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John Shirley just wrote,

"I abound in stories. I always have. The trouble is I can't be troubled to write most of them down, and much of what I think of just isn't commercial. When I was younger, I didn't care if it was commercial. Or perhaps it's more the case that I just assumed that This Fabulous Idea, this Walloping Story, would be loved by one and all, except a few old fuddy duddies who didn't want to hear about junkies and policemen and zoo gorillas floating over the city in clouds of trash and loose furniture when gravity was cancelled out... Or that people didn't necessarily want to read paranoid left wing political allegories--they wanted their cyberpunk to be, well, just cyberpunk, dammit.

Eventually I started getting a clue. Now I spend a fair amount of time deciding what not to try to write. I need to sort through ideas and pick things that have a commercial chance."


It's not a post, I think, that is meant to be something you analyse with a huge amount of depth or time (it's mostly Shirley just blogging to kill some time, possibly while avoiding mapping out an essay... no, wait, that's me) but running in the background is, from the bits I copied, the suggestion that to be a successful writer, you have to put aside the things that you would like to write. Like that paranoid left wing cyberpunk allegory... you have to put it aside because it's just not commercial.

It's not the first time I've heard it. I hear it a whole heap: writers talking about how they didn't write something because it would sell, or they wrote it because it would... and it's just a depressing thing to hear. Sure, there are commercial aspects to consider about publishing, and I don't believe that any writer wants to disappear into the hole that is called 'insane left/right wing politics' and lose their head because their bowls clench in one sudden movement...

But.

But I hear this a lot, and I don't hear writers talking about art. I don't hear about them talking about writing as an art. There's a bit of the old wank backlash against talking about anything is being meaningful, as being something that (in this case) the author set out with the intention of creating not something that he or she could sell, but something that spoke as a work of art.

I'm not saying anything, really. Just thoughts out loud. Maybe it's just that I've been noticing a lot of talk about the commercial aspect--as in write what sells--for the last couple of months.

Comments

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catvalente
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:08 am (UTC)
That passage makes me recoil. I write what I write--I worry about the rest of it later. The art you're talking about--that's all that matters to me.
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:12 am (UTC)
well, that's what matters to me, too. but maybe this is how young writers start (there's not much of a diff between us, i think) and shirley represents how middle aged writers become?

but at any rate, here's a question i've been thinking about: have you seen many writers talk about art lately?
catvalente
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:16 am (UTC)
I hope I never get like that--I doubt I will. I'm pretty used to being the odd duck in the crowd--that freak who actually cares about stuff. How bizarre.

Mmm. No, I hear a lot of talk about what's "edgy" and what the "next wave" is, but I think everyone is so afraid of being called pretentious that they won't use the word "art" in regards to their own work or anyone else's.

Of course, I get called pretentious anyway, so I don't care.
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:28 am (UTC)
well, i hope i don't become like that either. (there doesn't seem much chance, thankfully.) but maybe it is the curse of being a midlist professional writer, however. to be middle aged, have a family, house, whatever, and be a writer--maybe this is what happens.

i think the word art, in relation to writing, needs to come back. yes i do.
catvalente
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:29 am (UTC)
So do I. I guess that makes us a movement. ;)
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 12:35 am (UTC)
we need midgets, then, to advertise and do interviews for us.
catvalente
Jul. 19th, 2004 01:02 am (UTC)
An army of midgets, preaching the word. And the midgets need T-shirts.
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 06:32 pm (UTC)
oh no, i'm not turning my midgets into a branding device :)
bodhichitta0
Jul. 19th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC)
Hmmm. I don't think I have a choice about what to write. I have to write what's "on deck" so to speak. You have to write the next book or story in the mental pile, in my opinion. However, I will agree with the commercial aspect in one respect--I think you need to consider your reader and be kind to them. Not kind as in coddling or as in nice to your characters or not in challenging them but kind in doing what you can to make the story accessible to your reader. And I think if you are kind to your reader, it does inadvertently, make your story more saleable. Ulysses may be a piece of art but it isn't accessible to the majority of readers. East of Eden is art and is a more accessible book. Am I making any sense? Do you care? :-)
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 06:41 pm (UTC)
i don't think that thinking commercially and being accesible to your reader is something that goes mutually together--just as i don't think that being unaccesible necessarily makes your work close to being art.

