Friday, May 17, 2013

Art and Success don't have to be either or

When I read Kendall Grey’s blog post (since deleted, but here’s a screenshot), I was aghast. Once again, I don’t want to go too much into the business side of things on this blog, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say that part of my business strategy is to be gracious and grateful in public for any and all readers I have. My concern about my readers isn’t that they aren’t good enough for me but that they won’t think I’m good enough for them.

Maybe part of this is that I have the opposite problem: for years I tortured myself trying to write something “deep” and “worthy”. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I wanted to write a romance and chick lit novel, but once I did I wrote as if it were, um, my job. (Actually, one of my deepest fears now is that people won’t consider it romantic or chick lit enough.) I didn’t write in these genres because I was trying to make money; I write here because I want to. Hell, a lot of times I want to kick my creative subconscious because it doesn’t want to do erotica, paranormal or YA- you know, the stuff the bookstores are filled with these days. But it doesn’t, and I can’t make it.

And... I am just completely baffled that someone would get upset that they didn’t have any success with three novels that they had out for a year. Really? Because as I understood, the advantage of indie e-publishing is that our stuff is out there forever; we don’t have to hit in a couple of months. We have the luxury of being able to keep writing new things- which is what writers want to do (!)- while we continue to plug our backlist. As with any small business, it’s foolish to expect instant success; if we turn a profit before three years, let’s consider ourselves fortunate.

The other part of what gets under my skin about this attitude- and it’s not just hers- is the denigration of any particular genre. This is just the latest example of someone seeming to believe that if something isn’t “respectable” it can’t be “art” and if something isn’t “high art” it’s not worth considering. Some of the best writers ever take elements from low and high culture and mix them in a way that says something unique about the time they live in.

Take one of my favorite novels: minister sleeps with his married parishioner and gets her pregnant. Instead of claiming the baby, he indulges in a weird and kinky sadomasochistic relationship with the woman’s husband. That’s smut right out of today’s most prurient erotica... but it also happens to be the basic action in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He poached a lot of those plot points from some of seamiest pulp fiction of the 19th century, but the reason we don’t think of it as smut is because he used that action to pin on it themes about sin, redemption, judgment, forgiveness and, perhaps, the endurance of an individual over the regulations of a civilization. Brilliant (and also still one of the best stories I’ve ever read).

Smuttiest classic ever?

What do you want to bet that some of those pulp fiction readers also read Hawthorne’s work, and not just because they liked the implied prurience?

Publishing- even self-publishing- is a business that’s about both money and art. If we make a decision to go after one in a way that we feel is at the expense of the other, that’s something we have to make ourselves comfortable with (and not bitch about in public). But if we want both- if we want more- it’s our job to figure out how to get there. And if we’re creative enough, we will.