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Commercial Writing vs. Art

by Christopher Gronlund on November 22, 2014

I’ve seen quite a few people (writers) share this quote from Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. (Le Guin received the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.):

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

One of the interesting things to me was how much the quote resonated with many writers who normally suggest the way to making a living writing is by spelling out everything in the book right up front — because people have short attention spans — and then how it’s a writer’s duty to take that reader on a roller coaster ride.

(Oh yeah, it also doesn’t hurt to write several novels a year, even if you have to follow some kind of formula people want.)

It’s Not Terrible Advice (But I Wouldn’t Call It Good, Either)

I won’t knock this kind of advice, but I will say my favorite novel of the year is not something churned out quickly; rather, it’s Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book that took 10 years to write. It is the kind of art I think Le Guin spoke of in her acceptance speech. It was a book that was going to be written whether or not it sold…and it just-so-happened to become a commercial success.

This isn’t to knock those writers who suggest fast writing that does exactly what an audience wants is the way to go; for them, that works. You’re more likely to make a living writing fiction by producing 2-3 novels a year that are churned out quickly in focused blasts than spending years on something that may not see publication at all. Fast writing means you have 2-3 shots a year…and that’s 20-30 shots in the time it took Doerr to write his latest novel and have just 1 shot at success.

The Gist of Le Guin’s Speech

Le Guin clearly challenges writers to push themselves and their art — to not just churn things out as though on an assembly line. But mostly, she talks about publishing in the hands of marketers who are not in love with the industry as much as they are in love with numbers. Fast fiction that is an easy sell is better to them than something that may not take hold.

A handful of years ago, Ecco took a chance on David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle — it was probably a surprise to many involved with its publication when it was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club book. As equally surprising, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections being picked as an Oprah book. So many other writers — Louise Erdrich, A.M. Homes, Ann Patchett, and Alice Munro — are in no hurry to do their thing either.

These are writers practicing art, not creating a market commodity. (Although it’s safe to say any Franzen novel is going to sell rather well, now.) These are not writers churning out work as quickly as possible to pay the bills; these are writers who recognize that time is a vital part of what they do.

Can Commercial Writing Be Art?

Sure, this is a rhetorical question; clearly, the answer is yes. By the definition of so many people, genre fiction is more commercial than literary fiction — at least in its intent — and Ursula Le Guin accepted an award for a writing career in genre fiction that’s been in existence longer than my 45 years of living. (In fact, in her speech’s opening, she said the award was for those writers whose work has been excluded from literature for so long…her follow authors of fantasy, science fiction, and imagination who have watched — for over 50 years — awards going to the so-called realists.)

When Iain M. Banks died, I saw literary authors online wanting in on the grieving, even though many hadn’t read his works. Graham Joyce, in his last blog entry before dying of cancer, wrote something more inspiring and beautiful than even many literary works I revere. Jeffrey Ford is not a household name, but if we call genre fiction commercial fiction, I’m convinced there are few greater masters of genre or literary fiction than Ford.

I’d go as far as saying the writers mentioned here are every bit as artistic, and maybe even more, than many of the literary writers I’ve mentioned above. The tone of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (well, I can only talk about Annihilation so far), is every bit as artistic as anything out there.

So it’s clear commercial fiction can be art!

Can Artistic Writing Be Commercial?

Again, a rhetorical question. Right now, All the Light We Cannot See has been sitting on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 28 weeks. (It’s currently at #8). If Toni Morrison writes a book, it’s going to sell. Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Salman Rushdie are not in the streets begging for coins. In fact, many “artistic” writers do much better, financially, than their “commercial” counterparts. (That is, when their work breaks out above the usual low sales of most literary fiction.)

Jonathan Franzen can burn money and still be rich.

(And then burn even more money…and still be rich!)

So, knowing that art can be commercial — even bringing in more income than so many books written with commercial intent — it seems Le Guin’s point is that writers should focus more on being the most artistic writers they can be, instead of putting marketing and other factors before art.

Iconic writers like Vonnegut got there by combining it all.

Art is Worth the Risk

I hope those who have shared Ursula Le Guin’s quote on Twitter and other places take her words to heart and slow down on their next books, putting art before what they know works. No more hurried manuscripts and telling new writers that if they don’t lay it all out in the first paragraph and hit certain points along the way that they may as well give up before trying. The reality of writing is that most of us will never make a living writing fiction. So why not take a chance on being the best writer you can be, even if it means writing a handful of novels before seeing one published on a shelf?

