In the case of a writer like Nicholas Sparks, perhaps it’s that he gives readers a familiar story arc time after time that explains his success…
A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Goodreads)
After reading a couple of superb pieces of literary fiction by J.F. Powers and Shelby Foote, I detoured from the 2014 reading list to take a look at the work of a writer whose success I’ve wondered about for some time.
Yep. That’s right. Literary fiction snob and crusty old professor Jim read him some Nicholas Sparks.
It happened accidentally. Lea and I were doing some book rearranging a few days ago and, as we shifted books from one bookcase to another, we came across a copy of Nicholas Sparks’s third novel, A Walk to Remember, a book Lea received from an aunt several years ago that had languished on our shelves. She moved to toss it into our donation box for the local library, but I stopped her. My words were something to the effect of “I’ve abused this guy’s work without having read it. I am going to read this novel and write about it.”
And so we proceed.
Sparks writes a form of genre fiction, something that is called, I believe, “romantic drama.” This subgenre of romance (a genre I have written about before, albeit in rather different form) always imposes obstacles on the lovers that they must overcome. In the majority (perhaps all) of Sparks’s work, as I understand it, that obstacle is one that one cannot overcome, only become reconciled to: death. In A Walk to Remember, the story of two high school kids who fall in love only to have that love tragically disrupted, one of the characters turns out to be terminally ill (another recurring motif in the author’s work, as I understand it). In most (perhaps all) of Sparks’s works, a main character is coping with a loved one who is dead or dying. This is the case in Sparks’s breakthrough book, The Notebook. And in his second novel, Message in a Bottle. And in a number of his other books.
At this point readers who know my tastes are thinking to themselves that I am being remarkably coy about a writer who clearly uses the “Motown approach” to writing fiction: one creates (or borrows) a successful formula, repeats it until audiences find it stale, then works to revise or refine the formula until it becomes successful again, and the cycle repeats itself. This is certainly true of Sparks and his approach to writing novels. It has earned him many millions of dollars, however, so it is difficult to argue that he shouldn’t do it.
What one must do then is consider each novel as a literary work. This is a fair way to assess Sparks’s work and to hold him to account for what he achieves – or fails to. Continue reading