The longer you hang around the writing world, the more chances you’re going to run into someone who fancies themselves an expert. On what, you might ask? Writing books? Editing? Marketing? For sure, you’re going to run into some self-proclaimed experts among those things, but in this case I’m talking about the person who’s an “expert” at telling you which books are good and which aren’t.
Critics and reviewers are part of the book business, and they serve a vital function, both validating authors and helping out readers. But among those critics you’re always going to find a person who thinks they’re the be-all, end-all of having opinions. They’re going to tell you that your book needs to have juicy and nutritious meat on its bones, it needs to present a splendid smorgasbord of rich storytelling to satisfy the reader, and it needs to bring a whole bunch of literary jargon to the table and check off all the boxes. It needs to have substance.
Now, you probably already know from living on this planet that no one can please everyone all the time. And also, not everyone likes the same things. I have the unfortunate affliction of lacking interest in a good deal of the stories, TV shows, and movies that become hugely popular. I don’t say this as a boast, or because I’m trying to be a hipster or act like I’m better than everyone. Quite the opposite, it really freakin’ sucks. I’m a weirdo outlier who has strange likes and dislikes and I wish I could run with the cool crowd once in awhile. Especially as a teenager this sucked, because that’s a time in your life when being part of the herd seems like life or death. I’m just into strange stuff and usually things that get huge don’t appeal to me for reasons I can’t explain–I wish it did. Also, this means the stuff I actually do like tends to be trim and hard to come by.
But, it’s also not my place to tell people who do like the more widely-appealing stuff that it’s vapid crap or lacks merit. Substance, like style, is subjective. I don’t believe that any writer should be in the business of telling other writers what’s good, much less readers.
When you look at stories that capture a wide audience and appeal to a lot of people, you’ll find most times at their heart it’s because they appeal to something the consumers recognize–either in themselves, or as part of their own struggle. The story touches on the human condition, and therefore, people connect to it with their heart. But the human condition is not a static set of tenets we all share. Everyone has different struggles, experiences, values, and dreams. So even something that appeals to a lot of people isn’t going to appeal to everyone.
Substance is in the eye, and personality, of the beholder. I run into this a lot being a romance author, as romance novels are often mocked in the literary community as being shallow, lacking artistic merit, and not being “real books,” despite the fact they still sell like hotcakes–millions of hotcakes–every year. Despite the fact that in the real world, most of the human population is obsessed with love, relationships, and sex. You know, those things romance novels are about. Go ahead and try to tell an avid romance reader that the books they read lack substance. It’s like telling a married person their relationship lacks substance because they should be pursuing higher things like solving world hunger.
The substance of your book is the heart you put into it, the story you convey to the world in your own voice, and no one gets to tell you it’s not good enough because it doesn’t suit their tastes. Not every piece of art needs to be super serious and make you reflect on your humanity. Life is stressful enough without all of our entertainment giving us anxiety too. Write what you want to write, read what you want to read, and know the substance is what you put in it and what you get from it, in whatever form that takes.
And tell the know-it-alls to calm down, take a deep breath, and just enjoy some brain candy for a change instead.