Monday, February 16, 2009

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The Making of a Phenomenon

Every few years a phenomenal work of film or literature comes along to the great applause of consumers. There are two such works in the publishing world today: The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and The Shack by William Paul Young.


The Shack has sold nearly 4 million books since its release last year, while the Twilight series was the biggest bestseller of '08, selling 40 million books worldwide. The four books of the series held the top four spots on the '08 USA Today year-end bestseller list, the first time a single author has accomplished such a feat. Editor Megan Tingley said as she read Meyer's manuscript she knew she "...had a future best-seller in her hands." Meyer was given a $750,000 advance for her debut novel, and I'm willing to bet a lot of money went into the marketing and promotions of Twilight.

Theology aside in both cases, neither Twilight nor The Shack are particularly well-written books. The Shack, a self-published, self-promoted book, would clearly benefit from the help of a good editor. Twilight received mixed reviews for its literary quality. "Natalie Pompillo of the Philadelphia Inquirer said Meyer "loves adverbs, adjectives and any word that can stretch out a sentence." This in stark contrast to Mark Twain who said, "If you catch an adjective, kill it."

And yet, The Shack is such a phenomenon that Patrick O'Hannigan has written a book called The Shack Phenomenon! What makes books of less than stellar quality soar to such heights? If it's clearly not the quality, it must be that STORY trumps CRAFT. And, mostly, I get that. I can stay with a not-so-perfectly-written novel if the story grabs me, easier than I can stay with a novel that uses the English language superbly but doesn't engage STORY to its fullest effect.

But how does such phenomenal popularity happen in the first place? The Twilight series has a huge online fan community that has greatly contributed to its cult-like popularity and success. The Shack began to spread by word of mouth, and then by its controversy. The Internet has certainly changed the way we get the word out, but can any good story generate the buzz necessary to come even close to these staggering heights? If so, how does it get started?

Finally, I wonder, are one or either of these hugely successful books destined to find a place among best-loved literature for years to come? Or are they a comet of success -- blazing hot one moment, then gone? I'd love to hear your opinion.

17 comments:

Melinda Walker said...

I am such a huge Twilight saga fan, I’ll admit it publicly, even if I am a forty-something woman. As an aspiring author, I think it behooves us to consider the reasons for Meyers’ success. In my opinion, Twilight is a perfect example of Don Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel: opposing worlds collide, vivid story world (the physical setting and the convincing vampire universe), great ongoing tension between the couple. And because of the high conflict, it appeals to both character and plot driven fiction readers. Another important factor is the soulmate relationship between Edward & Bella. I do think they will be an enduring couple, like Scarlett and Rhett and others.

I was not pulled in by The Shack, primarily because bad things happening to little kids repulses me—I could barely read it, but I admit to an above average sensitivity on that. The women I work with loved it, though, because it gave them a new perspective of God. I think the fear of God was well-taught to many Baby Boomers, and in some cases (mine, for example) to the exclusion of the unfailing love of God, which the book illustrates well. For me, the long passages of dialogue were hard to get through, just as Meyers' crafting issues are troublesome to some.

It seems a little disingenuous to be overly critical of the writing (as some have been, especially recently) when the work has resonated so overwhelmingly.

Neither book appealed to me initially, but strong word of mouth encouragement led me to read them. The internet factor is perhaps more important for the younger generation.

Latayne C Scott said...

Great post, Sharon! And very insightful comments from Melinda.

I just ordered The Shack and am going to begin reading it. I've heard the buzz -- that it uses unconventional images to portray God, that it is disturbing, that it is blasphemous.

However, I've heard people I know, who don't read much and certainly aren't "in to" Christian fiction, say it was profoundly moving and evoked great insight.

If indeed we as Christian writers want help people (and if not -- why are we writing?) then I've suggested to beginning writers that we use the parameters of what is "legitimate" by looking at the Bible. Here are two things to consider:

* Jesus Himself used unlikely images to evoke insight into spiritual matters. That's a parable. (The Greek means, "thrown alongside"), two concepts rubbing up against each other in order to spark new thinking.

And the way He Himself talked about God. Do you realize that no Jew in history had dared to call God "Father"? And not just because of His own special relationship: When the disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He told them to address God as "Our Father."

No wonder they called Jesus a blasphemer.

Here's my point: Nobody is going to read (and therefore nobody will be helped by) insipid writing and mind-numbing familiarity.

On the other hand, none of us should aim to be "different" just for the sake of being "different."

Do you other readers feel that The Shack has stayed within appropriate parameters?

Bonnie Grove said...

I love both of these examples, Sharon, because one makes perfect sense as to why it became a breakout book, and the other makes no sense at all - but it happened!

