Here’s what I don’t want to write: vampire stories, tales of the coming zombie apocalypse, stories about dystopian societies, YA fiction about wizards and witches, bodice rippers, cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, historical romance, romances in general, crime stories, murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, sadomasochistic fanfic, or almost anything else that seems to be commercially viable today.
Here’s what I do want to write: thoughtful, slow-moving, character-driven literary fiction that subtly asks the reader to examine herself, ask the hard questions, and think deeply about the world she lives in.
Here’s the problem: does anyone publish what I want to write? Hmmm.
Publishing is a business and businesses are all about making money (as they should be). I’m not making any judgments against publishers; I work for one (and so them making money = me getting a paycheck). But as I read about what deals are in the works at the big five (seriously, more publishing contracts for Twilight fan fiction?) I am slowly coming to the realization that if I don’t want to write what most traditional publishers want to publish, I must come to grips with the fact that my writing will perhaps not find a home at a big traditional publisher, even if there is an audience for it out there. After all, I am not so self-centered as to think that I am the only one in the world who wants to read something that is subtle, thoughtful, and literary rather than something that is sophomoric, simplistic, and pandering. (Oh, crap. Did I say that out loud?)
If this is the case, folks, then why write? Why spend the time and creative energy on something that will not bring enormous profit and sudden fame? Here’s why: because good writing is worth doing for its own sake. I know, I know, that sounds like a mother soothing her child after he is passed over for the lead in the school play (“Sweetie, you did your best and that’s all that matters.”) but stick with me here.
It feels good to be praised for our work. When we are young, praise is available from parents and teachers. We are rewarded for our diligence and creativity with good grades, a spot on the refrigerator or bulletin board, a merit scholarship, special cords to wear on graduation day. As adults, we are rewarded with a few pats on the back at work, perhaps, and hopefully a pay raise or a promotion. And for creative artists of all kinds, who are not getting a grade or a paycheck for our work, what gives that sense that others care, that others value what we create? Why, what better measure of our worth than the fact that people will pay for it? After all, if someone doesn’t want to buy what I make, what good is it?
Some food for thought: Vincent Van Gogh produced more than 2,000 paintings and sketches. During his lifetime, he sold just one painting. One. It was his Red Vineyard at Arles, which I’d wager most of us have never seen because it is not one of his more iconic works. Today, along with Picasso, Van Gogh paintings garner the highest prices at auctions, with several recently going for more than $100 million each.
The fact that he was commercially unsuccessful in life did not mean he was untalented. It doesn’t mean he didn’t create beautiful works that would one day be appreciated. And even if his work had never become posthumously popular, those who ended up with his paintings in their homes would most certainly have displayed them because they thought them beautiful and meaningful. His worth is not measured by his slim bank account in life–it is measured by his genius, his enduring expressions of beauty.
The lesson should not be lost on writers of less commercially viable genres. Commercial success would be lovely (or really, some aspects of it would be lovely though I can think of several I’m glad to live without) but it does not determine someone’s talent or worth. Just as blockbuster movies are often (though certainly not always) shallow, pointless, and artless escapades dressed up with copious special effects, some New York Times bestselling books are not art. Some are. But many simply are not.
If you, like me, are a writer who finds herself or himself creating in a non-commercial genre for a more niche audience, don’t give in to the temptation to compromise your vision for commercial success. Yes, you could manufacture some of that stuff blindfolded. But don’t. There’s enough of it out there already. Create your art for its own sake. If you want it to be available to others and are having trouble getting the entrenched world of traditional publishing to take a chance on you, you can always self-publish in ebook and/or print-on-demand format (after you know it is absolutely your best work and you’ve had several conscientious and intelligent readers and an editor look it over to suggest revisions and make corrections). Art is meant to be shared, after all. But don’t silence your muse. Because if you don’t write what is in your heart, who will?