Adam Rayner and Melissa George in “Hunted”: A hack job hiding behind pout and muscle
When I talk to creative writing students, I try to make them understand one point before their eyes glaze and minds wander. You can’t fake it, I say. You can’t write a book you don’t believe in, and expect it to do well. The first person a writer must sell an idea to is himself. If he doesn’t believe in it, no one else will.
I am sure my idealism sounds foolish. The most casual knowledge of fiction belies the notion that artistic integrity trumps all other virtues. Writers plagiarise plots and styles with abandon. They write to order, and to make money and become famous.
Yet if they do not believe in their work, they will never succeed. The political columnist who tells his readers what they want to hear, the academic churning out papers to hit her department’s research tar- get, or the novelist who lets the moneymen dictate his themes, write badly because they have no real interest in their subject, and are punished by readers accordingly.
The need for self-belief applies as much to the producers of popular as literary fiction. Bridget Jones’s Diary is my favourite example because I knew Helen Fielding slightly. It began its march to sales of two million and more in 1996. True to form, publishers persuaded women writers to chase her market with hundreds of “chick-lit” rip offs. Not one of them came close to matching Fielding’s success. Her imitators did not have her comic talent, to be sure. But talent on its own cannot explain their failure. When she wrote Bridget Jones, Fielding was a jobbing journalist, in her thirties and single. However much Bridget Jones was an exaggeration, Fielding knew something about desperation and loneliness—and it showed. I am not saying that she made readers think that Bridget Jones was real, any more than Ian Fleming made readers think that James Bond was real. But at some level they believed in their characters, and hence their readers did too.
Today E.L. James is the author publishers want others to imitate. I cannot explain her popularity. But women who have en- joyed her tell me that she has managed to dress up the oldest romantic plot of all in pornographic clothes. The heroine meets a man who is completely unlike the readers’ husbands and boyfriends: a Prince Charm- ing, who is handsome, sexy and, above all, rich. James somehow made the yearning of women for something better than their mundane men credible, and millions of readers have responded. Needless to add, publishers have now persuaded nearly every lady novelist of my acquaintance to turn out utter filth—to the amazement of their husbands and profound embarrassment of their teenage children.