Dumb Down, All Ye Who Enter Here

by Ian Clements

I read an Independent article the other day in which Fay Weldon says that writers should ‘Abandon their dignity and write a racy page-turner.’ It’s an attention grabbing headline designed to provoke, like much press these days, but it does raise some interesting issues. It’s easy to dismiss Weldon as, in the meat of the article, she makes the distinction that traditional press can still shoulder literary works, but it’s the e-book audience that need a faster alternative. Of course, as any self-published author will know, faster doesn’t mean shorter. Novels do far better than short stories because of perceived value. The race to the bottom in self-pub pricing, which began with chart abuse of Amazon Kindle’s ‘free’ price range, is something constantly debated; but what of the change to customer perception? When you can pick up a whole novel for 99c then does the author really need to aim that high? As long as it has momentum, and slips easily down the gullet, then they won’t receive any criticism worse than ‘It wasn’t great, but…it was only ninety nine cents.’

That’s why I can’t let the article go, as it’s one of those most frustrating statements: bald, seemingly ignorant, but with enough truth to make it prickly. A writer may not want to admit it, but they do know that the public often prizes fast paced, cliff-hanger prose over something painstakingly crafted. The problem, and it’s difficult not to sound priggish here, is that if we all followed that formula then something vital would die. Of course, we want to sell stuff too! This is a classic and enduring dilemma, so to suggest that it’s now a consideration because of e-books is disingenuous. Every writer worries about it. My main concern with my ‘Norton Pumblesmythe’ series (apart from figuring out the timeline) has always been how much period detail, and period slang, to include. Due to it being a slapstick kind of work, my serious author side is forever trying to tip the scales. Am I trying to teach or entertain, and is there a danger in thinking I can do both?

The other issue is in implying that writers, as a whole, can skip genres and write to a formula. Yes, some writers do manage this, and I’m envious and a little bewildered by that kind of flexibility. If I tried my hand at, say, a Western Romance (marketable genre right now) then my lack of interest and enthusiasm would curdle the writing. Readers have changed, undoubtedly. They want it fast, and they want it cheap; but when we genuinely consider Weldon’s approach of a cerebral paperback and an edited for speed e-book (of the same book) then the situation becomes a little crazy. A work stands or falls on its own merits. Trying to whittle down or balloon those merits depending on who’s reading doesn’t mean accessibility, it means they just read a different book.