Art versus Commerce or Selling Out

Apparently, the hot topic du jour in the online SFF sphere these days is selling out.

As far as I can tell, the whole discussion was kicked off by Paolo Bacigalupi and a bunch of other SFF writers on Twitter. Bacigalupi basically stated that he couldn’t see the point in writing, if one couldn’t write whatever the hell one wants, while John Scalzi and Tim Pratt responded that sometimes it is necessary to earn money, too. The exchange caught the eye of Charlie Jane Anders who took up the topic at iO9 and came to the conclusion that commercial and artistic decisions cannot always be clearly delineated from each other. Finally, John Scalzi laid out his position again in greater detail at Whatever. Basically, he says that in his view selling out is often the result of fear (“Make this book more commercial or you’ll never work in this town again”), that he does not consider himself a sell-out, because he deliberately designed his books to have as broad an appeal as possible (fair enough) and that what looks like selling out from an outsider’s POV may just be availing oneself of opportunities opening up from the artist’s POV (again fair enough).

On a related note, today I came across this article on “the future of fiction” by writing and lit-blogger Jane Friedman (found via The Passive Voice). Basically, Friedman distinguishes between genre fiction – which she calls commodity fiction – which is churned out quickly with little regard to quality and consumed just as quickly by enthusiastic readers who go through several books per week. Genre fiction is just an interchangable commodity to Janes Friedman and ideally suited to self-publishing because of its ephemeral nature. Meanwhile, serious literary fiction and narrative non-fiction still requires a traditional publisher, because they’re niche rather than mass products. Not that Ms. Friedman really cares about the fate of the novel at all, because she doesn’t read fiction anymore, she only reads narrative non-fiction and satisfies her story cravings by watching Breaking Bad and The Wire, preferred viewing of douchebags everywhere*.

Now Ms. Friedman is not actually anti-selfpublishing – quite the contrary in fact – yet her article infuriated me more than some anti-selfpublishing diatribes I’ve read in the past. Because Ms. Friedman basically sounds like regurgitated 1970s pop culture criticism. Genre fiction is trivial crap, put together according to a formula from tried and true tropes like a construction kit. Oh yes, and it creates a false consciousness in the working class, too (Okay, so Friedman did not say that), because it does not dwell upon the real world injustices facing the working class all the time). I got that crap or third rate regurgitations of that crap from my German teachers in the 1980s and refuted it by stating that writing narrative non-fiction about how Turkish immigrants in Germany are mistreated and exploited (a reference to Ganz Unten by investigative journalist Günther Wallraff, a book which was considered hugely important in the 1980s, and which seems strikingly similar to Ms. Friedman’s favoured work of narrative non-fiction by the unfortunately named Katherine Boo**) did not exactly require anything in the way of imagination, because – duh – everybody who wasn’t completely stupid could see that. However, setting the whole story in space and making the exploited and mistreated immigrant an alien or a clone, now that was much more artistic. Years later, at university, I came across the yellowing tomes of 1970s pop culture criticism from which those teachers quoted their judgments on popular fiction, sometimes verbatim (Whatever happened to “Question everything”, I wonder). So yes, Ms. Friedman really seriously pissed me off, because she reminds me of people who made my teens miserable ny disparaging the books I loved. Never mind that Ms. Friedman promotes attitudes that are just plain toxic. Any writer, whether Katherine Boo (who probably doesn’t deserve my instant dislike of her) or the author of a “Fuck me, stepdaddy” erotic short, tries to make their work as good as it can possibly be. Most authors I know, whether indie or trad, labour long and hard to produce the very best work they can. Yes, some writers are faster than others, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about quality. And even the most commercially minded of indie authors are very concerned about quality.

As for myself, I already laid out my view on this subject in this post over at Pegasus Pulp more than a year ago and my views haven’t changed much since then. A lot of people, including some of my old writer pals from university, would probably consider me a sell-out, because I write mainly genre stuff and I write a lot of it and publish a lot of it, whereas among those people writing 30000 words a year was considered freakily prolific (I wrote more than ten times that in 2012 alone).

Nonetheless, I write mainly what I want to and not just what I think will sell. For example, my steady bestsellers are my historicals, because apparently the combination of young women in danger, graphic violence and a bit of sex is irresistable to a lot of people. What is more, two of my most popular stories, Seraglio and Under the Knout, are stories I never particularly cared for. I wrote them specifically for a magazine specializing in vaguely erotic pulp action in the style of the men’s adventure mags of the 1960s. Turned out I was pretty good at writing that sort of thing, so any story written for that market was pretty much a guaranteed sale. The pay wasn’t all that much, but hey, I was getting published and paid for it. So yeah, I wrote those stories for money. And while I’m quite fond of some of the stories I wrote for that mag, I really did not care much for either Seraglio or Under the Knout. And indeed I wasn’t certain whether to republish them at all and the current editions are significantly different (more agency for the female characters and a more upbeat ending) from the originals. Nonetheless – and Ms. Friedman was be astonished by this – I strove to make those stories as good as I could make them.

