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Whore or Wife: The Divide between Artist and Money-Maker

21 Oct

Reading Widely

Though I have a Masters in English and the reading list that comes with that (McCarthy, Conrad, Melville, Hawthorne, Morrison, Walker, Hurston, Crane, Sexton, Clifton, Woolf, Joyce, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Dickinson, Sidney, etc. & etc., and on and on and on), I’ve read in genres that are never considered for English majors except in those few fun classes some professors are allowed to teach. This includes novels I did not enjoy and some that are my favorites, but includes such writers as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, E.L. James, Michael Crichton, Jennifer Crusie, Erin McCarthy, Vicki Lewis Thompson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jeff Lindsey, Jim Butcher, Cassandra Clare, Marilyn Kaye, Janet Dailey, Stephanie Meyer, Georgette Heyer, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, to name a few. Some names on that list I love, some I gave up on. I’ll read basically anything of note. If a writer or book is big in a certain genre, I’m on it, including classics and contemporary critically acclaimed works. I always want to know what all the fuss is about with popular novels, with award winning novels, with the works that are taught in high-level courses. I will never have enough time to read it all, but damned if I’m not going to try.

The Academic Idea

I once asked a teacher during my undergrad, in one of my first craft courses, if a writer could write both the popular stuff and the artistic stuff. The answer I got was that a woman could not be both a whore and a wife. Not to nitpick, but I imagine there are women who are both. The point is that a writer can’t be both a money-maker (i.e. financially supported by their work alone) and an artist at the same time (i.e. something vague and basically indefinable at the time of creation and first generation experience of the work, something that comes with time maybe or certain special awards: the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Booker, etc.). Almost no writer that is an artist believes that they will, in their lifetime, be recognized as “the great novelist of our times” and win those awards. There are those lucky few who are recognized in their lifetime and accept those awards themselves (Garcia-Marquez, Hemingway, etc.), but this is the lottery of writing and as such basically unreachable. There is a lot of luck involved in being recognized as an artist in one’s own lifetime, circumstances beyond a writer’s control that may or may not lead to this recognition, which is why this is considered by most as a crapshoot of an idea of what it means to be an artistic writer. Instead, most writers that consider themselves artists live on small means or have a second job to supplement their income with something more reliable, especially these days when one cannot make livable wages from publishing stories and poems in periodicals. This second job is almost always teaching, which means this same idea is passed on from generation to generation of writers who are more artistically inclined.

Portraits of a Money-Maker

Two of the mostly widely known money-making writers right now are Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, closely followed by Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, and Suzanne Collins what with their novels selling like hotcakes and all that adaptation money. J.K. Rowling, much like the other three women, rocketed to fortune (higher than the others reached), but now some wonder what else she has to offer the literary world (just as everyone wonders about the other three women). This is one side of the Money-Maker. They may end up being one-hit wonders (not that I am accusing any of these women of this, just that that is what is in their readers’ minds). Fans want more Harry Potter, and when she came out with the short story about the witch singer, fans went nuts. Her other novel, The Casual Vacancy, however, did not get as much immediate response. This money-maker (not Rowling specifically or even generally) has hit on a plot, a world, a character, a theme that people love widely, but is either trapped by it (as in the audience doesn’t want anything else or doesn’t believe the writer is good for any other story) or runs with it (as in the writer continues to put out more content related to their hit). This money-maker made a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, especially compared to the other money-maker.

The other kind of money-maker is best typified by Stephen King, but others exist as well (John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Jim Butcher–I’m not sure what it says that my two examples are genderized, it’s either an effect my reading and those writers I associate with one another or a trend in the commercial market of novels, though Tolkien may be an example of the first type of money-maker). This is the money-maker who rises steadily, who makes money steadily. They become a household name slowly, and people are always interested in their work. Their work tends to be more versatile, it seems at first as their novels are not all of a series or related to a series. But I’m not sure if that is actually true. The more I read of the above mentioned authors, the more I notice connections. King was a huge fan of connecting separate novels. His narratives almost always have some mention of a different narrative, such as the mention of It and the Loser’s Club in Dreamcatcher. One must look to his short stories to find narratives unconnected to other narratives. The other examples of Grisham and Crichton play on the same similar themes again and again, for Grisham it is the courtroom and the vagaries of the law and for Crichton it is science and the hubris of the people involved in the pursuit of knowledge. But I also mentioned Butcher, who is almost exclusively a series writer (The Dresden Files and the Codex Alera) which almost shove him into the portrait of the first money-maker, but there are two types of series writers: the epic series and the continuing series. The epic series is usually a collection of books under ten and the narrative (one hopes) has it’s ending in the first novel (meaning that the first book and the inciting incident sets in motion the entirety of the series). The continuing series is usually over ten novels and the inciting incident and climax, for the most part, stand apart from other novels in the series. I like to compare them to mini-series and T.V. shows, with the epic series being equivalent to the mini-series, and the continuing series being equivalent to the T.V. show. But wait, don’t these two distinctions overlap? You bet your bottom dollar they do. Somehow, though, there is a difference even if it is not completely expressible. Anyway, Butcher’s first novels in his series were not meteoric novels which everyone just had to read. Instead, at first, his novels were read but not widely, and his popularity and following slowly grew, much like some of the other writers in this portrait.

