers as well. Clever clogs like us get used to each others company, and its easy to start thinking that, well, everyone is as clever as we are.

But they aren’t.

Now, I don’t mean to belittle stupid people. Actually there are a lot of downsides to exercising your intelligence. Once you start thinking too hard about things there’s no end to what you can think hard about. So, many people quite validly avoid thinking too much about anything.

So I wish I could agree with Umberto Eco (who I LOVE) in The Guardian when he says that ‘people are tired of simple things, they want to be challenged‘. And by wish, I mean that every fibre of my superior, snobby little soul is vibrating in agreement. But the rational part of my mind that retains a tenuous engagement with reality knows that more people will watch X-Factor this Saturday than will ever read any one of Mr. Eco’s sublime novels.

When it comes to complexity in novels, it is lost on most people. Worse than lost, it will likely make a text incomprehensible to most people. Because most people, whilst literate, just aren’t very good at reading. Dense, poetic prose, rich in symbolism  and thematic depth, the things us writerly smarty pants all love so much, will just confuse the hell out of most people. That prose passage you’re so proud of, the one that switches seamlessly between the internal monologues of the novel’s five key protagonists whilst expanding the narrative’s core philosophical argument? Most people just couldn’t make it go in to their head even if they tried. You may as well expect them to read pure binary machine code.

Bestselling books are, by and large, simple books. Simple stories, simple language, simple ideas. But, simple is as simple does. Perhaps the real art of the novelist is saying the most complex things in the simplest ways, so that even stupid people can understand.

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55 thoughts on “Why crap books sell millions”

  1. The hoi polloi may not be persuaded to read Mr Eco’s novel, but as with The Name of the Rose they may be convinced to buy it in large quantities and then leave it on the coffee table in a transparent ruse to look much smarter than they are.

    I have been trying to learn simplicity in recent years after many years wasted trying to write well. As George Sand wrote, it is the most difficult thing. I hope like Graham Greene to one day be able to write one for them, one for me and then repeat and keep my head above waters. Not yet.

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      1. I need my stories. I realise now they are for me (and a handful of other people who like the same bizarrely baroque rambles) and that it is possible to write for “them” as well (and even enjoy it) but it’s still a challenge.

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    1. Plenty of people did read The Name of the Rose back in the 1980s, including many who didn’t get the references or even knew there were references to get. With The Name of the Rose, Eco wrote a novel with a broad cross-cultural appeal that worked on multiple levels. If you didn’t get all the references, you still got a really good medieval murder mystery involving monks. If you did get the references, the novel became so much more.

      People read for a lot of reasons and less educated people can still enjoy get something out of challenging novels. I once got a student of mine – a girl from the lowest, non-academic, menial work only educational track – to read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther via The Vampire Diaries of all things. She even wrote Werther fan fiction. Is her reading experience or that of the many people who read The Name of the Rose primarily as a medieval murder mystery irrelevant?

      I also don’t think one should look down on supposedly simple books and their readers. First of all, because some books that look very simple on the surface can still be well written and very intelligent underneath the surface. Good books and crap books exist on all levels. There are some very well written and sometimes surprisingly deep Mills and Boon romances or media tie-in novels and there are crap literary novels by highly regarded authors.

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  2. I mostly agree with this. First, I think the Eco and most other creators who take this “folks want it complicated” line are engaging in a certain amount of wishful thinking about people’s tastes and desires. They sometimes want their fictions mysterious, or to be a puzzle, but I do not find a groundswell of interest in the complicated and the difficult in fiction. People do not want to be challenged; they want to be surprised sometimes, or presented with a solvable enigma, but for the most part stories are about affirmation, not confrontation or intricacy. Surrealism produces discomfort, and tergiversation is right out.

    There are books that are crafted with simplicity, and there are simple books. Books that unproblematically essentialize, or that can never escape the gravity well of the tropes they employ, often end up being simple books. I think these are still the books that many readers like, not because they are stupid but because of how they have been trained to read, what tastes have been inculcated and encouraged, and indeed how we often view the intersection of reading and consumption. Plenty of smart people read simple books and bad books and plain old meh books. I think it comes down more to expectations and cultural practice than intelligence.

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    1. It’s probably worth expanding one what stupidity means in this context. Robert McKee makes the point in Story that most people believe in the externality of conflict. IE…these source of their problems are external issues like money, the government, criminals etc etc. Only a small slice of people understand that its the internal conflict thats the real issue, its our own fears and greed that get us in to trouble. It’s one example of a fundamental difference of understanding that separates stories for the masses and for more educated folk.

