I’ve had an epiphany of sorts lately, or at least a turn-about in my perspective that I would describe as radical. In short, I’ve embraced the effect of market forces on the arts, and on writing in particular. Heretofore, I’d stubbornly held onto the idea that writers were creating a private vision, nurturing a subtle relationship with an intimate muse. More to the point, I disparaged the market, oh cruel, unappreciative, capricious market, forcing writers to live and work in anonymity but with integrity. Something like that.
I certainly didn’t see the writer as a business person. Why should the writer, who must daily summon the courage to dredge her soul–and that of her neighbors–also worry about marketability, profitability, and spreading the word about a product so worthy as the book?
All this has changed, and more.
Think of Michelangelo. He didn’t wake up one day with a vision to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This was no quirky artistic impulse, some sort of installation project. No–it was a commercial job, an assignment. Nonetheless, he created immortal art on the job, prone on scaffolding, painting the hand of God. People have lain on their backs for money and done worse.
Raymond Carver produced many a short story because he had a wife and kids and had to pay his rent in Chico, California. Do we wish he’d had the leisure to forgo that writing?
I’ve mentioned that I’m taking a marketing course, one that has integrity and even love writ into its principles. I’ve been studying how you think about what you do, how you talk about what you do, whom you serve, how what you do addresses the urgent needs and compelling desires of your clients. Then I’ve been thinking about how all of this business sense applies to fiction.
Are writers service professionals?
I pose this question and all my old objections surface: the originality and honesty of the writer must not be compromised by some sort of base grappling with supply and demand.
But Charles Dickens rewrote the ending to Great Expectations to please his editors and the audience of this serialized tale. Shakespeare stooped to greatness to garner a laugh from the rowdy crowd.
The parenting angle of this rant is this: I am solidly out of the self-centered musing and exploration of my solitary youth. Everything I do is in relationship. Demand and supply. Demand and supply. It’s humanizing. The expression “navel-gazing” itself might remind us that we were, each of us, nurtured into being from somebody else’s body. That very belly-button of solitude is the site of our first and most dependent inter-relationship.
What happens to a book when its author is concerned with attracting readers?
First, it means the characters must be fascinating, the plot enticing, the language compelling, the world drawn so that the reader is drawn in. None of this is bad for art. If we are modern-day Scheherazades, tale-telling to save our lives, our lives dependent on the continued interest of our listeners and their insatiable curiosity–fed by our craft–to know what will happen next, does this repel the intimate muse? Is she the sort who will not let you take her out in public? Who will not kiss you on the dance floor? Beware the finicky muse. She will not supply your bread and butter.
David Mamet said, “If you have something to fall back on, you will.” And yet by setting the writing to one side and the money-earning, world-facing self to another, we force ourselves to fall back on something else. The most prolific writers I know have a working-class work ethic. Work doesn’t surprise or offend them, and they understand that writing is work–making it and selling it.
A cousin of my great-grandfather invented the heating and cooling system for the Ford. My great-grandparents moved into a small apartment with this man and his wife, so that they could live inexpensively, and they all worked–my great-grandmother made hats and sold them door-to-door–so they could invest in the company that would make these heating and cooling systems. They became very rich, and it’s taken three or four generations to turn that fortune into the exhaust fumes of family bickering.
But what if the inventor of the heating and cooling system had felt that the effort of thinking of the thing was enough, was all that he could be expected to do? What if my great-grandmother made hats but did not want to sell them, wanted them to sell themselves by dint of their beauty and worth?
My communist, trust-funder grandmother may be rolling over in her newly minted grave as I extol the virtue of market forces on art, but if she’d been forced to complete her decades-long project, a screenplay about the Haymarket martyrs, the world would be a better and a richer place, both. If she’d been hungry not only in her soul but in her stomach, she’d have accomplished more.
It is a false luxury and a disservice to imagine that you do not have to peddle your wares if what you make is art. If you were making a better spark plug, you’d have a business plan. It’s time for writers to do the same.
One final note: perfectionism is the bane of really good writers, and market forces do a funny thing. They force you to get your best work out in front of people. They support greatness and push against perfectionism. This is a gift no writer can afford to turn down.