Are You Gonna Write for Money or Art?

Towards the end of 2012, Publishers Weekly named E L James as its Publishing Person of the Year. This nugget prompted a minor rant from me on the subsequent Unprintable podcast. My beef was that all James had done to earn the accolade was sell a lot of books. What about those, like Hilary Mantel, who stood out from the crowd because of the quality of their work? Mantel had just won the Booker Prize for the second time, the first female author to achieve this and only the third overall. I felt she deserved the recognition that James received.

After the podcast, it struck me that the James/Mantel issue neatly captures one of the basic unbreachable divisions in the publishing world: that between commercial and literary fiction. This isn’t a false dichotomy. Commercial fiction, the type which gets the sales, contains at best prose you could describe as efficient. Literary fiction, the sort Mantel produces, wins wide praise for its technique, but even when successful it makes sales which would barely raise a ripple on the surface of the commercial pond (the difference in numerical form is stark: Bring Up the Bodies (Mantel’s Booker winner) – sales of 105,000; Fifty Shades of Grey – sales of 35,000,000).

The same split occurs in almost every area of human activity: gourmet versus fast food, chain stores versus boutiques, mass produced versus bespoke. As the producers of the literary product, it’s a question all writers must confront: which team am I going to bat for? The filthy-lucred world of commercial fiction? Or the remote ivory towers of literary fiction?

Much will depend on your individual preferences and talents. But step back from those petty concerns for a moment and see if the bigger picture might influence your view.

Three good reasons to go commercial

#1 A book in the hand is worth seven on the shelf

In 2009, the US Education Department released figures which showed that one in seven adults -- that’s around 32 million people -- are illiterate. The reasons for illiteracy are complex, but if you rule out disorders such as dyslexia, one of the key predictors of ‘reading success’ is whether you had a bookshelf in your childhood bedroom.

Grow up with parents who don’t read and there’s a good chance you won’t learn yourself. It’s a correlation which applies beyond illiteracy: the more your parents read, the better a reader you will become.

Mass market paperbacks – the stuff that finds its way into shopping trolleys – also finds its way onto shelves. Easily digested and cheap, these books are not works of art, but they are still books and every single one contains the possibility of making a committed reader of a child.

When a book becomes a phenomenon, like Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades, the effect gets people into bookstores who have never stepped into one before. And who knows? If they like what they find between those covers, they might be back for more.

#2 Bread on the Table

Publishing is an industry (a very big one: in 2010 the market size for book publishing in the US was estimated at $27.9 billion) and as with all industries, the more product sold, the stronger that business will be and the safer the jobs within it. Given that we as writers all want to get paid, the healthier the publishing industry, the more likely it is we will make a living.

The big sellers, like Fifty Shades and its myriad less celebrated (but still very popular) companions, effectively subsidize every book which fails to earn out its advance. Those books make the industry less risk averse and more likely to take a punt on books like yours.

#3 Storytelling is what counts

Terrible prose. This is the accusation most often leveled at best sellers, in turn spawning a whole sub-industry of blogs and spoofs (Fifty Shades is not only the most sold, but also has to be the most lampooned publication of all time). The Da Vinci Code, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Amanda Hocking’s self pubbed breakthrough Hollowland have all been hacked to pieces by reviewers, and anyone who has done more than turn a couple of their pages will know that the criticisms are justified. Not a single one of these examples comes within a country mile of being well written.  

They also have another feature in common: excellent hooks. As writers we might be able to eviscerate the opening sentences of The Da Vinci Code, but no one can deny that they set the scene for a page turner with oiled efficiency: ancient mystery, creepy assassin, victim with a deadly secret. Twilight might be slower moving, but it pulls the canny trick of recognizing that the vampire myth makes perfect material for those most love-bite-obsessed of readers: teenage girls. Fifty Shades effectively updates Twilight for an adult audience. If the primary purpose of books is to tell a story, then commercial fiction does just that, in the most economical and attractive way possible.

Three good reasons to go literary

#1 Setting the Standard

While all writers aspire to readability (except James Joyce), that doesn’t mean we aspire to the lowest common denominator either. Good writing doesn’t have to be flowery or overcomplicated. As writers from Hemingway to Steinbeck demonstrate, quality work can be as mean and streamlined as a tiger shark.

