But as writers, you have to give thought to the why. Why are people devouring this book? What is the reason behind the mania?
Out of the blue yesterday I got an email from my writer/director friend Ericka, and she says in one sentence something I've been trying to dig into for weeks. I asked her if I could quote her directly, since she says it better than I've been able to:
"On the train this morning, a girl next to me is reading 50 Shades, and a woman across from me is reading a Nicholas Sparks book. The woman across from me is almost in tears (as she was almost done with the book), and the girl next to me looked like she walked out of a trashy novel.
"Anyway, I have no idea what to think except that it's not good writing. It's just giving people scenarios they wish they had."
The italics are mine. It's just giving people scenarios they wish they had. When you call yourself a writer, fairly often, you think you're answering... well, not a higher calling, but you think you're creating something special. And we can get carried away with our own wit. Look how clever I am. Wasn't that a great plot twist? Wasn't that paragaph eloquent? I'm the next Fitzgerald!
But look at what does well, financially. I proudly joked the other day that every time Adam Sandler makes a movie, God kills a kitten, but the man is enormously wealthy because the mass of mankind pays to see his films. "Jack and Jill" grossed $75 million dollars. By comparison, one of the smartest comedies of the decade, "In the Loop," had a domestic gross of $2.3 million. Gareth Edwards' magnificent independent art house monster film "Monsters" elevates indie horror to art, but you won't see it on any top grossing films lists. People who make movies loved it. People who generally just watch movies never saw it.
It's infuriating to creators and critics alike, but the average person wants accessible, easy wish fulfillment. We hope for the chance to achieve something better than that, but, in the end, entertainment and art don't often mix. Sometimes they do, and when that happens, it's wonderful, but for the most part, to be entertained and to be challenged are mutually exclusive endeavors.
Again, Ericka put it better than I did. She argued it wasn't wish fulfillment, exactly, but rather "the idea that someone out there lives like that, even if they're fictional characters. It's emotional at the core... That's the tie that binds."
I remember being a little prick of a writer in college trying to fight the overanalysis and over-complication of story. I came across a quote from Stephen King's "It." King's no Shakespeare, either, but I feel like the man's always had a respect for the art of storytelling, whether or not you think his prose is ham-handed or not. But this one line stuck in my craw for years:
"I don't understand this at all. I don't understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics... culture... history... aren't those natural ingredients in any story, if it's told well? I mean... can't you guys just let a story be a story?"
I don't know. I'm probably overanalyzing this as it is. And I write romantic comedies and moody little flash fiction. Who am I to think I'm better than a fan-fiction mommy porn writer? She's the smart one, sitting on her pile of cash. She's figured out how to give people scenarios they wish they had. We should all be so lucky, as storytellers, to find that tie that binds.