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      1. Ah, that makes sense. This ties in very well with the notion of simple books, books that are more about external conflicts than interior ones, that not only do not innovate, but do not illuminate. The lessons they teach are ones well-known, the guidelines they follow may be bent or redecorated but are not questioned. I think that can tie in with my closing sentence, that to some extent this is a product of how people are educated and enculturated. Hmmm.

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  3. I have tried several times to read Foucalt’s Pendulum. I just can’t. The text starts swimming and I get headaches trying to figure out what is going on. Presumably I am one of the simple people. :D

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      1. I’ve been idly turning this over in my head for half the day and I think something clicked for me as far as putting into words why I do not like Eco. It’s partly that, sure, I don’t ‘get it’, but it’s also that it makes me feel dumb for -not- getting it.

        There’s a difference between reading something that makes you feel challenged, and reading something that makes you feel stupid, or inferior, or just too dense if you don’t enjoy it or appreciate it.

        I don’t know very many people who enjoy the second experience.

        In my case, it contributes to Pendulum being unreadable for me. Having to struggle through a prose style I don’t care for, feeling far too distanced to care about the characters because I’m too busy puzzling out the narrative, and then on top of that feeling like I’m a stupid person for not being in love with it? Kills dead any enjoyment I might have had.

        To be sure, the impulse of not-wanting-to-feel-stupid probably keeps people from reading many books they should give a shot (or other forms of art, cinema, plays, whatever you like). But as someone who comes from a middle-shading-to-lowbrow sensibility in what I like in my art, I think there’s a heck of a lot to be said for accessibility.

        …and now, I will exorcise my personal feelings of insecurity by clearing my throat and saying that if you’re going to kick off a post talking abut what ‘clever clogs’ we are, you may want to proofread through for your apostrophe usage more carefully next time. *grin*

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  4. The merit of art is not inherent in complexity. Just as complexity for its own sake is just as obnoxious as any “crap” book.
    Surely it comes down to enjoyment. If a text is not enjoyable (individuals’ enjoyment will vary depending on their subjective life experiences) then it is not worth it. Does that make them stupid? QED
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that just because something is hard is it not worth doing, but a blue collar housewife – or househusband – will not enjoy Eco for almost the exact same reason that Harold Bloom does not enjoy Stephen King.

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    1. Enjoyment is far from being the shared common denominator. Not many people enjoy being challenged, and to challenge is a valid strategy for art. People don’t generally enjoy realising they are wrong, and thats also the job of art. Or that they are the bad guy. Also something art does well. So, enjoyment? No.

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  5. You say “People don’t generally enjoy realising they are wrong, and thats also the job of art”.
    Is it?
    Does the artist set out to tell his/her audience they’re wrong or to challenge them? I think it is more important to relay a “sense” of something.
    I think too much emphasis is put on right/wrong.
    Can art be right? I don’t think so.
    It is definitely true that “not many” people enjoy being challenged, but is it the majority of people or just the so called stupid people?
    Are they mutually exclusive?

    Also. you say, “So, enjoyment? No,” like you are right.

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  6. I too love Eco, and there’s no doubt his cleverness is part of the attraction – and one of the reasons many readers find him difficult. But I also love Steinbeck and Hemingway, cliche authors for the snob brigade perhaps but undoubtedly masters of the simple sentence (simplicity doesn’t preclude depth). I suspect your generic X-Factor viewer is quite capable of reading and appreciating The Old Man and The Sea, for instance; I think the reason they won’t has more to do with fear, ignorance and conservatism than stupidity.

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      1. ‘Stupidity’ is a useful catch-all, though, isn’t it? As in: ‘I’m halfway through Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (which I am) and if you can’t appreciate the fact it’s both devastatingly clever and shatteringly readable (which it is) then you’re stupid.’

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  7. I much prefer middle list authors to the bestsellers- its seems to be where all the ideas are.

    Is there such a thing as ‘the low list’? It must be chock full of geniuses.

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      1. Communication is vital. Striking a balance between ideas and accessibility can be equally so. However complex the underlying ideas of a novel, does a great author seek to ensure that those lacking a priori knowledge of the philosophies, history, or conditions which underpin the novel, can still engage with it?

        I would argue that they do, if they wish it to be widely read and read on more than an uniform level. And authors want their work to be read, by both careful readers and “simpletons.” We all must start somewhere, and sometimes we will return to a work later on, better armed to grapple with its more difficult passages.

