Sunday, April 08, 2007

Bestsellers vs. the Midlist

Last Monday, our writing group did an interesting exercise. We took two sets of similar books—one a bestseller, the other from the midlist—and compared them.

First we looked at two mystery-thrillers set in Eastern Europe. One—GORKY PARK (GP)—was a huge best seller. The other—we’ll call it ALSO RAN (AR)—was not. We took turns reading aloud the first several pages of each. The differences were immediately apparent and startling. GP instantly captured us with its brilliant, concise imagery, its deftly drawn characters. We were quickly introduced to our main character, in action, and in conflict with another character. Two members of the group who’d never read GORKY PARK announced their intention to read it. Others have been inspired to reread it.

By comparison, the prose of the ALSO RAN was flat. We suffered through huge info dumps. There was no action, no conflict. We couldn’t even decide who was the main character. We were left wondering why the book did as well as it did. Perhaps it improves. No one was inspired to read it and find out.

The next set of books we read were thrillers written by women who used to be romance writers. The first, Lisa Gardner’s THE PERFECT HUSBAND, was her breakout book. At that stage in her writing career she hadn’t yet banished the last vestiges of her romance-writing habits. The beginning was, we thought, over long. But her prose sparkled, her characters were well drawn, the conflict intriguing.

Then we read aloud the first two chapters of the newest thriller by another former romance writer who has yet to hit the NYT list (I mean really hit it; she has made the extended list) despite several huge pushes from her publishers. This is her tenth thriller, so in a sense it really wasn’t fair to compare this book to Lisa Gardner’s first thriller rather than to her latest, yet it made the differences all the more telling.

Our midlist thriller writer presented us with the killer laying out the body of his latest child victim (child victims are always a cheap trick to ratchet up the stakes, IMO). The killer was a cliché and the writing was riddled with clichés. Chapter two presented us with the detective who was also a cliché. Worse, interwoven with crime scene descriptions and melodramatic attempts to tug at readers’ emotions, our writer delivered huge extraneous info dumps that practically screamed “Look at me! I know my forensic stuff! I’ve done RESEARCH!” Except that since the info dumps about insects, etc, had nothing to do with this newly dead corpse, all she did was provoke laughter…not the response the writer had intended.

This exercise dramatically illustrated that some writers do indeed deserve to be on the bestseller lists while others, with equal justice, linger in the midlist. We found it so interesting we intend to do something similar this coming Monday.


Charles Gramlich said...

This was a great exercise. I've been looking for my copy of Gorky Park but I think it's in my closet boxes. I'll dig it out when I"ve got some time.

Steve Malley said...

Fascinating, wonderful stuff. I'm excited at this point that I might get into the club, even in the back rows. Except of course, who wants to sit quietly in the back?

I wonder if it's talent, laziness or bad influences that lead to flat prose, cliched characters and info dumps. Not much I can do about my talent, such as it is, but I won't fail through lack of work...