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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

Commercial. Art. Commercial Art.

So, is that an oxymoron, or what?

A (very) brief conversation broke out in the comments here recently, which basically wound up with me opining that this writing gig really doesn't pay well enough for anybody to write books they don't like to try to make a living at it. And I stand by that.

But.

You see, the thing is, I am a commercial artist. I prefer to think that the emphasis is on artist, but then again, this is the way I make my living. And I do that by pleasing readers, which means I have to be aware of the impact, both positive and negative, that my books have on people. I write to communicate; I write to tell stories; I write because I love to be read.

Which means that writing for the trunk, or for myself, is pointless for me. Which is why I consider accessibility to be a literary value, as I've said here and there.

But it's also pointless for me to write stories strictly for their commercial value. I could make more money as an office manager, in that case, and have a hell of a lot more time to watch TV. So there's that issue too, and tied up in it is the issue that I write stories because something is bugging me and it won't go away.

The problem is that sometimes the thing that's bugging me is something that maybe isn't all that commercially viable. And I don't get a choice about taking it out of the story. It's not even artistic integrity, really; it's artistic incapacity. We can only write the stories we get, and my stories grow out of an irritation like a pearl around a grain of sand. Without the grain of sand, you don't get the pearl to begin with, andif you try to take it out later, you get gouge marks all over a hollow bit of nacre.

I dunno. This is something I'm going to have to deal with one of these years, because it's the sort of problem that could tank a career. Because the books have to, as they say, stay commercial enough to sell, and to reach readers--but they also need to have the things that satisfy me--what Akira Kurosawa described, if I recall correctly, as the artist's refusal to look away--or I might as well go find a real job.

And then there's the other thing. I think, as an artist, commercial or otherwise, one can't ever afford to stop caring about one's work, or what one's left with is appreciably hollow. If the passion goes out of it, what then? There's a certain pressure, of course, to be as commercial as possible; it's not limited to publishing industry professionals. You see it in amateur and semipro workshops too--people wield phrases like "Editors don't like first-person narratives" or "This is too weird to sell" as whips.

And on one level, that's foolishness. If you write like everybody else, nobody's going to be interested in your work. Because, as stwish once wrote, "You know that you're one in a million / but this city got a dozen more like you." A voice and some cool innovative ideas are good things to have. That mysterious thing they call "freshness."

On another level, that stuff that is a little weird, or cross-genre, or boundary-pushing? It is a bit harder to sell. It's riskier.

So, what do you do?

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Of course, my agent tells me I'm more commercial than I think I am. Which is a good thing, I guess, because I'm maybe a bit too addicted to undermining tropes.

It's a challenging line to walk, I tell you what. And boy would I love to figure out how the heck I could conceal my real intentions under a surface of exceeding commercial slickness, with cool shinies and whizz bangs, because I would love not to have to worry about the price of heating oil. I'm working on this trick; I figure Mark Twain can't be that much smarter than me, can he?

I foresee a long ongoing border skirmish between me and the market forces of commercial fantasy, anyway, no matter what else the future holds.

Comments

I am of the opinion that you can get away with writing anything about pretty much anything as long as you can put something in there that drives people to turn the page. Because it's not the subject necessarily that drives them to do it (turn the page), but tension and one thing in the plot they care deeply about (and, I think, care deeply about finding out about now. Most people mostly just want a reason to turn the page.

It's the the one thing I'd really give a lot to be able to do.
There's also the issue of not driving people away, you see. It's a balancing act.
I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing.
*g* Thank you for commenting!
Verdi was commercial.
Shakespeare was commercial.
Mozart was commercial.
Twain was commercial.
Dickens was commercial.
Dumas was Terrifyingly commerical (and didn't even write all of his own work).
Faulkner mostly sold in supermarkets until someone decided he was Important.

Don't worry about it.
I think you may be misreading my post.

twain

it's not that twain was smarter, and he certainly wasn't better educated, but what he and ambrose beirce and hl menken had was the experience of gringing out thousands of words a day for newspapers, always a deadline, always irate readers...See "The spirit of Tennessee Journalism" Twain's readers in Virginia city were armed, dangerous, and crazed with drink.

it's like the Marx Brothers and Ed Wynn and the other vaudeville guys, eight shows a week and if they didnt like it, they would throw dead cats at you. Not much theoretical underpinning, but solid practical. I just heard the Beatles in HAmburg were playing 10-14 hour days, 15 minutes off every two hours, playing for drunk sailors and mud wrestlers... get good fast doing stuff like that...
Well, if you write a few more reasonably "commercial" best-sellers, eventually people will buy anything with your name on it, and you'll be able to get away with a lot more in the way of "too weird to publish", because you'll have a fan base, aka a guaranteed market.

