Last week, the internet got itself into one of its all too frequent tizzies. You probably don’t remember, as by the time this one blew over there was another one already brewing up. Or several. Like the green-garbed supervillain outfit HYDRA in the old Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD comics. Cut off one head, many more will take its place. But this was one I got interested in. It was about the concept, and indeed practice, of selling out.
Now, selling out is something that’s been around as long as selling has. If not before. One of the earliest historical examples that I know of concerns Galileo. This is a very truncated form, as filtered through Bertolt Brecht’s version of events. As you probably know, Galileo worked out through his calculations that the world was in fact round not flat and that we orbited the sun, not the other way round. At the time the Catholic Church was running the show and he presented his findings to them. They objected, said it contravened what they were teaching. Contradicted their version of the word of God. If word got out about it they would lose their authority. Yes, argued Galileo, but the world is round and it orbits the sun. And that’s a fact. Fine, said the Catholic Church. You tell people that fact and we’ll have you killed. Okay, said Galileo. The world is flat and the sun orbits us.
Now, did Galileo sell out? Or did he take the prudent and sensible option in order to protect his own life? It’s easy to take a morally highhanded approach about this years later when your life’s not in any danger and say yes, he did sell out. But I like to think that he did what most of us would do presented with that situation. Compromise. Live.
Which brings us to the latest handbags episode on the internet. There was this: http://io9.com/5973921/how-to-write-fiction-for-money-without-selling-out-too-much
And then this: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/01/08/thoughts-on-selling-out/ If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read all that, let me paraphrase. A writer got annoyed by the fact that other writers were openly writing books to make money from them and gain readers. This, he saw, was a gross violation of what a writer was supposed to be doing. ‘What’s the point in writing,’ he said ‘if you don’t get to write whatever the fuck you feel like writing?’ Cue internet perfect storm.
This reminds me of a BA creative writing student in a university class I was teaching. I was chatting to them about writing, the craft of it, the art of it, the business of it, all that. One student, who clearly didn’t think I knew what I was talking about, piped up and told me I had everything wrong. That maybe what I was talking about was okay for me because I was writing crime fiction (Or possibly ‘just’ crime fiction. If he didn’t actually say that, that was his attitude.). He was going to be different. He was going to write what he wanted, when he felt inspired to do so. And publishers would be so grateful for him doing this they would offer him loads of money. He would then be a bestseller and get brilliant reviews. Yes, he said all this with a straight face, while sneering at my crime novels. I had two options – tell him the truth about what he had just said, or wish him the best of luck with his career. I wished him the best of luck with his career. This was a few years ago. At the time of writing this, the world hasn’t heard from him. Maybe he hasn’t been in a position to be inspired enough to be brilliant yet. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
I thought of him when I read all the pieces about selling out. I think it’s a tired, tired old argument and I really have no time for it, or for the kind of writers who argue in its favour. I don’t care if they’re well known or obscure.
So let’s look at this. What actually is ‘selling out’? What does it constitute? Well, the naysayers would have you believe that selling out means prostituting your art in order to reach a wide audience. Or a wider audience. Or any audience, even. Diluting your talent just to sell books. Just? Just? What else are we supposed to be doing? Sorry if that comes across as blunt and to the point. But there you go. I can’t see the point in a writer toiling in obscurity, writing their heart out (sometimes literally – stress and chest pains are all part of the job) just to be ignored. Or not published. Or left unread. What’s all the pain been for if no one else will ever read it? And why should it be seen as diluting? It’s just accepting a challenge to do something differently. If you regard whatever talent you have as something so rigid and immobile it can’t be bent into different shapes or used to see other perspectives, then it’s not much of a talent, is it?
Ah yes, the artist writer would say, my work is pure because it is not commercial. Because it is not popular. And therefore it is better because of it. And my response would be, ‘Tell that to Charles Dickens’. As everyone knows, Dickens wasn’t just hugely popular in his day, he was also regarded – and still is – as a literary giant. Popularity and literature are not mutually exclusive things.
Want a (slightly) more recent example? Or several? Jim Thompson. David Goodis. Charles Willeford. These men all wrote for money and they wrote fast. They didn’t deny it, didn’t try to hide the fact. They worked in the paperback original market, the most commercial of commercial part of publishing. They didn’t apologise for it, didn’t make excuses about it. But they turned out some of the most extraordinary fiction of the Twentieth Century while they were doing this. Not every time, admittedly, but then neither does Jonathan Franzen. I’m sure you can find examples of your own to use.
Did any of these writers compromise in order to be published? Probably. Did any of them say the world was flat when they knew it was round? No. I don’t think so. They did what the best writers always do. They communicate shared truths about the human condition from writer to reader. They just happen to do it in the guise of hardboiled novels of suspense. Could they be considered sell outs? Only by the more precious. What they actually did, was sell. And in huge quantities.
Now having said all this, I’m sure you can tell which side of the line I come down on. Because seriously, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. But then I know why I write. Or most of the reasons.
I write crime fiction, for the most part. I write thrillers and mystery. Do I think I’m selling out if I want to sell? No. I know the market I’m working in. I’m not naïve or under any illusions. I write the kind of books that I hope people want to read. Should that mean I’m writing the kind of books I don’t want to write? Of course not. Why should the two things be mutually exclusive?
I accept the genre conventions. I know that they’re there for a reason. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. And the end has to satisfy. The murder – if there is one – has to be solved. The reader has to feel like they haven’t wasted their time. Like Chekov’s gun – if it’s there in the first act it’s got to be fired by the third. I know all this. I knew it when I made the contract. And not just with the publisher but with the reader too.
But, and here’s the bit the artist writers have trouble with, am I compromising what I want to write? I don’t think so. I’m telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. At the same time I’m accepting market conventions because I want the books to sell. It’s still me writing them. It’s still me in them. My heart, my head, my life. I still want to write about the truth of the human condition. I just want to entertain people with a crime story at the same time. I think this is something we all do and accept, irrespective of what line of work we’re in. You could make the most brilliant computer the world has ever seen. But if you’re such a purist you refuse to make a keyboard to go with it you may as well not have bothered.
I want my work to be read. There, I’ve said it. And if they’re honest, so does every other writer who has ever written or ever will write. Unless there’s something wrong with them. My friend, the brilliant Christa Faust, summed the whole thing up perfectly on Twitter last week: ‘As a proud pulp hack, I don’t get the whole selling out thing. Why shouldn’t I use my skills to make a living?’
And then she aced it with this: ‘It’s easy to make high falutin’ “art” when mom still does your laundry. The rest of us need to pay our own bills.’
Perfect. I’m sure even Galileo would agree.