Literary fiction might not have the immediacy or grab of its commercial rivals, but it sets the standard for those works. The only reason we are in a position to judge the awfulness of certain bestsellers is that we have excellent writing to use as a comparison, and that same excellent writing should act as a spur to all writers to produce their best. Without good writing, we have no benchmark, no safeguard against mediocrity. A world without literary fiction would be a world where everyone’s idea of fine dining was a burger and fries at the Cheesecake Factory.

#2 Pushing the envelope

This is where Joyce comes in. The main complaint leveled at literary fiction is that it’s ‘difficult,’ and while most authors operating at the ‘Booker’ end of the scale produce sentences of perfect clarity, their focus is often more on technique than story. Reading Joyce or Foster Wallace or Pynchon requires an effort of concentration which most readers (who after all, are seeking relaxation rather than a mental workout) are unwilling to make.

The point of technically complex, demanding prose is not to drain its audience of the will to live, although it can often feel that way. It’s to explore the boundaries of what prose can achieve. Joyce’s breaking of the fiction rules was so profound that we mark his work as the dawn of the modern novel. Without his brain-bogglingly difficult books, fiction would still be the ponderous, expository beast found lurking in the pages of Dickens, Wharton and Conan Doyle. Such seismic shifts in our conception of what writing can and should be are rare, but smaller adjustments happen all the time, being absorbed into the zeitgeist and gradually transforming not just literary fiction but all fiction, even the pulpiest romances.

#3 Deep Impact

A small market is still a business opportunity. Even if the crème de la crème sells in the hundreds or thousands instead of the hundreds of thousands, it still generates a profit and it still deserves a place on the shelf. Books written with care and skill and ingenuity may not generate a massive profit for those who create or sell them, but they give pleasure to those who read them and pleasure is a commodity we can’t put a price on.

And to move the argument a step further: if your work only connects with a hundred readers instead of a million, but those hundred connections are a million times more profound, then who’s to say the latter is more worthwhile than the former? We know books change lives (many of us from personal experience); we also know that the books which have that effect aren’t at the commercial end of the scale. We might read Animal Farm or The Lord of the Flies and come away from the experience with a changed and probably more accurate view of human nature. We are unlikely to put down the latest Jack Reacher novel and feel we now have a deeper understanding of the human condition.

So with these thoughts in mind, as a writer, when you reach the place where two roads diverge in a yellow wood, one marked ‘commercial fiction,’ one marked ‘literary fiction,’ which will you choose?

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Comments

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer January 7, 2013 - 3:32pm

I am going to write whatever I write as well as I can write it, and hope I get paid for it.

I have no problem with being considered commercial fiction. I think there are some people who are two quick to jump on a book as being garbage just because it is "commercial" and vice versa. If it is a good book, it is a good book. One of art's prime directives is to entertain. There is nothing wrong with it.

One of its other directives is to affect our understanding of the world around us. That's great, too. But if no one reads it, what did it really change? Lord of the Flies is an interesting example. It may have only sold 3,000 copies upon its initial release, but a decade later it sold 65,000.

Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies, and it is definitely art. There have been a lot of writers throughout history that wrote art and made a very good living doing it.

However, I don't think any of us really have much of a choice over whether we write something that is successful commercially or artistically. All we can hope is that it is sucessful, at all. Ultimately, we have no say in the matter. Our abilities and our audience will decide that for us.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David January 7, 2013 - 3:33pm

I write to write.

So far I've written a variety of genres. It's fun to explore as I develope my skills. The day will come someone buys my work. If that work is a low-brow action thriller then so be it. If it sells I will write more.

 

It's all about story-telling. Writing is a solo act, once our stories go into the world they do not belong to us any more. They are shared.I will never understand the gulf between writers whose work sells, and those writers who are "respected" yet are only published by small presses. People will read stories that interest them, or will read stories that their friends are reading ( Fifty Shade, Harry Potter, etc). It's that way with music and art too. I mean how many prints of poker playing dogs are hanging on walls around the world?