but i do think, sometimes, that thinking like that makes a writer stop themself from doing what they want, and thus lowers the expectations of what a reader expects, and will take on board as literature. but, you know, that's a real big issue, much larger than what i want to get involved in this morning. heh.
bodhichitta0
Jul. 20th, 2004 07:05 am (UTC)
I agree the two (commercial and accessible) are not joined at the hip by any means. But (in my opinion)there does seem to be a correlation between an accessible story and a commercially successful story, especially in the case of books that are GOOD that have been commerically successful.

Bottomline? To me? You should write what you want to write. You should write whatever pleases you, makes you happy, completes you. You should write the story you need to tell. That is your art. But the reality is, you may never get a publisher or an agent to pick it up. Even then, there are options. And if you are turning out a legal thriller when you REALLY want to write a memoir, well, I think a part of you knows that and your work suffers for it. But what do I know? :-)
benpeek
Jul. 20th, 2004 11:38 pm (UTC)
i dunno, i must be feeling cynical, cause i don't feel that there is much connection between being accessible and commercially successful. i think, however, there is a connection between following a formula that is immediately accessible and it is that formally that is pushed and commercially viable, because people already know how to understand it, and thus don't need to adapt to a new reading scheme...

wow. that was rantish. i must be feeling cynical today.

oh well.

i agree with the rest thou :)
bodhichitta0
Jul. 21st, 2004 07:58 am (UTC)
That may be a bit cynical, but I think you do have a point. (And this is all probably deeper than you wanted to get into in your original post) But what do you think CAUSED people to be more comfortable with a formulaic approach? (I see this as two issues--first issue is that I still do believe there are certain styles of prose that are more traditional that make things kinder to a reader. The second issue, on which I agree with you, is that modern readers seem to like a formula or hook so they don't have to think too much or be challenged too much.)

Do you think it's a general dumbing down of readers or do you think it's because the big publishing houses are now all media conglomerates and not willing to risk anything on the midlist, let alone on a risky novel? Is it the chicken or the egg? When you think how few readers there are anyway (at least in the United States--I don't know any other statistics)what do you think is happening? I mean, I am still grateful when I see someone read Grisham because at least it means they are READING. But maybe that attitude of mine is helping to contribute to all this too.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2004 12:10 am (UTC)
actually, you know, i do have opinion about this, but i figure it's a bit long, so in the next day or so, maybe, i'm going to make a post about it, i think.

indeed.
artbroken
Jul. 19th, 2004 03:40 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a working, commercial writer (and new reader of your LJ)... I gotta eat. My writing work makes up about a third of my income, and that's pretty damn significant. Choosing noncommercial, personal work over something with a guaranteed paycheque is a big risk, and one I've been unable to afford to make over the last few years.

Then again, I have a very unfriendly, unartistic attitude to my work. I don't produce art, I don't have a burning passion to communicate my ideas - hell, I don't even enjoy writing most of the time. But for whatever reason, this is pretty much the only thing I'm good at, and if I ignore that to take up ditchdigging or something there'd be no point to my life. Or something.

Having said all that, I really am hoping to get stuck into a novel by the end of the year, work I'd own and really care about. But I also want to test the waters before I start to see if there is a chance of selling it.
benpeek
Jul. 19th, 2004 06:51 pm (UTC)
hi and welcome, as they say.

anyhow, yeah, i understand the commercial aspect of it. i said that to someone else in the comments--and the truth is, i don't worry about the commercial aspect, but rather about communicating and connecting (that doesn't necessarily make it art, though). and you know, i wouldn't say anyone should go without food, but it seems to me that you just mostly hear people talk about the commcerical side, and hardly ever the other side.
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