F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards." When I first read this quote, like most quotes, it went right over my head. However, the more I learned about books, popular tastes and literary history, the more I realized that Fitzgerald hit the nail right on the head. Classics are never recognized as great in their own time.
Let's look at some examples. Charles Dickens, the Shakespeare of the novel, is a prime example of this. Back when he was first published, most critics, if not all, dismissed him as a hack writer interested in nothing more than entertaining the masses. Today, he's studied in school. Raymond Chandler was dismissed as overly violent and lurid. Today, he's considered one of the most important voices in post-World War II American literature. All the critics of the times flaunted "big, important novels" that would "go down in history." Well, guess what? Most of those have been forgotten, and the "crappy genre work" of the time is what is studied in schools today. This is the way it has always been throughout the history of literature, and I see no reason to expect it to change with our generation.
Why is this? Because, usually, the "literary" writers of a time are trying way too hard to be "great writers." Sadly, there are not very many great writers, and there never have been. There are some, like Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Cather, Dickens, etc., but most writers are either merely okay or, at the most, really good. Just as a bad writer can't really become a good one, a good writer cannot become a truly great one. Sadly, a lot of good writers think it's their destiny to be ranked among the greats, when that just ain't ever gonna happen. They try to write something "literary" and fall flat on their faces. "Genre" writers just did what they knew how at the best they could, and they're the ones who wrote the better books and they're the ones who are remembered. I believe this will be the case in the future.
So, you may justifiably ask, "Okay, Charlie, who do you think will be the 'classic' writers of the future?" Oh, good, thank you for asking. Here's just a partial list: Stephen King, Louis L'amour, David Morrell, Robert B. Parker, F. Paul Wilson, Lawrence Block, Neil Gaiman, Ira Levin, Nicholas Sparks, Mickey Spillane, Peter Straub, and so on. I might even go so far as to include comic book writers like Stan Lee and playwrights like Neil Simon. These writers are generally criticized for being "pulpy" and "only interested in entertaining," but you may notice something interesting. NONE of these writers are criticized by other writers. Other professional authors, pretty much as a rule, love these authors. Why? And more to the point, why will these writers be remembered?
Why? Because they show us what writing is really all about, the reason why all of us should be writing. It's not for reviews or money or fame or for bragging rights or anything else like that. It's because writing is supposed to be fun. It's about heart. It's about being alive and creating something and all those other reasons. Consciously "literary" writers are writing for all those wrong reasons that I mentioned earlier, and their books suffer as a result.
Right now, you may (justifiably) be asking, "Okay, okay, so what do you want me to do about it?" I want you to discover genre fiction and its wonders, if you haven't already. I want you to crawl out from literary snobbiness and enter into the wonderful light of entertaining fiction.
Don't be scared. I'll help you step out into the light. I'm going to be providing reading lists for each major genre (with some help from friends). These lists will help you get a footing in each genre and draw arrows to paths that you may want to follow.
Ready? Take my hand. I'll protect you. As long as you're with me, you'll be okay…