Friday, December 14, 2012

The Horrors of Commerce

Posted by LD Keach on Friday, December 14, 2012

If you haven't heard already, Random House made so much money with its ex-fanfic insta-classic 50 Shades of Grey that the publishing giant was able to give every one of its American employees a $5,000 holiday bonus. 

That's a lot of eggnog.

The arrival of such news—especially when compared to the publishing world's usual we're-all-going-broke moaning—compels this blogger to abandon all the how-to write advice of the past, chuck my Elements of Style out the window, and abandon all hope of a steady writer income unless I can positively answer one question:

Am I writing porn?

Now, I have nothing against porn. I believe it's a viable art form. I've made much of my steady writer income writing for a sex-positive magazine, so it's evident I bear no ill will against written depictions of knockin' boots. (I do, however, have a blind hatred of fan fiction, but that's a topic for another post.) I also have nothing against genre fiction, romance or sci fi or horror (obviously!), or any of those other forms of storytelling that are readily consumed by the masses.

But, news that Random House is paying its secretaries more money in one month than I will ever see for that novel I worked on for two years...well, it gives me pause. It makes me ask myself, why am I even doing this?

Am I writing in hopes to make money? Or am I writing just to make money?

This debate of Art versus Commerce is not a new one. In capitalist societies, art tends to become a consumable; a price is laid upon it, and market forces have to be appeased in order to sell it. Before I get too academic on the subject, I'll just break it down like this: to sell your work, you've got to write something people want to buy. And that something people want may or may not fall in line with your artistic vision. So, what do you do? Do you write the rambling pile of dark stream-of-consciousness nonsense that speaks to your soul, or do you follow genre conventions so that someone, somewhere, may actually read your work?

It's not an easy question. Every writer must decide this for themselves. But, in hopes of aiding my fellow writer's in their discussions with themselves, I will bring up one point.

Reward for your writing does not have to come in cash.

We tend to forget that the things we do have rewards other than a check at the end of the month. And this is especially so with fiction. In publishing, the competition's fierce, the pool is large, and the paychecks are usually slim for everyone except the big Grey dog at the top. This isn't unique to publishing. You'll see this everywhere for any industry that's not curing cancer or taking out the trash. Art, sports, music,'s all the same. So, what happens is, the race is so frantic that newcomers often find themselves dashing blindly for that finish line, the one that says "You Made It!" and is complete with a golden trophy spilling over with coins. In environments like this, we can easily make the assumption that Well Paid = Valuable.

Such is not the case.

Well Paid = Marketable. Something that's marketable can also be valuable, but the two are not necessarily joined at the hip.

Many of us struggle with writing because we think "If I'm not getting hella paid, I must be awful." We think the only way we will have value as writers is if someone downs us in piles of royalties. This couldn't be farther from the truth. The fancy pants literature world thrives on throngs of highly-talented people who write transcendent fiction for little to no money at all. Do a Duotrope search for general Literary magazines and you get 1669 results, only 43 of those pay pro rates. That's like 2%! And, surely, you may say, "But nobody reads those magazines." and you may be right. The traditionally held convention is that art-important literature has smaller audiences than commercial fiction. But that still doesn't stop thousands of writers every day trying to pour their soul out on a page that might reach someone, somewhere.

Why? Because they see the rewards that come from writing outside of commercial success. (Or they're beholden to a certain publishing model that requires them to write noncommercial fiction for free forever until they've bled enough sweat and tears to reach Franzen-levels of high-paying literary fame. But that's also the topic of another blog post.)

Anyway, let's talk about some of these other rewards.

Firstly, it's rewarding to write something you love. It's surprising to hear, in this publishing climate, that it's worth it to write something that pleases you, the writer, even if no one else likes it. If you write something you are proud of, then marvelous! Screw everyone else. I'm dead serious. This is an easy thing to say but, I can assure you, I've done it before and it's awesome. I've written stories that I know are completely unpublishable—I wouldn't submit them if someone begged me to but, believe me no one will ever beg me to—but because I love those stories of mine, I feel a grand sense of accomplishment and worth. It's a really great thing; I suggest everyone try it at least once.

Secondly, it's rewarding to write something one other person loves. Again, not the kind of build-your-audience kind of talk we're used to seeing. But, if you write something that one person loves, you again get that feeling of accomplishment and worth that we tend to equate only with big-name publishing. Try a friend or a relative or a random stranger on some forum somewhere—pick someone you think might love your work. They might love it! If one person loves your work, then you've done the thing that writing is really meant to do—connect people to people, share ideas about life and the world. Or, in our case as horror writers, utterly gross someone out. It's totally worth doing on the small scale.

After that, the rewards just keep coming. It may be that writing is good therapy for you, or just a fun way to spend a weekend. It may be writing is a great way for you and your friends to connect over coffeehouse conversations. It may be that, for one glorious moment, at three-o-clock in the morning with that empty highball glass in one hand and that cigarette in the other, you feel like a real goddamn writer, dammit. It may be the sound of keys clicking is a cool noise. And, maybe you just like having all those typewriters in your house. There are piles of reasons to write aside from money—and, while I don't necessarily advocate all of us give up our dreams of being cash-hound publishing celebrities, it's important that money not be the only reason we write.

If money is the only reason you're writing, then I suggest you ask yourself: Am I writing porn?

Cuz if you're not, you'd better start. The typing pool needs more eggnog.