On Being Bestselling

I typically think of the New York Times Bestseller list as a reliable source for good books. “Good” being a relative term, including the literary, pithy, meaningful, and the suck-you-in page-turners. Sometimes the two overlap. Occasionally I’ll wonder how a book ended up on that list.

In two recent reads, I can easily see how they earned their places as NY Times Bestsellers. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany, told from the POV of Death, explores a young girl’s relationships to her parents, close friends, and – books. And as for Before I Fall, written by Lauren Oliver: In reliving the last day of her life seven times, a teenage girl discovers that there is more to life than being popular.

Both are about life, what is important in life, and what it means to live. Both feature strong young female protagonists. With The Book Thief, I was skeptical at first. My sister had given it to me, with high recommendation, and my instinct of elevated expectations was to be skeptical. This book, I thought, is only so acknowledged because of the subject matter – Nazi Germany, the girl’s relationship with a Jewish man at the height of WWII. And Death as narrator? How contrived.

By the end, however, I’d been won over. It was a good book, and incredibly well-written. I thought about it long after, and was touched. And what writer wouldn’t love a book about the power of books? Yet, I was able to put it down.

Before I Fall, on the other hand, I stumbled upon while doing research for my novel in the Teen Fiction section of Barnes & Noble. It’s not high-brow literary fiction. The writing wasn’t revolutionary. Maybe I got so attached because its themes overlap the themes of my novel. But here’s what happened: I picked it up, got sucked in immediately, bought it. It was the kind of book I stayed up late to read (and those who know me know how I hate to lose sleep). I would arrive at appointments early just so I could spend five extra minutes reading it in my car. The kind of book that I couldn’t wait to finish doing whatever else I was doing so that I could read it.

Ideally, yes, I’d like to write books that are both revolutionary and page-turners. It’s so easy to get caught up in wanting your work to be high-minded. As my mentor reminded me, the greats were writing popular fiction. They didn’t become classics until later. If I could have people unable to stop flipping the pages, I’d be incredibly proud.

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