Wednesday, September 5, 2007

In Defense of Selling Out

Writers, artists, musicians, and actors are all guilty of taking pride in the “starving artist” mentality. Generally speaking, we’re all supposed to eat a lot of ramen, smoke a lot of cigarettes, live in squalor, and create brilliant work. Somehow, our suffering is the engine that drives our genius.

Because so few artists of any category “make it,” the majority of us have to buy into this mentality in order to keep some dignity in our lives. The problem with a truly artistic career is that yes, there is a lot of success to go around. But most of it goes to a lucky handful, while the rest of us go hungry. And the non-successful ones sometimes look at what it takes to become successful—producing work that a large amount of people actually understand and want—and they see it as “dumbing down” their creative genius. So they feel justified in rejecting success and scorning those who embrace it.

I remember back when I was a creative writing student at college. A few weeks before graduation, one of my favorite professors asked me what my plans were after college. Being the blasé dreamer that I was, I shrugged and said something like “write a lot, submit to some magazines, get a job somewhere.” He shook his head. “You really should give some thought to getting your MFA,” he said. “Then you could apply for a teaching position.”

And all of a sudden, I realized: all of my professors thought that this is what creative writers do. They teach. If they’re lucky, they get a cushy job with a sabbatical that allows them to concentrate on their writing every few years. They might be celebrated essayists, poets, and short story writers. But they certainly don’t make a living from their writing. Creative writers who don’t want to sell out nowadays have another option besides starving in a garret: they can be professors.

Nobody ever said anything like: “You really should sign up for RWA. Then you could network with some published authors and learn how to write commercially viable fiction.” If you said anything like that at my college, you’d probably get keelhauled.

The thing is, I never wanted to be anything but a writer. I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. I didn’t want to do anything but write. And if it meant I had to change the way I wrote to make a living, then fine—I could live with that.

The creative writing department was great at helping me map my literary strengths and weaknesses and giving me confidence. But it gave me no guidance at all about the business side of things. Looking back, I wish there had been more of an emphasis on genre fiction, marketing your writing, how the publishing industry works, and possible stop-gap careers for aspiring novelists. I wish they took our future careers as seriously as they took our raw writing ability.

In my experience, most liberal-arts literary types look down on the nitty-gritty “business side.” They look at popular fiction and see a wasteland of bad books. And yeah, there are plenty of bad books out there. But there’s also a lot of well-written, successful genre fiction. And it sells.

I know there’s a bias out there against it, and I understand why. But I just don’t see what’s wrong with making a living as a writer. I see a lot wrong, however, with letting a non-writing career sap most of your energy and time. So sorry, Dr. Cutter, you can keep your cushy professor’s job. I'm planning on selling out just as soon as I find someone who'll buy.

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