I’m still reading Zuckerman’s book and have come to an important realisation: I don’t want to write a blockbuster. I’ve always known that, but it’s good to have a reason for what has just been a feeling up to now.
The book is full of gems, no doubt about that, and Zuckerman advises that if I want only gems, I should skip the next chapter, which I probably shall, for it is a comparison between several outlines of a Follett novel. I’ve tried doing that kind of thing before and no doubt it is a brilliant exercise and I’m a dull student, but I shall probably pass on.
Here and there, however, he’s said things which make me tense up. For example, ‘For a writer attempting a blockbuster novel, I would not recommend a historical setting.’ He does say elsewhere he’s writing in 1993 and things could change. Certainly back then I was forever being told ‘historicals don’t sell’. Ha! And we always had the example of Joanna Trollope dangled in front of us, who began with historicals but suddenly saw sense and began to make a fortune writing contemporary fiction set in cathedral closes. And then there was Edith Pargeter, who stopped writing authentic stories set in the past, sensibly changed her name to Ellis Peters and created an anachronistic monk-detective.
So I’ve always known that, unless I see the error of my ways, I’ll never be rich and famous. But now I really know why.
It’s this: I write books I would like to read and I don’t like reading blockbusters. I suddenly realised that I’ve never read a blockbuster, not since Harold Robbin’s The Carpet Baggers when I was about 13 (I’d been told that there were a couple of pages in there that would answer all my questions). And it was Mr Zuckerman who revealed to me why I haven’t when he said that, in order to write one, you need to create some larger-than-life characters and put them in extreme situations. Well, give me a choice in whether to watch the Godfather or Downton Abbey, I’d have no difficulty. I’ve never seen the Godfather and probably never shall. I’ve never read John Grisham, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum etc. etc. Am I a literary snob? Nope, just a type. We’re all a type, and there’s probably a dozen types to choose from.
But in principle Zuckerman is right, because thinking of Downton Abbey, as I am now (if you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of masters and servants in an English country house just before WWI), I have to say that the characters are larger than life, and the core situation is extreme.
The fact is, there are some principles in writing good fiction, and we need to know what they are. But it’s also useful to know where you stand in the spectrum that has Virginia Woolf at one end and Dan Brown at the other (no, I haven’t read him, either). I always tell my students, aim for the middle and a good story well told. You have to start somewhere…