        What I enjoy now, is not the same as what I enjoyed most, twenty years ago. But I’m pleased to say that there many books which have kept their appeal across this gulf of time – even if my reasons for loving them have deepened or changed.

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      2. Middlebrow! Yes! That’s totally me.

        I think the issue is that a hell of a lot of people read purely for pleasure. Most of the people I speak to don’t want cumbersome tales that require them to work hard. So, if authors want to put “big ideas” and “great truths” in their novels and still keep their mass appeal then they’re going to need to figure out how to sugarcoat them.

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      3. Hmmm…considering a few sugar coated truths now…

        “You’re an insignificant cog in an uncaring economic system designed to keep you enslaved. Now read this story about zombies and pretend it isn’t a metaphor for your life.”

        “Then Offo hurled the magic wrist anklet in to the volcanic cracks of fate, symbolically destroying mankind’s sinful ego in a neo-christian parable soon to be filmed by Steven Spielberg.”

        “Love is an illusion and the only happiness is to be found in self-sufficiency and an independent spirit. Unless you can find a Princess who looks somewhat like Drew Barrymore and save her from an evil fire breathing dragon, in which case love is eternal.”

        That kind of thing I guess.

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  8. This reminds me of Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’–I moved from London back to Texas just as the fatwa was being issue against him, and very Pquickly got a job in a bookstore. His book sold ‘like hotcakes’, with coming in asking for that ‘Devil’s Poetry’ book ‘ ’cause no Ayatolluh was gonna tell ‘em what they could or could not read’. Needless to say several people returned the book because they ‘couldn’t make heads or tails of it’.

    I’ve read Eco, like ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ and ‘Baudolino’, and I say his greatest weakness is the middle part of his novels–they always get bogged down. He starts off great & ends great, but the sediment of his knowledge seems to settle down in the middle. I think great writers are those that are able to challenge, put forward complex ideas, while they entertain, don’t let the reader know that’s what’s happening–they have found a good combination (e.g. Steinbeck & Hemingway (as mentioned earlier), Faulkner’s ‘Light in August’ (probably his most accessible of his), Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’). I’ve often thought that part of Rowling’s great appeal is the adult ideas hidden beneath her ‘good vs evil’ children’s saga. (Then again the arc of her fame could mirror Sir Walter Scott’s, who was the greatest, most popular writer of the 19th cent., but who was very much forgotten by the middle of the 20th centure, but that’s another debated…)

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  9. What if I want to be a smart muffin?! What then? Huh. Why are you discriminating?

    Pastry racism aside, I’m not yet ready for any of the authors mentioned. I’d prefer to age like a good wine and read them once, when I’m sure that I will not receive the aforementioned headaches.

    Anyway, simple is not always bad. That is to say that I’m all for diversity and to be honest, from my writing escapades, saying complex things in simple terms is quite hard. There is a nuance that has to be achieved so that you manage the best effect. Not hard. It’s easy to hide behind big words.

    Anyway, I’d like to point that bestsellers are the books that sell best. This speaks about the business side of writing. Says nothing about the art in them. Some may very well be crap. Others may not be. Furthermore, reading is more or less is connected with entertainment today. Non-fiction is for studying. Fiction is for play, so people look for a straightforward story.

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  10. Interesting post and interesting comments.Simplicity does not always equal stupid or “crap.” Should crap books be those books that are poorly written and somehow manage to hit the best seller list?
    Now, as far as Eco is concerned, I’m not a fan of his. His belief in a coming hunger for complexity is probably dependent on what reading culture he himself is involved in and how far his knowledge of other reading cultures are.

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    1. Hmmm…I think we should *hope* Eco is right. Many of worst social problems arise from the fact that the mass of people can’t think through the complexity of many issues. So maybe the desire for complexity goes a little beyond preferences of reading matter.

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      1. I’m not as confident. And if there is an increase desire, then is that desire illusory given the decline in people actually reading. Then there is the whole can of worms over what is meant by “complexity.” Does everyone have to read Ecoesque novels to get complexity or can they read other things?

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  11. I would argue, me and my many islands, that lots of buyers of novels aren’t readers at all. They are looking for an action or thriller movie fix in book form, and thus the words are fundamentally unimportant to them so long as the events and characters conform to the stereotypes and typical situations found in Hollywood blockbusters. They are not buying a novel–they are buying a contrivance that allows them to suck out the expected fast-food sustenance in the quickest amount of time and thus get the high they want from the grease and processed beef. When a novel doesn’t supply that, they get angry, and then you see, say, two-star reviews of an M. John Harrison SF novel. “We were robbed! Even though we’re not readers and were just looking to suck out some tired marrow! But you robbed us anyway. You tricked us, ’cause your words meant something other than the transparent signifiers we need to get our fix.”

