The Stephanie Meyer vs. Connie Willis Effect
There is something that has been on my mind for a while, something that I like to call “The Stephanie Meyer vs. Connie Willis Effect.” I’m sure all of you have heard of Stephanie Meyer, but how many of you have heard of Connie Willis? Of course, Meyer sold millions of books, received several movies, and is making loads of money off the lot. And yet, though I’ve never read the Twilight Series, all I ever hear about it is how awful it is. Meanwhile, Connie Willis has won the most Hugo awards in the history of Hugo awards, as well as a number of other awards (over twenty in total), has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and the Science Fiction Writers of America have even granted her the title of Grand Master. And yet, as far as I can tell in all my vast googling, she has never written a best seller. In fact, when I bring her up in conversation with my reader-savvy friends and family, most have never heard of her, even those who grew up in her heyday. So this has me scratching my head at the time old question: why is it that a skilled Grand Master is losing out to a notoriously amateur writer?
This is a question that has been hashed out over the centuries, and the debate will probably rage for centuries more, but nonetheless, I’m going to put my two cents in.
I am not going to lie, while I haven’t read the Twilight Series, I have read Stephanie Meyers’ The Host. And again, I’ll be honest here, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had just finished reading Heinlein’s The Puppet Master when my mother-in-law bought me this book, and I found Meyers’ take on aliens to be a refreshing play off the alien tropes established in Heinlein’s era. And all the while, she had an excellent grasp on pacing that kept the action high enough to keep me interested while slowing down enough to build some level of depth to the characters in the story. It wasn’t the most complex or ground breaking story ever written, but out of the gate you can tell it was never intended to be that. It was intended to connect with readers, ask just enough questions to pull them in, and then take them on an entertaining ride. And that’s what it did.
On the flip side, I also got my hands on last year’s Hugo Winner, The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I had an interesting split-personality experience reading this book. On the one hand, I was absolutely geeking out over the Chinese history, the complex science, and the masterful way he weaved it all together with excellent story telling. It was exquisitely crafted and I was in complete awe of his skill. On the other hand, I was bored out of my mind. The pacing was immensely slow, the writing often became dense, and the personality of the main character often felt lost as a vehicle carrying all the weight of the science and philosophy the story was trying to get across, leaving no room for the protagonist to be his own person. I highly recommend this book, but I will probably never read it again.
These two books illustrate my general experience navigating the literary world. I’ve found “amateur” books to be entertaining and fun, and I’ve found literary masterpieces to be every bit as amazing as they are painful. I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to read, I want to relax, not be pitched into a bout of depression by a provocative story that forces me to look at the dark defecation of the world. Of course, some may argue that it is more true to the craft to tackle these hard issues, to make readers ask these questions, and to bring society’s troubles to light. But is it really accomplishing any of that if no one reads it?
If the story cannot connect to the world at large, then what is it really accomplishing by connecting with people who already think the same as the author?
You see, I think that’s the real thing that separates the best sellers from the literary awardees: connection and entertainment. If the story cannot connect with the reader, they toss it aside. If it cannot entertain them, they often toss it aside. It can be argued that the basic masses are too simple-minded to understand higher level issues (which I would argue that in most cases is wrong), or that the book is targeting higher-level thinkers. Smart people. (I know plenty of smart people who don’t like “smart” books.) But at the end of the day, these masses are the ones who are creating the very world authors are criticizing.
How can someone truly prod society, how can they instigate change if they are shutting out the very people capable of granting it?
This is why I love The Hunger Games. To my mind, it’s a book that does both. It is fast paced and entertaining enough to lure readers in, but it doesn’t sacrifice any of the depth or social commentary that makes people think. A lot of people like to put their stake in the ground on this issue: either you can be true to the art and the mind like Connie Willis, or you can sacrifice the art to please the masses like Stephanie Meyer. But as for me, the point is to first and foremost connect with the vast variety of people out in the world. If I can’t do that before I weave in the rest, then I’m not doing my job right. I lament the fact that many award-winning authors never get to be bestsellers. I lament the fact that many best sellers don’t get the awards they deserve. But for those who can manage to do both, I think they are the real masters. Long story short, be you.
Unless you can be Ray Bradbury. Then always be Ray Bradbury.