Personally, my eventual plan does involve writing books I don't love, because I suspect I can turn out tolerably good category romances, which I hope to pay the rent with while working on the much trickier Science Fiction Opuses. I like category romances well enough, they're popcorn, they're escapism, and I'm good at them. I don't love them nearly as much as I do the Ideas - but there's a place for popcorn as well as three-star five-course cuisine in the world, and one's a lot faster and easier to cook.

But there's a couple of strong marketing reasons why I'd do so under two seperate aliases.
Having a "commercial" bestseller is not necessarily going to guarantee the "anything with name on it" sale. There have been several bestselling authors who have not had career longevity, or who have tried new things that were not as successful as their bestselling series.
That mysterious thing they call "freshness."

I would love to hear your thoughts on that one. :)

In my mind you are more the artist, because you are making art. It just so happens that your art is commercially viable. Though I have no advice on how to meet your challenge, I do offer my hopes that you find a way to master that slickness and put forth the shinies and I really look forward to the future products.
I was just thinking about that the other day, and had an idea. I think "fresh" in fiction is writing what people are just barely ready to read.

The world changes. Culture shifts. It might involve women's role in society, what violence does to people, or a new way to understand language. It might be an emerging dialog or a response to stress and disaster, but suddenly the reading public is, for the first time, hungry for something and can't get enough.

I think that's why writers need to look their demons in the face. Even if what they produce doesn't make real-world sense, I think popular fiction is like the dreams of a society; subconscious mutterings about all the things tearing it apart and pulling it together.

Undermining literary tropes (hee I typoed that as tripes) is not without commercial viability. Vide the Cliche issue of some magazine John Scalzi has been putting together.

MKK
I agree with you that accessibility - which is a major (though not the only) piece of commercial success - is an artistic value. And although there are a lot of other factors involved, in a very general and ill-defined way, commercial success is one way of measuring how well your work appeals to people - we do, as the saying goes, vote with our dollars.

My only hesitation is when you talk about concealing your real intentions "under a surface of exceeding commercial slickness," because honestly, what I think that takes most of all is not smarts, and not business acumen, and not the luck to have ideas which magically unfailingly attract the public, but a degree of contempt for that public. It...involves building a, say, four-foot wall between you and your readers - you can still see each other, but you're retaining the privacy to control how much of what you do they can see, and to make sure that everything they see is the show you decide to put on.

I'm not saying that to be an artist is to abandon your privacy, that you have to put every vision you have in you on the marketplace or else you're a hypocrite. I'm not saying that at all. But to go from trying to shape what you want to say in a way that people will hear to making sure they *just* hear what you think they want to hear, and not what you have to say at all--

There. It's like if I'm talking to someone and I disagree with them and I'm getting angry. I don't have to scream and shout to be genuine. I can be civil, and choose what seems worth saying to them and what doesn't, and still be completely present and honest. But if I smile, when I don't feel like smiling at all, and say, "I'm sure you're right," when I'm sure they're wrong, then I've crossed a line. If the person I'm talking to has no relationship with me and I feel no connection to them, then I can do that. But if I have a relationship with the other person, then there's a problem. To me, the idea of concealing what you want to do under a cover of what you think people want to see is essentially a denial of any kind of relationship between you and your audience. And if you don't have a connection with your audience, if you couldn't care less about them, then why publish?

The 'you' here is general, not personal. That's clearly *not* what you, yourself, are talking about doing - all your preceding paragraphs make that clear. I just wanted to poke at why that second-to-last paragraph made me feel so funny.

In any case, I think the dynamic tension between market expectations and your inspiration is probably a very fertile one, from which we will all benefit. I, for one, look forward to it. You see that I am completely heartless, and unsympathetic toward both your ambivalence and your heating bills. Audiences are like that. :)
I feel the loff. *g*

Actually, I'm talking about writing in layers, of course, because if the readers who *want* to get the crunchy bits *don't* get the crunchy bits, then I've failed as well.

Of course, all storytelling is a manipulation of information--what you give the reader, when, and how much. And what you withhold. Or elide.

You know, this writing thing isn't easy.
Well, thank you. *g*

I'm bad about hunting down short stories too: thank dog for collections.

Also, what you said about shoehorns.
Amen. That's all I gotta say.
I just write what I write and if it doesn't sell, it doesn't sell. C'est la guerre.

But at least I have fun.
Let's say you were independently wealthy and did not need to make money with your books. You would still want to write, right?

Would it affect your criteria for telling a good story? Would it affect the goals that you set for yourself as to the quality of your craft? Would it make a difference to the kinds of story you want to tell?
*g* They'd still need to sell to be read, alas.
I'd like to say ""Write what you want to write, there'll be enough of us who want to read it" - but there's an additional twist, which is that publishers don't seem satisfied with "enough" right now. They need to think that they might have the next Harry Potter. And if you aren't published, I don't get to read you. So yes, it's a dilemma, and yes, please keep working on it.