Twilight was simply a bang on great idea - Thanks to Harry Potter (and other books, yes, but Harry is the one with all the glam) there was an entire generation of reading YA hungry for something "wicked cool" to read.

Meyers was the perfect combination of great idea and perfect timing- throw in some angstful teenage romance and Bob's yer Uncle. I haven't read any of the books, but when I read about them I thought: Of course this is huge. It's perfect for its audience. :)

The Shack is the book that has most people in the industry scratching their heads. How did this book which was rejected countless times by agents and editors become such a HUGE seller?

I don't think the fact the book was rejected is such a big deal. Lots of books that went on to become bestsellers were rejected by numerous publishers before being accepted.

Because it's a Christian book, one could argue it's success is due to God privileging it - perhaps answering Paul's prayers of "If you bless this, I'll never ask for anything again." (a paraphrase, but his prayer, according to an interview with Paul Young, was along those lines). And I think there is strong merit in that assessment. The fact that the book is not particularly "well written", in my mind strengthens this point of view. God uses the humble things.

There is nothing you can point to in either book that says: Ah ha! Here is the magic formula to success!
And maybe that's what we are secretly wishing for? A magic recipe (Like a book that teaches us how to write the Break Out Novel??? :) ) that will make all our writing dreams come true.
If you find it, please let me know!

Michelle Ule said...

I'll send you the questions I used for my Periodic Book Club, Latayne--though I'm sure they'll be too simplistic for you.

I had to start by explaining metaphors--that's what Young says "The Shack" is. Once we got that concept down, the readers in my group could look past some of the egregious theology problems and focus on Young's sense of who God is--which is the strength of the book.

Twilight . . . the good news is I read the series fast while sitting in airports on vacation with my teenage daughter. I skimmed long stretches of the book, in part because I have a personal problem with the obsession theme--and that's all I saw.

Still, Meyers has made a career for herself but, frankly, I'd rather read Harry Potter . . .

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree with you about The Shack, Melinda. I was initially put off by the violence toward the child, but I was intrigued to discover what had polarized the Christian community. I know readers who were put off by the quality of the writing. For some, the theme struck a chord and they were willing to turn off their 'internal editors' for the sake of story.

Both books explore universal human needs - to be deeply and irrationally loved by God and others - and for that, people will overlook real or perceived imperfections.

Kathleen Popa said...

I haven't read Twilight, yet. I did read The Shack, and hated the writing until God the large black mother opened the door. That moment, I walked into the shack and left my internal editor outside. I loved the story, and resonated with Young's vision of God-out-of-the-box. I was delighted to see the world turned on by a book that didn't offer an easy way to make our lives work the way we think they should, didn't promise the magic words to bend God to our will.

I'm way past the "easy answers" stage of life, and I don't think we're likely to find an easy formula for the breakout novel, either. I have noticed, however, how many of our best sellers are, in one way or another, about "God-out-of-the-box." Remember The DaVinci Code?

Does that mean we should all write GOTB books? Not exactly. But my guess is that all of us experience God in a unique, surprising way. And I think it is good, and fascinating, and worshipful to spill that way onto our pages.

Patti Hill said...

I've learned so much from all of you. Thanks for sharing your views.

I'm with Katy! I groused about Young's overwrought, sometimes confusing and emotionally flat narrative, and then God opened the door. Made my soul itch a bit, but I got used to it. Honestly, some of the theological arguments totally missed me. I was too intrigued by Young's view of the Trinity. Also, a scene or two left me wondering what was going on, but I stuck with it. And glad for it. Story is an irresistible pull.

As for Twilight et al, I must leave critique to others. I haven't read it yet as I can barely see over the books on my nightstand now.

I'm not much of a phenomena follower anyway. My ideal reading experience is browsing through a bookstore, reading book jackets and those all-important first paragraphs to find the just-right book, which hopefully, is authored by a total unknowned. That's how I found Elizabeth Berg. That's a treasure hunt Patti-style--no snakes or mosquitoes needed!

Story is everything! I believe the Father created us with a template for a love story, a great quest for redemptive love that is satisfied by his story. When we find a story that makes us ponder the outcome and yearn for more, the elements of story that have driven storytelling for centuries have been skillfully crafted.

As for me and my writing, I have room to grow as a storyteller. I'm referring to Jeff Gerke's Find Your Story materials as I develop my WIP.

If you want to read an interesting book on this subject, Kurt Bruner wrote The Divine Drama. Something else to add to the nightstand. Sorry.

Mott said...

Well, now. I cannot speak to Twilight because I have not read the series, and there may be nothing more reprehensible than critiquing something of which one has no knowledge (many Christians blasted away at the Harry Potter books [which, incidentally, are very well written and plotted] without ever having cracked open a copy).

