Columns > Published on January 7th, 2013

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?

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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