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Bestsellerdom vs. Longsellerdom: Fireworks or a Working Fire?
by Moira Allen
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I bore my treasure home, and read it with, I suspect, every bit as much pleasure as (mumble, mumble) years ago. (In fact, I then went on to order the rest of this author's works from Amazon, just to complete my stroll down memory lane.)
It occurred to me, however, that if I remembered reading this book in junior high, it must be pretty old... In fact, it was published in 1957! Yet, it is still in print. And that got me thinking about my goals as a writer.
We all want to be bestselling authors, don't we? (And in all fairness, apparently Half Magic was a bestseller when it came out.) Whenever anyone wants to talk about "successful" writers, names like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling invariably surface. (And in all fairness again, I'm sure people will still be reading Stephen King and J.K. Rowling 50 years from now!) But as I trawl* the shelves of Goodwill, I see dozens of bestselling novels -- novels that sell by the hundreds for a penny each on Amazon, novels that remain, abandoned and unwanted, on the Goodwill shelves week after week after week.
Some books are like fireworks. They blaze quickly, splendidly, and everyone cries "oooh!" and "aaaah!" But then they vanish, forgotten -- at least until the next flurry of fireworks from the next bestseller.
Other books are like a warm fire. They aren't dramatic; they don't make one jump and shout. But they are the sort of books one can come back to again and again, and enjoy 10, 20, 30, or 50 years after you first read them. They are the sort of books that a reader can enjoy for the first time, decades after they were first written. (Which perhaps explains why my mystery bookshelf looks very much like my grandmother's mystery bookshelf -- and why my main "book-swap" partner is my 88-year-old mother-in-law!)
I'm not quite sure, yet, what makes the difference. Why does one book flash brilliantly on the horizon and then vanish, the author's name barely remembered -- and another endure for decades, long after the author is dead and gone? Surely one factor is the ability to create a book that a reader can identify with, regardless of whether that reader is a contemporary of the author or was born decades later.
Some things, certainly, connect and resonate across time. Harry Potter is beloved, I suspect, not because of the odd spells he must learn but because he struggles to fit in, make friends, rise above his unhappy home life, and figure out his place in the world. And Harry Potter is beloved not just by children who are going through the same struggles today (minus the spells) but also by adults who remember going through those struggles.
Perhaps some books endure not because they are "dramatic" and "different" and "break new ground" but because they do none of those things. Perhaps what endures is the connections books make with those aspects of humanity that remain constant across time, rather than what is new and different and (temporarily) shocking and exciting.
I suspect the authors of such books would not know the answer themselves. I doubt that many enduring authors set out to write a book that would endure. Edward Eager, for example, fell in love with the books of E. Nesbit, and wanted to recreate that magic in his own writing. (Thinking back, it occurs to me that I started reading Nesbit because I'd read about those books in Eager, which takes the whole issue of "enduring books" back to the turn of the previous century!) Books that endure are, I suspect, most often books of the heart. They are the books that the author wanted to write -- without caring whether they became bestsellers or not.
Sure, I'd love to be a bestselling author some day. It may happen. But what I would love even more is to have someone stumble across one of my books on a shelf, maybe 50 years after it was written, and have that person exclaim, "Oh, I remember that! I loved that book!" -- and pick it up and take it home and enjoy it yet again.
*In writing this I wrestled with the question of whether I meant "trawl" or "troll." It turns out that "trolling" means fishing with a hook and line (presumably catching one fish at a time), while "trawling" means fishing with a net (thereby, presumably, dragging in a large haul at once). My husband would agree that my visits to Goodwill definitely fall into the category of "trawling." [My husband just concurred that mine was definitely the drift-net approach to book-shopping.]
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.