But, alas, The Shack. I must jack a couple shells into the double-barrel for this, ummm, book. This is the point where I should flash a potential "spoiler" alert, but there is really nothing that could spoil one's enjoyment of this book more than reading it will.

Several have commented on their problem with the aspect of violence against children. Oddly enough, it was the ham-handed scenes involving the implied violence against the protagonist's daughter that made it clear to me early on I was not in good hands with this writer--not because the scenes were upsetting, but because the writer did not come close to making me care. When these wooden characters were stumbling through what should have been tragic (I am a father of two daughters), and I found myself skimming because I didn't believe a word I was reading...well, that goes a bit beyond bad writing. This same scene in the hands of a Dan Simmons, or a Peter Straub, or (Heaven help us and pass the Kleenex box) a William Goldman would not only have moved us, but had anyone with a heart setting the book aside and rushing to hug their children or spouse or cat just to be sure they were still there. Unfortunately, the author seems unable to draw a believable character, never mind a sympathetic one.

...sigh. Why is this piece of work a phenomenon? Why was the "Left Behind" series popular? Or Frank Peretti's awful cartoons, "This Present Darkness" and "Piercing the Darkness"? Because they presented the Christian Everyman with a seemingly dangerous vision of what had become for them a banal subject. And I suspect The Shack owes much of its inexplicable success to controversy and sensationalism: I mean, for crying out loud, how many of us tuned into the news and sat in paroxysms of delight as O.J. and his white Bronco were "chased" down the freeway? Someone tells two friends, they tell two friends, and so on.

Having said all that, fiction is meant to entertain, and The Shack has apparently done that for many. The writer grabbed the reader's attention and held it to the end. And that, afterall, is our job.

Latayne C Scott said...

Man, I do love how even our comments are parabolic -- that is, they spark new insights just by themselves being laid alongside one another.

Michelle -- I very much would like to see your list. It sounds great. And simple is good!

Latayne C Scott
www.latayne.com

Sharon K. Souza said...

I love all the comments on this subject. Mott, I especially love your double-barrel review. You said, "I suspect The Shack owes much of its inexplicable success to controversy and sensationalism." But here's my question. How did the controversy and sensationalism even get started? Especially with a self-published book?

And to answer my own question about the lasting value of books like The Shack and Twilight, I think it's only when Story and Craft are combined as effectively as they can be, that you have a lasting work.

Rachel said...

Patti- I liked your reference to Jeff Gerke's Plot system. I'm the opposite, a plot-first novelist, and I tended to lack in my charachter development, (The protagonist especially.) So I bought his character-development system. It's great! It really helped me.

Anyway, I have to load my cannon about the Harry Potter books. I think we as Christians have the privilege and the duty to be God's representatives, His voice to those who would never pick up a Bible. Therefore, I think we should be very careful about what we approve of and disapprove of.

Say the best architects come up with plans for a structure with a modern and sleek design. They construct it in beauty, crafting everything with excellence. Its eyecatching and as glorious as a man-made building could be. The only thing lacking is a good foundation. But hey what does it matter, no one sees it, right? The base is weak and warped. Needless to say, I wouldn't want to be in it when it finally caves.

That's how I feel about some novels nowadays. The craft is perfected, having the story intriguing, and the characters riveting. Yet, like Harry Potter, there is a corrupt foundation. The very essence of it is destructive. Does it glorify God, hardly. Does it point to Jesus, no way. (It may be spiritual, but not in a godly way.) Then why do we waste our time with it?

The Bible says there are those who have a form of godliness but deny its power. What power do we have? The power to be a light to thise who have never seen it. The power to show real love to those who never tasted it. It's time we draw from that source and not watered-down imitations of it.

Rachel said...

I see I made a typo at the end of my post. I proofread it at least twice and still missed it! That's why editors will stay in business!

Mott said...

Sharon, I am pleased my comments did not come off as simply mean-spirited (it was late and I was feeling feisty). Why the controversy and sensationalism over The Shack? I must point to others' comments regarding word-of-mouth. If enough people talk about it--and enough people talk about how "offensive" it is--sales will go up. And everyone wants to be part of a trend; part of the water cooler buzz.
"Have you read The Shack?"
"Oh yes, I read it!"
"And what did you think about the part where...?"
Anyway. Will The Shack resonate over time? I imagine it will be relocated to a literary cabinet of curiosities merely for its bizarre rise to popularity. Its themes are too ephemeral to be of much interest when more people finally come to the undestanding that God was much bigger and diverse than we could ever have imagined to begin with. My opinion and nothing more.

