This past weekend, it seemed like all of the Twitter conversations were about fiction writing, and selling out. It's a weird conundrum: Most advice for writers assumes that you're doing this as a business, and you want to make money at it. But you shouldn't want to make money too badly.
Is there a line between trying to sell your fiction, and just plain selling out? And what's so bad about being a sell-out, anyway?
Images via Vintage Cool on Flickr.
So like I said, there were multiple Twitter conversations about art and commerce this weekend, that I noticed. One of them was on Friday, when Wind-Up Girl author Paolo Bacigalupi tweeted:
What's the point in writing, if you don't get to write whatever the fuck you feel like writing?— Paolo Bacigalupi (@paolobacigalupi) January 4, 2013
And Tim Pratt and John Scalzi, among others, responded that sometimes they need to buy cat food, and sometimes people want to pay you lots of money to write something, and that works out well. This turned into a really interesting back and forth about art and commerce, and how the two aren't really a dichotomy but feed off each other. In particular, Bacigalupi clarified that "I tend to think of it as a formula of Fun + Learning + Cash + Politics + Creative = Whatever-the-Fuck-I-Want-to-Write." And Scott Westerfeld chimed in, saying: "Writing for a big audience can mean more than $$. Some lit experiments improve when put in front of more readers."
(Seriously, you should read the whole thread, which you can probably see here. It won't take that long to read.)
And then on Sunday, Robin Sloan tweeted this great quote from futuristic satirist George Saunders, from Saunders' New York Times Magazine interview. As Sloan says, every artist should be thinking this way:
"I want to be more expansive," Saunders said. "If there are 10 readers out there, let's assume I'm never going to reach two of them. They'll never be interested. And let's say I've already got three of them, maybe four. If there's something in my work that's making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I'd like to figure out what that is. I can't change who I am and what I do, but maybe there's a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I'd like to make a basket big enough that it included them."
This quote got retweeted by Steal Like An Artist author Austin Kleon, and Justin Kownacki responded that it's actually about selling a product, in which case everyone will end up making the exact same product. Wrote Kownacki:
But Kleon responded that trying to broaden the reach of your work isn't necessarily compromising your work, and might actually make your work better (echoing the stuff that Westerfeld was saying in that earlier conversation.) Kleon later tweeted:
The idea that “real” artists only make the work for themselves (take it or leave it, world!) is not only wrong, it's boring.— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 6, 2013
Everyone's a sellout
At least, if you write creative stuff for money, and hope to get an audience for it, you're a sellout to some degree. There's no getting around it. There's some guy somewhere who's writing a million-word novel about slugs who live in space and communicate by manipulating stellar gas, and it takes 100 pages for the slugs to say one sentence of English. And this guy is writing it for himself and only himself, and maybe it's the greatest novel ever written according to some standard or other — but who's going to decide that? What standards do we judge work according to, other than just the consensus of a lot of people, plus vague criteria like, "Do the characters seem to have inner lives?" "Does it move me emotionally?" "Does it have interesting or challenging ideas, that actually develop out of the story?" Etc. We're not good at judging the quality of a work, which is one reason why you need a lot of people to weigh in on something before you get any sense of whether it's actually any good — and even then, people are susceptible to feeding frenzies and herd behavior, where everyone will decide a particular book is the greatest book ever because everyone else thinks so. (Or the reverse: everyone will decide to hate a particular book.)
But the "selling out" thing isn't about whether the work is any good, so much as the question of "artistic integrity." Which assumes a simple model in which the artist has a "vision," that forms perfectly in her head, and she then executes that vision with perfect precision — unless she pauses to think about how best to attract an audience of paying customers, in which case the vision becomes compromised and, I guess, blurry. That business, of having a vision and executing it, describes none of the actual process of creating something from scratch, unless you're some kind of minimalist who writes a six-word story or just paints a big dot on a canvas. Most of us start out with a vision that turns out to be totally unworkable, or we can barely see how to make it happen, and we make about 20 false starts and get lost in the middle. And when we finally get a finished draft, we show it to six of our friends so they can tell us where they think we went wrong.
At the same time, there are ways of selling out that are probably less fun (for the author, and maybe also for the reader) than others.
Like, if you see that everybody's buying post-apocalyptic elf romance novels this month, and you read a bunch of the ones that were just published to try and reverse-engineer a formula and write your own that hews as closely as possible to that formula, you're having fun in one way. You're taking something apart and putting it back together again, with your own spin on it. But maybe you're not exactly going to love the result, the way you would if you came up with a story from scratch. Or maybe you will — everyone's different.
And of course, if you have a story that's absolutely about a gay character or a person of color, and the publisher says they can move 1000 more copies if you make them straight or white, then you're faced with the possibility of putting your name on something that's less authentic or less true to what you set out to create. And if you go along with that, again you may have lost some of what originally made the story live and breathe, in your head.
Most of the time, though, these sorts of choices are much less clear-cut — like when someone tells you that your main character is too unsympathetic. Is that different when you hear it from an editor from a publishing company, versus your friend whom you showed the manuscript to for some feedback? Making your main character more sympathetic will probably, in turn, make the book less "challenging," for some values of "challenging" — but will that make it better or worse? Was Dickens a better or worse writer than Thackeray? Is making your main character more sympathetic an artistic choice or a commercial choice? Or both?
And that's what it comes down to, really — this stuff is hard to talk about, in large part because artistic choices are often indistinguishable from commercial ones. As various people pointed out in the above Twitter threads, the best work is often created in conversation with audiences, not by an artist talking to himself or herself in a windowless room. All art is compromise, too, because we're working with flawed materials and trying to speak the angels' secrets in the language of humans. (Sorry if that last sentence was a bit froo-froo — couldn't think of a better way to put that.)
How do you know if you've compromised too much? Maybe if you get a sick feeling in your stomach. Or maybe if people come up to you and say your last book sucked, and they liked it better when your characters were more flawed and less sympathetic. Maybe you'll never know, for sure. There's a reason writers don't always sleep that well.