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    1. Those reviews make me so angry! But don’t get me started on the low quality of reviewing in the blogosphere, that really will get me in to trouble. I think you are right, particularly on the desire of those ‘readers’ for typical Hollywood set pieces and scenarios. The problem being that non of that works very well in prose. Has anyone read a Bourne novel? Are they just lots of descriptions of fight sequences? What’s the appeal of that?

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  12. http://aidanmoher.com/blog/2011/11/reviews/review-theft-of-swords-by-michael-j-sullivan/

    I think this review is relevant to the discussion going on here, especially the bits about being simple and in the author’s own words “a book that reads like a movie.” I’m personally not impressed or won over by any of these claims. If I want to watch a film, I’ll watch one. If I want to read a book, I’d like my book to read like a book, not a movie.

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      1. The hell if I know. Have you seen Prospero’s Books? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102722/

        But that doesn’t “read” like a book either.

        But then I’m against this trend to make x more like y. I’m not against making new ways of a reading a book, or writing one, by the format which is used. But to make it experientially indistinguishable from another medium such as film, seems a hopeless task. You’ll fail or at the least, be so severely limited you’ll have been better off writing a screenplay or producing a video.

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  13. There is so much snobbery here. Not everyone seeks to plumb thematic depths and contact the sublime when they go out with friends Friday night at the cineplex. Reading simple books does not mean you’re simple. It just means you’re capable of enjoying a range of things the supposed literary art defenders cannot–which is their loss. And conversely–something to keep in mind–liking smart and complex books does not mean you’re smart and complex yourself. It’s just taste.

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  14. Sounds like you are confusing the Bourne movies (a whole bunch of fight and chase scenes) and the books – at least the Ludlum ones, haven’t read the pastiches. Which are nothing at all like the movies.

    :)

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  15. I think this is very interesting and kind of in line with what I remember Ian Jack writing of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in the Guardian some years back now. The kind of literature that puts forward a spurious trail of conspiracy and badly structured narrative, riven with inaccuracies – his evaluation was it made thick people feel clever! So far more blunt about how it works in some ways.

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  16. Hang on a second: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking

    “Hawking’s belief that the lay person should have access to his work led him to write a series of popular science books in addition to his academic work. The first of these, A Brief History of Time, was published on 1 April 1988 by Hawking, his family and friends, and some leading physicists. It surprisingly became a best-seller and was followed by The Universe in a Nutshell (2001).”

    A *true* genius, such as Hawking, can produce a ‘simple book’ that involves complex concepts that can be enjoyed by everyone. Impenetrable writing is crap writing.

    And also from here:

    “Hawking was asked about his IQ in a 2004 newspaper interview, and replied, “I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.””

    And *that’s* why he’s the smartest guy on the planet.

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  17. You’re  mixing up communication issues with a good story. As an author what is your prime objective:
    to tell a good story or to tell the reader how smart you are?

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      1. Recently, Tim Parks has written about this issue in NYRB. I don’t agree with his conclusions at all (rather too trivial) & couldn’t help responding at length (not in simple language, alas) but it’s still worth following the debate I think, which is about simplicity of form, granted, but behind it, there lies something else…

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  18. The thing I hate about “literary types” is how inaccessible they make books seem to the masses. I’m dyslexic and it wasn’t picked up so I didn’t have an easy time in school. Every single book they gave us to study was like a lesson in tedium, especially as they were so hard to trawl through. But I’m not stupid. You don’t get a B in English Lit without ever having read a single book you were set if you’re stupid.

    Thankfully, I discovered science fiction, which actually gave me a reason to read. Since then I have have voluntarily worked my way through some classics. Some were good, others not so much, but had it not been for crappy Star Trek tie-in novels, it’s doubtful that I would have ever learned what joy there is to be had in reading.

    I know my books are never going to win any awards, I am not and will never be Pulitzer material. I’m not even likley to be Richard & Judy’s book club material, and I’m okay with that. I’d like to share with you another story. This email was from my Dad (who is obviously bias) but we’re not close, I’ve only seen him twice in ten years and we talk briefly on the phone maybe once a year. I never even expected him to read my book, let alone comment on it.

    “Hi

    Picked up your book on Monday, finished it on Friday.

