Monday, November 11, 2013

Art versus Commerce

I belong to two writer's groups on LinkedIn, am a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and I regularly look at writer's blogs. Many of the people who review self-published books are self-published themselves and so  comment on the writing life. A question that seems to come up often is a version of, "How do I write a best-selling novel?"

In an earlier post, I suggested that no one knows what will sell. But if you are interested primarily in selling, then you write the kind of novel the market seems to be buying: a romance, a mystery, a thriller—something in a popular genre that a publisher understands and that a bookstore manager knows where to shelve.

The problem with that approach, it seems to me, is that your book won't be very good unless you love the genre and know its conventions so well you can play with them, thereby setting your novel apart from the flood of romances, mysteries, thrillers, vampires, zombies, and werewolves now being published. Unless your novel is extraordinary, you will have difficulty finding a publisher and engaging an audience. Even if it is extraordinary, it may not sell.

The other approach, of course, is to ignore the market and simply write the best book you know how, trusting that your work will find a publisher and readers. These thoughts were provoked by Alice Munro's award in October of the Nobel Prize in Literature. A recent search of the University of Texas archives turned up Munro's rejection letters. As The Daily Texan reported, "One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, Lives of Girls and Women, in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. 'There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,' Jones wrote."

Senior lecturer Brian Doherty, who taught a entire course on Munro, said, “[It’s] depressing when you consider so many writers change their approach to writing and their approach to literature in order to increase salability. You have to really respect the writers who labor in obscurity because they believe in what they’re doing even though they might not get notoriety or Nobel Prizes.”

So I guess the question I ask is: Is it better to labor in obscurity because you think you can sell to a market, or because you want—need—to tell a story whether the market thinks it's salable or not?

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