Forum: Should Writers Write For The Market?
In film industry terms the summer’s over, and it was another year of disappointments in Hollywood. Only one studio did well; Disney had four of the five biggest hits. What’s noticeable is how super-safe everything became this year. The top five films were ‘The Jungle Book’ (remake of cartoon), ‘Finding Dory’ (kiddie sequel), ‘Zootopia’ (cartoon), ‘Jurassic World’ (kid-friendly remake) and ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (comic).
Autumn should mean tougher fare but this year the latest schedules show heart-warmers, unchallenging dramas, sentimental romances and a few films to chase awards. The only surprises to be found are at the edges of the release schedule In the UK world cinema (which usually offers more adult fare) is in the doldrums. It has become an upper-income-bracket experience to see a foreign film theatrically, and the choice in the UK has drastically narrowed.
Why is entertainment entrenching? Unsettled times are usually blamed. Hollywood is now inches from losing its biggest market. China has learned from (and copied) the Hollywood system in record time, opening its own major studios. And in all of this, what hasn’t happened is the feeding to TV and film from literary sources. The BBC seems allergic to anything less than 30 years old.
For writers, film sales are the canary in the mine. A major part of our income once came from selling options; no more – although simplistic beach-reads like ‘The Girl on the Train’ still get an obligatory cinema version, usually a fail.
Books rarely sell as you’d hoped. Personally, I wanted to sell ‘Nyctophobia’ in Spain, where it’s set – but Spanish publishing is in trouble. I thought I might sell an option, but no luck there either. Entertainment, by and large, has such a safety catch on it now. Unless your book is very populist you won’t even get it into WH Smith, let alone sell film and TV options.
This leads to a bigger question for anyone in the arts. Should we simplify our work for bigger markets? Agatha Christie’s foreign rights sales are what keep her figures soaring. She used a much small vocabulary – about a third fewer words – than most crime authors.
‘The Mousetrap’, a truly terrible play that makes no logical sense at all, runs all around the world. It’s very easy to follow. After 64 years the revelation of the murderer’s identity is blindingly obvious. Whether its simplicity was conscious we don’t know, but her books are easy to translate. They’re hardly ever locked to a location (with a few exceptions like ‘Death On The Nile’) and are filled with forward-actions. Characters don’t speculate but act. Nobody ponders too much. Even the detective investigates rather than analyses.
I’m currently reading Brigid Trophy’s marvellous ‘Prancing Novelist’, a 600 page study of Ronald Firbank, but also a meditation on the novel itself. Its language is dense, allusive and entirely revelatory. This is not the way anyone writes now. We keep things much simpler. We need to cut to the chase.
Our population is multi-cultural, and there are no figures about how many new arrivals read or become book buyers. Males no longer read if they’re in the workforce because they now work on trains.
All of the above throws up a slew of questions, so let’s forum this.
What do readers want to read?
How and when do they read?
Should writers simplify prose to appeal?
Does simpler writing have to mean dumbing down?
Should books go back to being shorter?
Thoughts welcomed – nay, demanded.