Very interesting blog posts on similar topics in the last couple of days from Philippa Ballantine and Jennifer Povey. Kind of interesting because, though they both live in Northern Virginia, I’m not sure they’ve ever met. Their minds seem to think alike, though. Pip wrote earlier today about the incessant argument about which is better, art or commerce:
Here’s the truth of it. Many, many writers have had to walk away from writing, or even died while waiting for some commerce to come their way. My favourite poets died waiting to be paid for the work they did. (I always thought it was a cruel trick of fate that their best career move was shuffling off their mortal coil.) So yes, the people who make their living off writing do not have the luxury of waxing philosophical about art. They make it about work. Craft and passion are damn useful, but the writer is the master of words, the words are not the master of him or her. Art and passion are all very well, but books (at least the ones you plan to sell) must also be a commodity.
Jenna posted yesterday in a similar vein, but she focused on what writers should choose to write, i.e., writing something that appeals to the author vs. writing something the author believes will sell in the current market:
There’s nothing wrong with considering marketability when deciding what idea to work on next. Writing something you don’t enjoy because you think it will sell, though, is likely to produce a low quality book. Following a fad is just going to leave you behind. Write something you enjoy and make it as good as possible – there’s luck involved, of course, but you still have a better chance than by blindly following trends.
Jenna’s message especially resonated with me because I am struggling with my current project. The story idea, aided by a great suggestion from my son Evan, is a solid one. Everyone I’ve described it to has reacted with, “What a cool idea!” And it is. But I’m having trouble working up much passion for it. Consequently, I’ve been picking on it from time to time, not on any particular schedule. I set a goal of finishing it by April 1. Right. Unless I start cranking out 3,000 words a day, every day, that goal is out of reach. I very seldom hit 2,000 words a day. I’m hesitant to abandon a project for which I’ve already written 21,000 words, but I also don’t want to write a low-quality book. Am I writing to market just to put something out? This project is definitely in the speculative fiction area, which is the sandbox that most of the people that I would like to consider my peers play in. I don’t know whether I’m writing to market or just to fit in a genre; I just know I’m not all that fired up about it. This gets back to the points that Pip and Jenna are making. Pip says that we should balance artistic and commercial worth; Jenna is saying we should balance personal passion with commercial interest. Who knows whether anything I type into Scrivener has any commercial potential? I’d like to think it does, but I also laugh at my own jokes. It’s been my observation that people in general tend to look down their noses at those who appear to do something merely for money while justifying their own profit-motivated behavior. Ask anyone on the street if a typical movie star is overpaid and you are likely to get a yes answer. Ask that same person if he or she is overpaid for their work, and they are likely to argue the opposite. We tend to believe our own efforts are under-rewarded while others are receiving undeserved riches for their work. I remember a high school friend bitterly dismissing John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire by saying that, “He wrote it just for the money.” Hah! We all write for the money, or at least the money we hope to get. When I wrote my first (now trunked) novel, I had dreams that it would put my kids through college. Reality: They’ve all taken out student loans. I agree with Jen: There’s nothing wrong with shooting for a paycheck as long as you’re also enjoying yourself. And I agree with Pip: Why not balance artistic sensibilities with potential commercial reward? To switch to another area of the arts, when Bob Dylan first plugged in an electric guitar, folk music purists bellowed, “Sell out!” (a so-called fan in England shouted in the middle of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall that Dylan was a Judas.) Yet, Like a Rolling Stone is truly a work of art, its images of Miss Lonely and diplomats on chrome horses and Napoleon in rags forever burned into our collective consciousness. Did the 24 year-old Dylan write that song for the money or to give artistic expression to feelings of anger and bitterness that were boiling over within him? Possibly, even probably, both. So what? “How does it feel?” he sang. The answer: Pretty fulfilling, on both artistic and financial levels. The whole debate is pointless, as I see it. As a society, we should reward our artists. Would we think less of Emily Dickinson today if she’d sold tons of books while she was still alive? Do we think less of Robert Frost because he achieved fame in his lifetime? Are the works of Stephen King less important than those of Robert E. Howard just because King has realized great wealth from his prose? No, I don’t think so. If you can make some money by writing words that affect people, more power to you. And if you happen to get a thrill out of writing it, even better. If I can get my current project on track, I would love to do both. What do you think?