The star in the middle represents the holy grail in fiction: a book that is loved by critics and devoured by readers. There are a few such beasts out there. Lonesome Dove always comes to mind when I think about this, a masterpiece of storytelling with characters who are going to outlive all of us, with pitch perfect prose and dialogue. The critics adored it, the public did too. It rode the top of the best seller lists for a good while, and made a lot of money.
Most novels fail in one or more of these three key areas. What’s interesting to me is that the litcrit crowd is vocally dismissive of one piece of this pie, but it’s the one piece you can’t do without if you want a novel to really take off, because here’s the universal truth: people need stories. Human beings think and perceive and understand in terms of narrative and story. The story is what makes the reader turn the page.
Strong supporting evidence for this can be found on almost any day’s best seller list. There are books out there which have made fortunes for their authors, which are (bluntly stated) badly written at every level. Off the top of my head, two titles: The DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I’ve read them both). What these novels have going for them are their stories, and some of the wildcard elements (marketing in particular can do a lot for sales). They are both built on shocking but appealing ideas: In the first case, Jesus of Nazareth had children; in the second case, a well-raised young woman can be sexually curious and open to the possibilities of kink, if the guy in question has a ton of money and a tragic background.
Both of these novels are pretty awful in terms of prose and dialogue and characterization. I’m not going to quote anything here because the idea isn’t to point out what’s wrong with them, but what’s right. Either of them could be a fantastic whole-pie novel if their authors had taken a different approach.
And still: none of that matters because the stories work.
People who write and enjoy the genre generally called literature consider their work or taste superior to all other genres, and they’ve convinced almost everybody else of this too — the emperor’s new clothes, on a grand scale. But even the most respected writers of literary fiction rarely get near the top of the best seller lists, because plot is, for them, a four letter word.
I personally consider all three elements of the story pie equally important, but it’s pretty rare that I come across a whole-pie kind of novel. Byatt’s Possession, Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series, Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, some of Austen and Dickens and Hardy. I’m always looking for candidates for the whole-pie shelf, if you’ve got any to suggest.