Why don't you just write a 50 Shades?
Behind the question, though, is something more serious and slightly troubling. There's an assumption there that commercial writing of this calibre, because it's so bad, must also be easy. An assumption that anyone can just toss off (see, I'm getting that '50 Shades' vibe already) a little chick-lit or a generic crime or a bodice-ripping historical romance novel in their lunch-time, done and dusted, that's it. And when I look at the prose style and feeble plots of some commercial titles, I can't be too surprised it's generally thought to be easy. I was an editor for a few years for a literary consultancy in England and successful rubbishy novels just made my job even harder - how to tell aspiring authors that their clunky prose, weak plotting and one-dimensional characters needed serious work, when all they had to do was look around them and see tons of already published clunky prose, weak plotting and one-dimensional characters? Why did they have to make improvements if nobody else was doing it?
Why indeed. But bad novels have always existed - probably the majority of novels published are bad ones (I have no statistics to base this on, just a comment from Mary-Beth Lacey once in an episode of Cagney and Lacey. And I stand by that research). A few of them will make it to the big time and serious money. But only a few.
More importantly, those very successful commercial writers tend to do the best they can. They work hard. I interviewed the phenomenally successful Jane Green many years ago. I found her novel as vapid as anything, but I was impressed by her sincerity, her work ethic. She wasn't just tossing off (sorry, again) silly novels in her lunch break - she was working hard, doing the very best she could do. Dan Brown notoriously believes he's a good, literary writer. And is probably perplexed he's not winning any major literary awards.
So it's patronising to assume you can do the same, just because what they're doing looks bad. On the other hand, literary fiction writers shouldn't necessarily turn their backs on commercial possibilities. John Banville writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Joyce Carol Oates writes more commercial thrillers as Rosamond Smith. Even populist authors like Agatha Christie dipped into other, very commercial genres - Christie liked writing romances, and my personal favourite, Jean Plaidy, wrote romances too.
I'd be lying if I said I've never toyed with the idea of doing something more obviously commercial. But what? Well, I'm in agonies every time I see another pile of Tudor romances in the book cupboard of the one of the newspapers I write for. I spent every waking moment from the age of eleven to about thirteen guzzling every Jean Plaidy historical novel I could find. Think you 'discovered' that Elizabeth I had been sexually abused by Tom Seymour, Prof David Starkey? I think not - Plaidy was on to that, years ago! Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Suzannah Dunn, and the latest addition, Elizabeth Loupas, are all raking it in. Not to mention classy Hilary Mantel making literary historical crossover hugely prize-winning...
So if I couldn't do a '50 Shades', then why don't I do a Plaidy? Publishers seem to be crying out for as many Tudor romances as they can get - it's a great, juicy age for women, the Tudor era. Lots of beautiful, vengeful, tragic queens and wives and mistresses, from Anne Boleyn to Lady Jane Grey to Mary Queen of Scots. I just need to find one that hasn't been written about quite so much. Less The Other Boleyn Girl than Another Boleyn Girl You Haven't Heard Of Yet. There's bound to be one, isn't there? Isn't there?