Untangling the writing disconnect

Someone posted this not long ago on one of the writing sites:

How do authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford get away with writing so badly? Why does she get published and I don’t???

With all due respect, I think that’s the wrong question. I think the right question is this: despite all the less than stellar writing, what is it that makes BTB such a popular author? Looking into that question is an opportunity to see how fiction works.
This is the same thing that bugs the hell out of writers when they comment about The DaVinci Code. Jeez! Such awful writing! But the damn thing has sold 40 million copies. And now Fifty Shades of Grey (horrors!) has passed it in popularity! How do you resolve the facts with your personal standards of what makes good writing?
My suggestion asks that you change your point of view. Stop looking at the writing and investigate the storytelling. Which do you think is more important? If you answered “writing,” then in terms of popular fiction (oh, do you really want to write UNpopular fiction?), I think you might be on a questionable detour.
BTB’s latest, “Playing the Game” is on Amazon with the “look inside” feature enabled. So I read the prologue. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, but if I put on my professional/objective viewpoint, I can understand the appeal.
Quite a few people like you and me are living reasonably contented, generally mostly serene lives. Then add in the people who are downright unhappy. This adds up to a whole lot of potential audience not involved in crimes of passion (on one side or the other), high crimes and misdemeanors (ditto), or intense celebrity tomfoolery. Let me put that in plain terms: Normal life is fairly humdrum most of the time.
This is why so many people like rollercoasters and horror movies — it’s fun to be frightened (when you know you’re really safe).
I think this is a key fundamental underlying the appeal of popular fiction. Fear comes in a wide range of colors. Feelings of terror, horror, dread could be said to be at one end of the spectrum, and a lightly felt concern or vague unease at the other. At one end you have rollercoasters, horror movies and Stephen King, at the other you have Miss Marple and “cozys,” where the key description might be “gentle.” (Perhaps which genre of fear you prefer is really a measure of how much adrenaline in your system feels like “entertainment.”)
To my way of thinking fear at some level or other is one key ingredient of fiction and wish-fulfillment is another.
One way of looking at “wish-fulfillment” is envy. To the extent a protagonist arouses our admiration, we wish or dream even a little bit that we could be just a little more like him or her. Envy might be one end of the wish-fulfillment spectrum, and a vague aspiration to be a little more decisive or forthcoming might be at the other. On the one hand you have Brangelina (the most enviable twosome on the planet, according to grocery store tabloid sales) and on the other the dedicated high school teacher of “Stand By Me.” Thus the fictional appeal of characters as diverse as Agent 007 and the plucky heroine who goes up against the misguided social worker.
“Tut-tut,” Amanda said, her normally smooth brow wrinkling in consternation. “Just because Carlos has a devil tattoo, that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad boy.”
So there’s wish-fulfillment in the sense of wanting to emulate a character with some enviable (heroic) characteristics. To mirror: Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand another’s intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated “theory of other minds.” Or, another way of putting it, you experience empathy.
Envy is one dimension of wish fulfillment, probably the most obvious, but in Freud’s view, dreams were all forms of wish-fulfillment — attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict of some sort (that’s from Wikipedia.)
If this theory works in fiction (maybe it doesn’t just happen in dream-dreams but in fiction-dreams as well), then perhaps whenever you have a conflict going on in your manuscript, you automatically have generated wish-fulfillment chemistry in your reader (those mirror neurons are firing). I can see how that would work. No conflict is ever absolutely even. There’s always one side we favor. And if there’s a conflict, then there’s the apprehension (fear) that the person we favor (probably the protagonist) will lose. So the wish to be fulfilled becomes the reader’s inner goal as well as the character’s story dilemma. This gives two dimensions to wish-fulfillment. One is character based (Agent 007) and the other is more story based, i.e., will Elizabeth Bennett somehow overcome the disdainful and snobbish but attractive and wealthy Miss Bingley and win the affections of the apparently arrogant but actually all-too lovable and lonely Mr. Darcy? Oh, Lord, how I wish it to be so! (Because if Elizabeth Bennett can win in this unfair competition (conflict), then maybe there’s hope for me. Especially if I can learn to be a bit more like her.)
What does all this have to do with the popularity of Barbara Taylor Bradford and the opinion some writers have of her work?
Many do like reading about wish-fulfillment characters like Annette Remington, the attractive and smart owner of famous art gallery who has just sold a Rembrandt painting (a painting she has personally restored) for twenty million pounds. Annette has a fascinating, busy life, rich with social connections to wealthy, witty, charming and famous people. Despite all these wonderful things going for her, Annette (at the end of the prologue)

“. . . leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, sinking down into the past, thinking of those early years, of all the terrible things she had buried deep because she did not want to remember them. She shivered, and goose flesh sprung up on her arms. She felt a trickle of fear run through her. So many secrets, so much to hide . . .”

Barbara Taylor Bradford sets it up with a lot of character-based wish-fulfillment, then lays out the first layer of the story question, generating story-based wish-fulfillment.
BTB has other things going for her. She has built an audience with the 26 novels she’s published. If you would like the same success, then you must wake up early and get to work about 30 years ago. Yeah, authors with that kind of track record get their books rushed into print with no quibbles because they are publishers’ cash machines.
There are a lot of people posting manuscripts at various writing sites who write pretty well, probably as well as BTB. But not that many of them are good storytellers, or, to perhaps put it in a more nuanced way, are willing to do what you have to do to become good storytellers. Often they don’t choose a protagonist and situation with sufficient reader appeal and when they do they have trouble structuring a story that generates a sufficient level of apprehension, anticipation and uncertainty.
Easy to say, not so easy to do.

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