The John Grisham Method

There is a story about John Grisham, and I’m not entirely sure that it is apocryphal, but it goes like this: He wrote A Time to Kill over an entire decade. When published, it ended up on the New York Times Best Seller List. Grisham went out and read all the novels on the List, studying them to see what made them successful. From this, he honed a method by which he could write novels quickly that would also end up on the List, cutting down his writing time and increasing his chances for success. Is it true? I’m not sure. Is there a formula for financial success when writing? Probably. However, this true/not true story brings up the idea of writing to make money as opposed to a writer being so lucky as to make money with one’s work. I have known writers who want to write to make money and who write with that goal in mind. They write to story submission requests, as in “We are looking for stories about the gay and lesbian plight” and then writing a story as if that topic were a writing prompt. My teachers always told me to find places for my work as opposed to working for a place to publish. I’m not sure how I feel about either side. I’m sure some writers benefit from working for a place, that they take these requests as inspiration. I’m not one of these writers. I do follow my teachers’ advice in this respect, and to me, the money is not as important as the work and what I get out of it emotionally (not as in writing as therapy but the satisfaction of writing being done and done well). But I also don’t believe that writers that write to make money are automatically bad writers. This seems like a generalization of dangerous proportions, as if we read a writer’s work with this generalization working on us, we may ignore or miss the work the writer has done to present themes or new ways of expression. I believe this applies to genre writing, as academically genre writing is considered just a money-making prospect and never artistically interesting.

Working for an Award

I feel like to some extent teachers are trying to groom students into award-winning writers, which is an earmark for an artist. I’m not sure this is a good idea. Just as I don’t think the money is important, I don’t think the awards are important. Both of these feel like forms of validation to me, like “Yes, you are a good writer because you: a) make money, or b) win awards”. I don’t think this is good for a writer because when they don’t make money or don’t win awards, they think they are a bad writer (which can create a cycle from loss of confidence) or when they do make money or do win awards, they think they are a good writer (which can create laziness or over-confidence). Neither of these things seem to matter to the work itself. I think writers need to avoid assigning these kinds of benchmarks for success. Success is doing the work, completing the work, editing the work, trying to get the work out there. It is not a fixed goal, but an ever moving mark, wherein if a writer is not working, if they think they have “made it”, now they have failed. It makes me think of the end of Goethe’s Faust: Strive! Success is forever improving oneself as a writer and forever working.

But wait, I list my awards on my website and blog. Why? Well, because I am aware of the fact that other people care, and not listing your accomplishments is a height of stupidity. It’s just something I don’t let go to my head. Winning those awards was really nice, but I didn’t write to win those awards. I wrote to win the awards that can only be awarded to a writer by him or herself. The awards I list are side benefits, good ones, I’ll freely admit, but side benefits nonetheless.

Writing for an award may end up limiting a writer, because of all those pesky rules we’re taught (killing your main character, it was all a dream, one name for two characters) and because they will avoid those scenes and subjects (death, murder, suicide, violence, proclamations of love, sex, and bodily functions) mentors and teachers have said are sensational, sentimental, gruesome, or graphic–four words that will guarantee the demand for a rewrite in the classroom. But there was a lot in Blindness (by the Nobel Prize winning writer Jose Saramago) which written with the wrong language could be described with all four of those words. What I mean to say is that writers should definitely avoid overly pathic language, meaning they are basically goose-stepping the reader to an emotion. I think, however, any scene can be rewritten to evoke emotion or present a certain action without falling into the trap of sensationalism, sentimentalism, grotesque, or graphic language. And sometimes those are the scenes that hit home the most with readers.

Blending Art and Money

Out of all the money-makers I’ve mentioned, Stephen King is probably the most artistic of all of them, followed by J.K. Rowling. King is starting to be recognized academically as an artist, I think, mostly because a new generation of teachers is coming in and they all read King for fun and with an open mind. King presents universal themes, makes readers think and feel with most of his work, and plays with language, which are the tenets of higher writing. J.K. Rowling focuses on universal themes and empathetic characters. So while both these writers have made money, I believe they should be taught as “good” writers with “good” writing, because they both did the work. I think, if a writer works not for money and not for awards, but for oneself and the craft, the chances of success at both increase. O’Connor once said writers would write the kind of work they would want to read, and I believe this is the most important part of being a writer: writing for oneself. We should be writing what we want to read because how is writing what others and not ourselves want to read going to make us happy? My interests are so varied. My tone is varied even, when I write. I can’t even stick to just fiction, or even just prose. And this all puts me further away or closer to the artist in critics and readers eyes, but if I want to write a graphic novel, I’m not going to let the idea that graphic novels are not “art” stop me from writing one. If I want to write a romance novel, the idea that it will taint my career isn’t going to stop me from writing one. Don’t let anything stop you from following the work down its every path, even when they are marked “bad” or “poor”, because at the end of the day the most any of us can say is that we tried with everything we had.

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