The Writing Life: Commodity Versus Art, the Eternal Challenge.

Ursula K. Le Guin died this week. I read The Earthsea Trilogy (as was) a few times in my youth, and loved it. I really should get around to reading the complete Earthsea fictions, and of course many of her other works often referenced in this week of obituaries and commentaries mourning her passing.

In the course of reading about her life I came across this speech, and it struck me as very interesting on a number of levels, and once again challenged my sense of who I am as a writer, and what I seek to achieve.

The killer quote (and there are quite a few in a five minute speech) that set me to thinking is this one:

“Right now I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

It’s a bit of a punch to the gut for me. Do I want to produce a commodity, or practice my art? Is it possible to do both? What is it I have produced so far? Into what camp does it fall? I want it to be art, but to sell like a hot commodity. Is that a fatal contradiction?

I had to sit and think about this a while.

The advent of self-publishing has only accentuated what always existed in publishing: the rush of writers into genres that become popular, seeking to ride the coat-tails of some sudden success. People trying to recreate Hogwarts in the early 2000s, who then graduated to sparkly vampire fiction in the mid 2000s, dystopian futures in the late 2000s, grimmer and more ’realistic’ fantasy in the wake of the gigantic success of HBO’s Game of Thrones in the 2010s. Once it would be publishing houses authorizing similar works in order to try to cash in on a new trend, write to a market, now everyone can go for it individually. And more power to their elbow, I say, but that isn’t who or what I want to be, or do.

(An aside. I recall in 1998 or so when I first read A Game of Thrones, how utterly novel the idea of having chapters written from a specific character’s point of view was, and having multiple separate viewpoints intersect to provide the tapestried whole of the book. I was reasonably well read, and had never come across it before. That technique, or close variants of it, is now almost de rigueur nowadays. A testament to the impact of his books, I think.)

When you are living in a social media universe that is inhabited by such tight throngs of writers all searching for, and talking desperately about their markets, their target audiences, their break even points, it is easy to get swept up in it, and forget why you started writing in the first place. But you have to learn about keyword advertising (for instance), and optimize your own ad campaigns, or your art, such as it is, will languish ignored on the virtual bookshelf. And what’s the point of an unread book?

One of the things I have is editorial freedom. I can write what I want, in the style I wish. No editorial department, under pressure from sales teams or bean counters, is going to try to push me in a direction they think more profitable. This could be both good and bad. The errors and missteps I make will be my own. I can only hope they are not catastrophic. I receive advice, take feedback, but ultimately the subjects chosen, and the methods of their delivery are my own. I am resolved to be comfortable with that. It isn’t always easy. Doubt is a writer’s constant companion, and now I have strategic doubts to add to the usual suspects that infest the writing process. It is what it is, I tell myself.

But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m compromised by the machine of commerce I must participate in, in order to try to share my stories with others. This has always been the difficulty for writers. Ursula herself did deals with publishing devils, most apparently good for her, given her long career, but others she regretted, such as the creation of the TV show based upon the Earthsea books, which she referred to as “McMagic.” How utterly damning. Even she, as august an eminence in writing as can be imagined, could not avoid falling foul of TV contracts and false promises. She witnessed her art reduced to commodity. Thankfully the miniseries sank without trace, and critics agreed the show missed the point of the books by some margin.

The last thing I want to produce is “McMagic” though. Ugh. The idea fills me with dread. I have never come up with stories with a market in mind. Since childhood I’ve had compelling ideas occupy my thought, enough that I had to write them down to preserve or explore them further, as even vivid imaginings can be forgotten if they are left alone for too long. I have a catalogue of stories I’d like to write, and the ones I’m not taking on yet are those that I think will be better served once I have more experience and skill. There is a vampire story in me (it first arose as an idea for a ridiculous art house movie), but not a lot happens in it. That tends to curb my enthusiasm for the tale currently – you need to have a lot of skill to carry off a story where most of the action is either anticipated, or lies in the past, not the present!

Of course wise voices warn that to ignore the market is to doom yourself to making no money. As of today (and this may well change, I’m no paragon) I’ve decided I’d rather produce my art as I envisage it, and to hell with chasing after money. For as Ms. Le Guin finished her speech:

“But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It is freedom.”

I’d rather write free and let the chips fall where they will in terms of monetary success. Easy to say now, from this position of literary obscurity, but there you are. When it comes down to it, I’d rather try to produce art than sales copy. Art that can still be enjoyable, engaging, and entertaining. Stories aren’t much fun if they can’t do those things. That is my circle to square, and my artistic reach may well exceed my technical grasp, but what the hell, I can’t do anything else but what makes the most sense to me, and Ursula’s words have reminded me of that fact. Everyone has their own road to travel, and this is mine. I wish you well on yours.

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2 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Commodity Versus Art, the Eternal Challenge.

  1. Ha! McMagic! I’m going to use that one. I probably fall in the middle and shift around between art and commodity. I like pulp, so I write pulp. But I try to make it meaningful. I find that my science fiction is typically more artful and literary than my fantasy. Does that say something about me or the genres I write?

    1. It’s all in what you find best expresses your ideas, I suppose. If science fiction activates your literary side more, then go for it. I would guess I would go the other way and would be happier writing pulpier sci-fi. (Who am I kidding?!) Arty pulp is probably where I’m aiming, arty for those who wish to enjoy the artistry, pulpy for those who want to just romp through a good story. As I said in the article, that’s my circle to square, but it seems to be the way I naturally want to write, so I’m going with it.

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