So if I was completely commercially minded, I would write more historicals and specifically more stories like Seraglio and Under the Knout which appeal to someone’s sexual kinks. And indeed, well-meaning people in my life sometimes tell me I should write more stories about harem girls or whipped Russian dancers (I’m amazed I managed to write one story about that). However, a funny thing happened approx. a year after I had come across that magazine whose editor really liked my stories. Because I suddenly ran out of ideas for writing spicy pulp action in which beautiful young women are threatened with grisly fates and saved by manly men (or not). I summoned up every half-baked sexual fantasy I ever had based on some historical movie I’d seen as a kid, but try as I might, I just couldn’t write any more of the damned things. I made a couple of false starts and dug those up again, once I started indie publishing, but the truth is that I can still write historicals with erotically charged action only in very limited quantities. I always jot down every new idea I get, but I only write them when I feel like it. On other days, I write things which are far less commercially successful, but much closer to my heart.

For example, at the moment I’m writing the first installment in series of loosely connected space operas telling the story of the great Rebellion against the evil Empire ™ from the POV of various people who took part in it. And though space opera is a commercial genre, my own attempts at SF never sold very well (or at all in the case of Whaler, the story that no one seems to want). So commercially speaking, writing SF is probably a bad move. Nonetheless, I’m having a blast.

*Several years ago, when The Wire was still on the air, I said to a really obnoxious (Is there any other
kind?) proclaimer of The Wire as the best TV show ever that The Wire was favoured mainly by white middle class poseurs whose sole experience of “the ghetto” was taking the tube all the way to Brixton. He was not amused.

**In the comments, someone points out that Katherine Boo’s book will likely be forgotten in ten years time, while the commodity fiction so disdained by Ms. Friedman may well turn out to have staying power. Coincidentally, the very same thing happened to Günther Wallraff and Ganz Unten. Because some ten years after Ganz Unten was first pzublished, the book happened to come up in a discussion in a sociology class at university and except for me, the professor and two students who were significantly older, no one in the class had ever heard of it. Issue books tend to have a short shelf-life, even if the actual issue still persists. Meanwhile, the Stephen King books that we should not read, because they were bad cookie-cutter crap, are considered genre classics by now. Not that I could ever go “neener, neener, told you so” to the teacher in question, because he’s dead.

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2 Responses to Art versus Commerce or Selling Out

  1. Daniela says:

    I always find this debate of art versus commerce rather strange. Art was always coupled with commerce. Shakespeare wrote a number of his plays with an eye on what would please the Queen/King and thus sell. Same with any other number of writers, muscisians, and painters. Some of the great masterpieces were created on order. I think that’s something people often forget.

    I have a friend who writes stuff that to me either reads as if she just threw words together in the hope that they make sense or where I want the cliff notes just to get an idea of what’s she’s trying to say. She’s getting a lot of praise for her work and has even won some prices, but she knows and openly admits that’s she’ll never be able to live from her writing and that having to work the whole day slows her writing down even more (she writes one poem of flash-fiction piece in the time I write a short story or short novella). I also refuse to accept that she puts more work into her poems and novels than I do, especially when I consider the research that goes into my fantasy and SF work or even the research I do for my romance and erotic stories. Or how I sometimes agonize about wording especially when dealing with a limited vocabulary. So yes, that attitude also pisses me of as well.

    But honestly? After a stressful day I don’t want to think to hard. I want to kick back and relax with a book that takes me away into a different world and helps me to decompress.

    So I’m with Scalzi to some extend, because I like his business-approach. Writers too have to pay rent and health-insurance and buy food. We don’t live on air and love (that sounds much nicer in German ;-) Luft und Liebe). Or actually I’m more with you, finding a balance between things I want to write simply because I well want to write it (having a blast while doing so) and things that might be more ‘commercial’ and sell better.

    And honestly, I would rather be Stephan King and have his bank-account than Günther Wallraff and have a cupboard full of awards. Okay, not quite true. Some day I would love to win a Hugo or Nebula. Actually just getting nominated for one would be great :-D. But I guess no-one outside the genre-community in Germany would care about a Hugo or even the DPP.

    And to do that I need to write some more before calling it a night :-).

    • Cora says:

      The only writers who can claim to have written purely for art are people like Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote for the drawer and never published a single poem during their lifetimes. Everybody else is at least selling out to some degree. And really, who’d want to be Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins?

      I know my share of slow literary writers as well. Some of them are good. Some of them are not to my taste at all. Are they necessarily better just because they are slow? I honestly doubt it.

      And I’d much rather be Stephen King than Günther Wallraff either. It’s not that Wallraff’s books weren’t valuable in exposing all sorts of social injustices. Similarly, Katherine Boo’s book may well be valuable. But books like that tend to fade quickly, once the social issue they tackle is no longer fashionable. I was stunned to see one of my students reading Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo lately, because it was such a big, topical book of the early 1980s that is no longer all that relevant today, even though we still have drug problems.

      And of course, writing more is always a good strategy. :)

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