I remember my mother listing a whole bunch of first lines from bestselling books.
“The primroses were over,” she announced theatrically.
I pretended to understand what she meant. There was a first edition of Watership Down on the table by her typewriter but I’d never read it.
She dipped her chin and looked at me directly. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she said.
It would be some years before I tackled Anna Karenina and I thought she’d come up with this idea herself, so I said, “Are we unhappy in our own way?”
She dragged deeply from her cigarette, exhaled, then swatted at the smoke. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
I held out an ashtray for the length of ash bowing down from her cigarette and she dutifully tapped. “Mother, I don’t know what you are saying,” I admitted.
“Bestsellers,” she said. “First lines of some of the greatest books.”
My mother knew nothing about fiction. But I knew nothing about anything, so I believed her. For years, I walked around with the idea that bestsellers were great literature and that they sparked from a single mesmerizing first line that signalled an unaccountable genius that would bring readers to their knees.
Perhaps for a time that I am either imagining or that existed for only the shortest of durations, there really was a link between bestsellers and quality literature. After all, not every book on the lists is bad. Plenty of great fiction has hit the New York Times bestseller list and will do so again in years to come. But my mother’s notion of the bestseller, this glamorous other-wordly thing of preposterous beauty, was her own invention. Watership Down is a great book but most of the bestselling books of that day were not.
It took years for me to see that first lines didn’t mean much and that being a bestseller meant even less. Even an amazing first line like John Grisham’s opening in The Racketeer (I am a lawyer and I am in prison) does not make literature. I am not sure what exactly does makes literature, but I know this: if a writer wants to write a great book, they should not try to write a bestseller. That doesn’t mean they should work hard to write in opposition to their notion of what a “bestseller” is, but that the effort to write commercially detracts from only hope of being an admirable writer.
Recently, I saw an article that not only described what should happen in a bestseller but how many pages you should write, what gender the protagonist should be and the like. Really stupid facts about recent bestsellers, none of which would help a serious writer complete so much as a decent Post-It note. It wasn’t even an article but more of a chart. A kind of mind-map of the bestseller, laid out for the would-be celebrity writer.
The chart was appalling for many reasons, not least of which is the idea that if you want to be successful you need to be commercial. And that this goal should be in mind from the very inception of the work itself, rather than at publication when sales and marketing teams include you in their plans to promote your book. I have no objection to authors pushing their own work once they’ve written it–that’s part of the game. But to fashion your writing to what you believe to be the fashion is vulgar, debasing, and not the work of serious novelists.
I find it worrying that people who purport to be serious writers think that success is measured by advance figures or bestseller lists, rather than looking at the work, itself. I recognise that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a means of measuring quality. Little (nothing?) apart the words on the page genuinely indicates value. However, the scary thing is how quickly writers are willing to capitulate to what they perceive as “the market.” In the face of demands from publishers that their books make money, writers are willing to do whatever they have to in order to create a bestseller, studying inane absurdities like what happens by page 25 or page 35 or whatever inanity you care to focus on.
Am I just being stodgy and old-fashioned to insist writers put up some resilience and stop trying to appease the notional “market”, a market that has behaved unpredictably for as long as books have been published? Admittedly, it can be discouraging to good writers to see mediocre books being lauded, but I’ve long grown used to that. You will, too.
I feel we writers should have more spine when it comes to our work. We should have more dignity than to chase bestseller lists. It’s fine to do so once you’ve written a novel you are proud of, but the idea of fashioning the entire thing in an effort to create the next “big” novel, or “breakthrough” novel, defeats the purpose of being a writer in the first place. Surely, writers are meant to create something more akin to art than advertisement.
When I think about the great Russian artists who continued to paint in a manner true to their vision even as Soviet authorities condemned any art that lacked “revolutionary spirit,” I marvel at today’s writers easy capitulation to the toothless threat of “the market.” I think of how the Slovakian journalist, Pavel Licko, risked his life to smuggle Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to the United States while, these days, writers surrender to an idea of what the “market demands” as though the market has guns and bayonets and firing squads.
So, what should you do instead of trying to be a bestseller? Read quality. Become ruined by good works so that you can’t possibly put up with much of what sits on the bestseller lists. Stop wanting to be a celebrity.
The first thing is to attend to is the work. The second thing is to attend to is the work. The third thing is…that’s right. The work.
And don’t worry too much about the first line either, because the first line, even if it is a good one, is just a party trick.