    When I was
    13 the deputy head mistress, also our English teacher, came into the
    class on the last day of tern and gave each of us a copy of Barnaby
    Rudge, She said we were to precee every chapter over the summer holiday.
    What little interest I had in reading was totally lost that summer
    which we spent at Great Yarmouth. I did not complete the exercise.
    Dickens was a foreign language to me, It was very hard work and
    destroyed any interest which I had in reading novels. I have not read a
    novel from cover to cover since.

    That is until now. I could not put your book down. I was reading it
    on the train among other places. Can’t wait for the next one.

    I
    have a friend who is an ardent reader. He has bought a copy from Amazon
    and will tell me what he thinks or it. I have not told him who wrote it
    .I will pass on his comments when he gives them to me.

    How proud I am of you.

    As for the book; I could not put it down. The first book (novel) I have read in 50+ years.”

    As you can see from his language, I think it likley that he too is dyslexic, though he has never been diagnosed and doesn’t even know that I have it.

    That email made me cry when I read it.

    You can say a lot against my books, and most of it would be true, but if they can enable just one person who doesn’t like books, to pick one up and try a medium that was previously closed to them, they cant be all bad, can they?

    So no, I wont win any prizes but then again, an email like that means more than any award could.

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    1. Thank you for that comment Cat, it says a lot. English is VERY poorly taught, especially in secondary schools (sorry English teacher friends, this is just the way I see it.) I hated English in school, even while I loved books at home. When I signed up for English A-Level, I was summarily forced off the course within two months as a ‘difficult’ student, which largely meant I wanted to actually understand the books. And now I’ve spent the last decade or more earning a living of sorts in the world of books! It’s a strange world.

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      1. Strange indeed. I was rather lucky in school. English and maths sets were grouped by your maths ability, which I was pretty good at so I was also in the top set for English. The English teacher that the top set had was much nicer than the others and she wasn’t so hung up on spelling and grammar. The debates we had about the books were where I picked up enough to do well without actually reading the books!

        I have a kind of schizophrenic opinion on schools now because, while I think it’s very harmful to people like me to get too caught up on the rules of language, I can see standards slipping.

        Another thing that I’ve noticed is how Grammar Nazi’s like to correct you but more than half the time, they’re actually wrong!

        When someone tells me I cant do something, I want to know why. Asking why wasn’t allowed when i was learning these rules in primary school but as an adult,
        I have studied language quite a lot. The more I learn, the more I realise that language is actually very fluid and for every rule, there are multiple exceptions. These Grammar Nazi’s seem to be stuck in their primary school rules and have never learned that language is far deeper and more complex than some trite “rules” that you were taught in school. (I’m talking about things like “i before e…” “less vs fewer” “never end sentences with a preposition” etc.

        Many of our so called rules come from the 18th and 19th century, when some scholars wanted English to be more like Latin, but English is and has always been a mongrel of a language, so those rules simply cant be applied universally to such a complex language. 

        Shakespeare broke every grammar rule going, and yet he’s hailed as some sort of literary God. People today never seemed to learn to think for themselves and ask “why” you can or can’t do something.

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  19. Part of me wants to argue for the beauty of simplicity in art/literature, i.e. the David, the Pieta, Of Mice and Men, etc.

    However, the other part of me wants to rail, as you have, against the ever growing tendency of writing to the middle. I mean that as “write well, but not so well you alienate your readers…” How much of what you perceive to be the crap books selling millions do you think is the result of the market encouraging more writers to produce crap books that will (hopefully) sell millions?

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  20. I never thought of it that way for some reason, that the difference between literary and popular fiction is that the former deals in internal conflicts that create problems, where the latter deals with the problems caused by external conflicts. 

    My next thought was that the best genre fiction takes those internal conflicts and re-represents them as fantastical external conflicts in a way that creates a kind of ‘useful distance’ that allows readers a degree of objectivity on the subject they might not otherwise have. 

    Sometimes, it might use a piece of imagined story furniture as a kind of mirror to those internal conflicts – the ‘force’ in Star Wars, for instance (admittedly a movie rather than a book, but it’s an obvious choice), or the ring in Lord of the Rings, which  takes the drive to power and objectifies it as a physical object with occult powers. Or at least, that’s my interpretation.

    Something for me to think about, anyway.

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  21. That’s a great comment Gary, and SO central to understanding the power and popularity of the fantastic in our culture. It actually provides a balance point for a very large audience who want stories of external conflict that also reflect their internal lives. That’s the craft of the really gifted fantasy writer, to depict both in the same story.

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