John Madden used to tell his Raiders: It doesn't matter if the Ox is blind, just keep loading the cart. So I just write, and hope.

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books January 7, 2013 - 4:13pm

Preaching to the choir, but this is my two cents.

I see no reason why a writer has to firmly decide on which camp they fit into.

If it suits your needs; if you need to put money on the table with your writing, then go all out and hunt down those commercial numbers. On the flip side, if you want to experiment and be bold; go for it.

Bogging yourself down with ideas of what literature must be is futile. There's a niche for everyone out there and we have the freedom to go between them as little or as often as we want.

 

AM Gray's picture
AM Gray from Australia is reading The Book of Blood and Shadow, by Robin Wasserman January 7, 2013 - 8:11pm

If you want to write as a full time job, then it needs to earn you an income. Unless you already have money, or have a working partner who doesn't mind you sitting in front of a keyboard all day; it's just common sense.

I heard a LOT of people say 'I haven't read a book for years but I loved...' (50 Shades, Da Vinci code etc) And reading those is, as you say, a start. Cross fingers that they go buy something else to read, and then another author after that.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 7, 2013 - 8:58pm

Rather than act like I'm actually ambivalent about my writing goals, I'll just say I don't write "for" either.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life January 7, 2013 - 9:17pm

I don't believe in Beatles I just believe in me.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 8, 2013 - 1:14am

I'm not really sure how to view this. I've been in several heated debates with one of my professors about this subject. More from the perspective of reader than writer. He is into the Ivory Tower novels and I would be content reading The Hunger Games. Does that mean I can't appreciate literary fiction? No. I just spent a weekend reading Faulkner for fun and one of my favorite scenes in a book is in Kafka's The Trial. As a reader, I want my books to fall somewhere between commercial and literary. The book should have a great story and great prose, but still be accessible at some level. My feelings about Fifty Shades of Grey are pretty well known. I hate the damn thing, because there is very little plot and horrible prose. It also offends as a feminisit.

As a writer, I don't sit down and think "I'm going to write a commercial (or literary) book today". I just write and try to tell the story in my head to the best of my ability. It has always been my goal to write something that I would enjoy reading. A lot of writers say the same thing: I write for myself first. Maybe that makes me commercial, I don't really know.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 8, 2013 - 1:19am

Ugh. Double post. I hate when it does that.

Devon Robbins's picture
Devon Robbins from Utah is reading The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones January 8, 2013 - 5:03am

Jack Campbell Jr. has his shit together.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 8, 2013 - 5:13am

I wish I could write literary fiction, but really, I write pulp - and it's fun. I just have to accept that pulp is fun, and enjoy reading the literary works that others are good at.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer January 8, 2013 - 8:50am

I hope that when I get my novel finished, I can get someone to say "Jack Campbell Jr. has his shit together." as a blurb. I would use it for the rest of my life.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 8, 2013 - 9:10am

I also realized that pulp is neither art nor money.

Bertrand Lexcellent's picture
Bertrand Lexcellent January 8, 2013 - 11:13am

Why choose? Maybe the new writer's challenge lies in this choice. Maybe we can write for money AND art. Give it a thought, because it is not because it works in a certain pattern that we have to work in this path.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated January 8, 2013 - 1:39pm

In college I worked for a caterer and I realized we shared food with a cafeteria. The difference was the plates and the room it was served in. Or in short marketing.

I'm not denying there is a difference in the way people think about the works, or bibliophiles wouldn't be able to pick out a known author who'd been repackaged. I'm just not so sure that literary fiction is any different then sci-fi or mystery; a genre with rules that are different then any other genre. You can break a few as a twist, but mostly the rules (solidly written sentences, extraordinary people in ordinary situations, weak over arching story to avoid crowing out the slice of life moments/character development, and maybe one strange 'fact' to help show the view on humans/the world/life/a place/idea) are observed.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables January 8, 2013 - 4:35pm

Both. 

Devon Robbins's picture
Devon Robbins from Utah is reading The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones January 9, 2013 - 7:57am

Jack- 

Hopefully mine will be done too. Then we can both have our shit together.