Fame, virality, and popularity are double-edged swords that many who have achieved them warn others about. Books are no different. The publishing industry is notoriously hard to break into and success is relative. However, some books seem to take off into the stratosphere and become part of the cultural tapestry. But with that success come critics that will point out flaws real and imagined.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyers
The four-book series sold over 160 million copies worldwide and was turned into 5 movies. The movies and books are worth multiple billion dollars. They spawned wildly popular fandoms, fanfiction, and cultural references that are still used.
Critics cite quality issues that range from lack of plot to lazy writing, which includes repetitiveness, force feeding information, and overusing em dashes. Her sentences are also called nonsensical and overly simplistic. These are valid criticisms. They’re pet-peeves and preferences of those reading the book. Bella, as a character, lacks a ton of development. The timelines are easily annihilated, and in a made up world, there are a lot of plot holes.
So why was it successful?
Meyers’s agent wasn’t able to put the book down despite obvious editing flaws in the super-early manuscript. Bella and Edward told a story about young people with repressed desires in a modern and fantastical context.
People connected with it. It sparked interest. Furthermore, it was sex free but tension high, and despite what many think, the wait can be a great catalyst for readers. Their tension captivated teens and promoted a story parents could be okay with.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
I would be remiss as a romance editor if I didn’t discuss the best-selling romance novel of all time, and one of the most controversial. You may assume that it’d be impeccably edited or linguistically stellar as the best-selling book of its genre, but it’s quite the opposite.
It’s originally a three-book series that started as Twilight fan fiction. It received initial attention as fan fiction online, but was then picked up by an agent, reworked and published as its own series. It spawned a blockbuster movie, spinoff series, and sex toy lines.
Similar to Twilight developmental critiques are abound with critiques on the conflicting description and actions of the story’s protagonist Anastasia. Furthermore, the timeline and number of events are highly unrealistic, taking place over just three to six months.
When critiques address James’s writing, repetition is the first area they pick apart with some critics going as far as to count common occurrences of phrases like “Oh my,” “Holy (expletive),” or “Crap.” While others site the internal dialogue to be confusing and hard to follow given the book is written in first person, therefore already inside her head.
Why was it successful anyway?
There are several reasons it was a runaway success. First, the rise of ereaders and digital downloads made its sexually taboo introduction to BDSM culture more digestible to the average reader. It’s not new that sex sells, but pressing the envelope at a time where digital (more private) books were easier to access benefitted James. Furthermore, her quick pace and near-constance conflict, both internal and external, make them easy to read and digest. The series made readers feel intrigued, excited, and a little edgy.
Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros
The most recent runaway success in the publishing world is about dragon riders at a war college. Yarros’s series is slated for six books and has garnered a huge loyal fanbase despite only two of her books being released at this time.
Since being released in May, Fourth Wing has already sold more than two million copies per year. Early on, copies of the book with sprayed edges sold out at record speeds and became high-ticket items on resale markets. Then in a brilliant marketing move, the publisher released an anonymous project in the anticipatory period before the release of the second book, Iron Flame, which turned out to be a special edition of Fourth Wing.
Firstly, many critique that her book is all that original. Many critics feel like Yarros hasn’t done enough new world building to make her book unique. They cite her use of a school-driven plot to that of stories like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, then her use of a “shadow daddy” ie. Xaden Riorsen as comparable to Sarah J. Maas’s Rhysand or Azriel.
On top of that, her books, and their 6 month releases, have sparked a conversation about publishing being affected negatively by social media’s hyper consumption of books. Her second book is more widely criticized for its lack of editing, culling, or development. Many fear that this will get worse, given her next release date is set for “early” 2024.
So why is she successful?
Readers were at a time where they were ready and looking for the next big fantasy novel. Sarah J. Maas has long since reigned queen of the mega successful fantasy world, but readers need more than her 3 series, especially with her books only being released every 1-2 years. Yarros fills a need in the market.
In addition, her writing is easy to digest, and her story offers something readers haven’t had a ton of in the past-–dragon-laced sexual tension. Her books offer all the tension and excitement as many YA fantasy novels with the spice of an adult romance novel. It brings the best parts of different genres together into one thrilling adventure that readers can’t put down.
What To Take Away From These Controversial Books
I hear how critiques and reviews weigh on authors as an editor to authors in two of the most popular genres. That’s not to say I don’t find reviews, critiques, and craft important, quite the contrary, but I find that those elements (grammer, spelling, syntax etc.) are flexible and debatable. Good stories are ones that readers can see themselves in. The truth is, readers don’t see themselves in grammatically immaculate and perfectly well-rounded characters because they aren’t grammatically perfect or perfectly well-rounded.
Fiction is an artform. This means that to make a character’s tic more believable, they sometimes use it more than some readers would prefer. Or to move the pace along, they have to tell some parts or skip explaining others. Authors gets about 300-500 pages to tell stories about multiple characters and sometimes entire new worlds, and they can’t be perfect.
Is It Avoidable?
Not really. Authors, regardless of their successes, can improve. But no book is without errors. You can keep learning about writing and craft. Yet, no book can be everything for everyone. It’s not possible to meet everyone’s preferences storywise or linguistically.