Sometimes in taking those chances, the most amazing books are written…books that not only become successful, but become the books revered generations later.

* * *

And if you haven’t watched it already, here’s Le Guin’s speech:

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Light in the Dark

by Christopher Gronlund on November 20, 2014

In recent months, the goal has been simple: finish the first draft of the current novel by year’s end. It’s an ambitious goal, and it may be more like, “The current novel will be finished by the end of the first month of the year,” but the point is this: I’m close!

And in that effort to finish has come writing on days I’d rather be doing other things: adding additional miles to evening walks with my wife, catching up on podcasts, reading, or doing nothing at all.

But I’ve always believed the measure of a writer comes in writing during those times they don’t want to write. In my case, I work 40-hour weeks most weeks, but there are weeks — even the occasional month (or two) — when my life feels like my day job. As a tech writer, that’s what I signed up for, so it’s not like, “Damn you, day job!” That’s just what comes with being a technical writer by day (and sometimes by night).

I have the best day job I’ve ever had, but I have yet to finish a novel I’m wholly proud of while working full time. A sad stat I don’t want to relive: all the best writing I’ve ever done has come during times of unemployment.

Until now…

Granted, there are nights I feel like I’m throwing words into a black void no one will ever see. (That may very well be the case.) But then, on nights like last night…I think about how much I didn’t want to write, but how I’m glad I did.

Because some nights, the darkness becomes filled with a million pinpricks of light that you know — with another pass or two of what once seemed like just this distant idea that might never become anything at all — will become the brightest thing in your life.

Maybe it will never be read, but in this work, I’m writing the brightest thing I’ve ever written…and that will keep me warm for the rest of my life no matter what happens when it’s polished and ready for the world.

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The (Other) Juggling Writer

November 7, 2014
Shining Twins

A friend pointed out that I am not the only Juggling Writer out there. I know many jugglers who also write — we’re all juggling writers. In this particular case, though, I’m talking Capital-J Capital-W Juggling Writer. From what I can tell, Nathaniel’s had his Juggling Writer site for a couple years. I’m a couple […]

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Sticking to a Writing Plan

November 2, 2014
Map with compass and push pins

One day not so long ago, while working on a novel, I came to this conclusion: This would be much better as three novels. So that’s what I did. No longer was A Magic Life going to be just one book — it was now going to be three. And as I near the end […]

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The Distracted Writer

October 21, 2014
Typewriter on white

I saw this recently — a word processor mimicking a typewriter that promises distraction-free writing. Some writers use old, manual typewriters — and not just in the pursuit of hipsterdom, but to avoid distractions. Others grab a pen and paper and write longhand manuscripts. On Sunday, I listened to this great interview with Robin Sloan […]

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Writing as Hospitality

September 28, 2014
Hotel Bed

Yesterday morning, I finished a big release at work. Of all the writing I do, technical writing pays the most bills. I write for a software company that serves the hospitality industry. Hospitality I like hotels. A lot. Even tiny motels where people try their best with what they have. I will always remember a […]

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Year Five

September 8, 2014
Year Five

Five years ago, I wrote the first entry for The Juggling Writer. Looking back at my earnest beginning, I hoped the blog would show people how to manage their time in order to get things done (life and writing in harmony). I know I’ve written plenty of entries focused on that very thing, but I’m […]

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Why I Wake Up Early (Even on the Weekend)

August 29, 2014
Rise and Shine; Begin a New Day

I’ve written about mornings before on my main blog. It’s no secret that I like waking up early to write. But there’s a reason beyond the quiet that matters to me: if I get up early and make something I want to make before the world hisses to life and churns away, all the things […]

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How to Come Up with Good Ideas

August 26, 2014
Cottonwood on the breeze

Yesterday at work, I had an idea for a blog entry. It was a great idea — at least that’s how I remember it. Because I was working, I wrote a note in a notebook (instead of putting it in Evernote), but today…I can’t find it. I hear a lot of people talk about keeping […]

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Five Writing Lessons Learned from Podcast Movement

August 22, 2014
Podcast Movement Swag

Last weekend, I attended Podcast Movement 2014, in Dallas. Over 600 podcasters from all over the world descended on the area. (If you’re interested, I wrote about it here.) If you know me, you know I tend to be shy in groups. Even around people I know well, the moment there are four or more […]

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