I wanted to also very gently touch on Rachel's comments (gently AND briefly, because I think they are a bit off-topic, although clearly heartfelt). It scares me (and should scare us all) to take the position of deciding who is or is not a Christian based purely on the content of their stories. If the evangelical content in one's work is what we use to measure a person's faith, then we must use that yardstick across the board. The butcher, baker and candlestick maker--did they tell me about Jesus today? No? Then we must assume they are not--hold on a second...did they treat me with kindness? Did I learn something about the human condition merely by my interaction with them? Now we're getting somewhere.
Am I trying to defend J.K. Rowling? She's a big girl and can probably handle herself. But do Harry Potter and his cohorts speak to us of character and integrity? Of courage and doing the "right thing"? You bet they do.
And what of C.S Lewis? Arguably a genius, but how many readers knew what he was about? How many modern viewers have any clue what they saw when they munched popcorn through the film version of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"? No one but a believer would necessarily have sniffed out the allegory, as obvious as it was to the rest of us. And what did it matter if they didn't? Was the film a waste, anymore than some of Lewis's more esoteric works? Of course not, because we learned (again) about Courage, Integrity, and ultimate Sacrfice. And here's a wonder: We were entertained along the way! God can and does speak in mysterious ways...sometimes without ever saying a word (or a Word, if you will).
I also find it interesting that Harry Potter comes under fire here and not Twilight. Why? Is it because the Bible speaks directly to the issue of withcraft but has nothing specifically to say about blood-sucking vampires?
Sharon, I think this also brings us back to the beginning: Harry Potter is a popular target, and I can't help but believe that the Christian community had something to do with at least a percentage of the sales in the early days (although the sheer quality of the story-telling and craft [imagine finding both in the same book] took over after the fact), much as the Christian community no doubt drove many late-bloomers to the record stores to buy Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" so they could turn it backward to hear all the "satanic" messages.

Well now, I suppose I didn't quite achieve "brief". All meant in the spirit of erudite discourse.
This IS fun. Anyone wanna talk about Stephen King??? :o)

Sharon K. Souza said...

Mott, I really appreciate your comments, heart-felt, on-point, thought-provoking. I look forward to your future contributions.

I agree with where Rachel is coming from when she talks about foundation. As believers we have to write about truth, but that doesn't mean we can't use the most outlandish story idea to convey it. Ted Dekker accomplishes that like no one else, in my book.

I've been blown away by a number of people I know who praise Twilight when they wouldn't touch Harry Potter with the proverbial pole. And yes, they actually use the argument that the Bible specifically warns against witchcraft. As I recall, the Bible also has something to say about drinking blood. That said, I say go ahead and write about witches, warlocks, vampires, whatever, as long as your bottom line is truth: in the end, light prevails over darkness. CS Lewis--a genius as you rightly point out--was a master at this.

Mott said...

Now see, Sharon, that is what a concise comment looks like! Well done. You have inspired to me to greater heights of brevity...or should that be lesser heights? Is there such a thing? Ah well.

Steve G said...

If a book has an enduring and endearing theme and that is why it is popular, it will be like that sugar rush or the caffeine fix. In the moment it is great and popular, but will only last until the next popular fix comes along. So I vote for the comet thingy.
But if a book has those elements AND great writing, it will get into the psyche of culture. It will show up in book clubs, not just Bible Study groups. It will start to show up in curriculum for English Lit because ultimately writing is about the words.

Can we set out to write that novel as Kathleen asks? Well, I suppose. After all, wasn't that what JK Rowling wanted? Don't all writers want to write a book that will be loved by the world? I'm not saying it is an ego thing, but we write for people to read.

Few people have the natural gift of writing. And if they have it, they have to put it in mind to use it. The rest of us have to learn the craft - we have to work hard at the manuscript, going through it several times in the self-edit before it goes anywhere else. There's a craft here like any other craft. I work with wood. I know the different varieties, their pros and cons. I know my tools, which one is best to use in a particular circumstance. That has happened over years, and it is still a "hobby". I enjoy it, am better than any non-woodworker, but still a dabbler. What would it take to be a Master Craftsmen? I would need to be doing this 12 hours a day for a year or two.
Word verification - agsho: slang for a farmers' convention

Steve G said...

Rachel - The passage you referred to is 2 Timothy 3:5. The "power" referred to is about the Power of God changing our lives leading to holiness, not about our power to change others or influence them for the gospel. We pray that we would have the privilege of being used by God, but it is still His power and His work that draws people to Himself. Romans 1:16 says "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes..."

Some people would say we should only read the Bible. Why are we writing anything else then? There is a God-given uniqueness in each of us that can come out in so many ways, to so many audiences. Jesus reached an audience of tax collectors and prostitutes which was quite "wrong" for the church of His day. My sentiments are the same as Mott (do you make tomato juice?) that allows people to explore their relationship with Jesus where they are at. You make a good point about foundations, but ultimately the foundation is found not in our writing, but in our life and heart. Even then, God can take the foolish thing(s) and use it to glorify Himself.