Want to be the next Shakespeare? Forget literature. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to write enlightened literary fiction. He was writing the Elizabethan equivalent of daytime television – easily digestible, relatable stories (mostly stolen from elsewhere and given a quick spit and polish to make them look and sound new) that would appeal to an audience of mostly illiterate working-class people. He didn’t care about being a great artist or creating work that would last for centuries. He just wanted to make money.
I think modern literary authors forget that. They want to create art. They want to be taken seriously. God forbid their work be mistaken for trashy pulp fiction. God forbid it be accessible. True art, according to the modern literary author, is by nature elitist. In order to understand it, one must have more sophisticated tastes than the types of people who read mass-produced romances or pulpy sci-fi thrillers. One has to be discerning. Every great literary author wants to be remembered as the next iconic genius.
Except that our last iconic genius wrote exactly the kinds of fiction these aspiring greats treat with such derision. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – these might be timeless classics, but to The Bard, they were how he paid the bills, and to the people who paid to see his plays performed, they were the equivalent of a good popcorn flick. We talk about Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, Dickens, Conan Doyle as though they were trying to create enduring works of highbrow literature. They weren’t; they were writers working at their trade. It just so happens that they were very good at it, which is why we still enjoy their work today. But they had no lofty aspirations, no desire to be seen as anything more than working writers. Oh, sure, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of two successive monarchs. I’m not denying that he was a master wordsmith and a well-regarded one at that. But to the people who crowded into the globe to watch his work play out on stage, he was nothing more than an entertainer. Not an artiste, not a figure of reverence. He wrote theatre for the masses. He was Elizabethan England’s answer to JK Rowling, not Vonnegut.
If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d probably be writing for some wildly successful primetime drama. Dickens and Conan Doyle, were they to stick to the serial formats they preferred, would probably find a home in graphic novels. Byron was something of a poseur, but he wrote his generation’s equivalent of Harlequin romances. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters? They’d have been penning this summer’s hottest chick lit. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing things that people will enjoy just because they’re fun. There’s nothing wrong with writing to entertain, to captivate, to thrill. And just because work is engaging and accessible, doesn’t mean it can’t also be challenging, thought-provoking and enduringly popular.
The Bard was a genius at his craft, no doubt about it. I just came home from a fantastically staged production of Macbeth, a play still enjoyed by audiences around the world centuries after Shakespeare’s death. I hope to one day pass on my love of Shakespeare to my children. But I’ll also pass on my love of fantasy novels, detective mysteries, cheesy sci-fi and even the odd paranormal romance. Why not? Fiction is meant to be fun. Sure, it can also be a lot of other things, but if we don’t enjoy reading it on some level, what’s the point?
If you’re writing for an audience of people who think enjoying fiction for its own sake is below them, you’ll never be the next Shakespeare, or the next Marlowe, or the next Dickens or Mark Twain or Agatha Christie or Jane Austen. Hell, you won’t even be the next JK Rowling (and believe me – some day, we’ll talk about her work with the same reverence we reserve for the works of long-dead white men today). Don’t focus on creating literature. Focus on creating great entertainment. Take your readers somewhere new. Give them a means of escaping. Take an old story and make it sing again. Make it fun, for heaven’s sakes, because I can guarantee you that five hundred years from now, we won’t be talking about dry and dusty tomes written by pretentious poseurs with delusions of grandeur. We’ll be talking about what was popular, just like we do now. We’ll be talking about theatre for the masses. We’ll be talking about this generation’s Shakespeares. And if you’re not willing to do what he did – to write for all people, to amuse, to engage, to entertain – then you’ll never be one of them.