It happens regularly: the debate about literary quality surfaces in one of the Facebook-groups I belong to. The result is always the same: I descend into depression. Why? Because there is a large crowd out there who seriously believe that sales equals quality. Their argument may vary somewhat, but the basic content is the same.
“The fact that many people can read a text is a sign of quality.” This argument is completely idiotic, since it’s endpoint is a smallest common denominator-text designed to be read by morons. Is that where we want to draw the line? This idea is often accompanied by the equally strange statement that when the proponent encounters a text he finds “difficult”, he gives up halfway through. And this from people who are writers themselves! Seriously: if you encounter a text that you don’t understand immediately, then read again! But no, these so called writers lack sufficient respect for literature to do the required job. Have do they react if they get a difficult task at work? “No, I’m not gonna finish this, because it’s too hard.” Of course not! Isn’t literature worth as much respect as their job? Especially if they are writers?
“Best-sellers are often accessible, with a good plot and characters that are easy to identify with.” Duh! You don’t say? Easy access to something is the very definition of popularity. John Doe doesn’t like it complicated, never did. It’s obviously a quality, but is it quality? Hardly. These books are accessible because they are written in a common, easy-to-understand language, with conventional plots and characters. It’s entertainment, nothing more, and should be compared to other entertainment rather than to great works of literature. I mean, most Swedish crime writers shouldn’t be compared to James Joyce, but to the Eurovision Song Contest. Anything else would be unfair to them and problematic for literature.
“Why can’t you jealous wannabes get off your high horses and stop complaining about other people’s success?” This kind of domination technique (dismissing your opponent as a person and thereby disregarding his or her argument without further consideration) is simply disgusting and reveals much about the personality, if not necessarily the intellect, of the person who delivers it. What, may I humbly ask, is the relevant difference between their complaining about our view of best-selling literature, and our complaining about said literature? None, of course! Except that their complaint is meant to push us down and silence us. Well, we won’t be silenced! Their literature is crap, and they know it, otherwise they wouldn’t have to fall back on base domination. These are the people who cling to Stephen King’s “teachings” on writing (which are very good, by the way, maybe they should consider his division of writers in bad, competent, good and great?) since they know that they might, if they work really hard, one day write like Stephen King, but they will never be able to write like James Joyce.
Most of us wish to write “quality” rather than just “quantity” (which is not to say that you can’t write quality literature that sells alot). But most of us can’t, that’s the simple truth. We try, but we can’t. I’m no James Joyce. But these people go at it by redefining the very concept of quality: quantity is quality, obscurity is a sign of lacking quality. Thereby their writing all of a sudden becomes quality-literature. It’s cheap, and only works if your ego has the density of a black hole, so that all counter arguments are sucked in and crushed, no matter how good they are.