Writing and the Marketplace

It’s 5:16 on a Tuesday afternoon. The day is starting to cool and I am sitting on my couch without shoes on and I am Youtubing Cure songs as I type this. I’ve written a bunch of words today. I discovered a structural flaw in the novella I’ve been trying to write, which means there’s a bunch of rewrites on the way. When I’m done with this, I’ll be heading off to write a bunch more words.

But for the moment I’m sitting here, on the internet, thinking about the scene from Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s Howl where Allan-Gisberg-by-way-of-James-Franco says:

In San Fansisco I had a year of psychotherapy with Doctor Hicks. I was blocked. I couldn’t write. I was still trying to act normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be heterosexual and something was wrong with me.

And Doctor Hicks kept saying, “what do you want to do? What is your hearts desire?”

And finally, I said, “well, what I’d really like to do is just quit all this. Get a small room with Peter, devote myself to writing, contemplation, and fucking. Smoking pot and doing whatever I want.

And he said, “why don’t you do it then?”

It’s an incredible moment of art-porn, leveraging all the mythology of the artist to catapult the viewer into the next act of the movie. I doubt there is an artist of any stripe who doesn’t hear that and feel a little wistful about what might be.

I’m thinking about this scene a lot because I’ve spent the past few months reading novella after novella. Not intentionally, just by virtue of there being a wealth of books with about 150 pages on my shelves after years where “book” meant something with closer to 300 pages and a lot more time required to read it. Just prior to writing this, I finished reading Warren Ellis’ Normal and I am quietly coveting the talent that went into both the design and the content.

I really like the novella and the novelette as a form. Given my druthers, I would happily write them to the exclusion of all else. But the reality of being a writer with any kind of professional, I-would-like-to-be-paid-for-this aspirations is that you increasingly look at novel-length fiction because it’s basically the stuff that gets decent advances.

For all the mythology around art for its own sake, there are very few writers or artists I know of who have managed to completely disregard the marketplace around art. They may try to leverage it in different ways – some will go for the mass market and rack up sales, others will try to to establish cultural worth and seek funding that surrounds that – but in the back of our heads there are fundamental decisions that get made because the market is there.

Writers are often told they shouldn’t write to market. That they should follow their passion and write the story they want to write. I don’t disagree with that advice, but I do think there are limits to it, because your desire to write is not a singular goal. The stories you want to tell will come up against your need to be read, or earn money, or develop an idea.

And so, if you want to write fiction, you’re going to end up writing books. If you’re going to write poetry, you’ll get used to performing. If you’re going to write theater…well, it’s been nearly two decades since I went anywhere near a theaters script, but I’m betting there is a similar process going on there. If you’re interested in fantasy as a kid in the nineties, you spend a lot of time pondering how to write a trilogy.

We all make concessions to the marketplace, even as people scorn the idea that art and the market go together. Because the marketplace is where we’re connected to audiences, and it’s where we connect with the art we consume.

It’s incredibly hard to separate art and commerce as a creator. I sit down occasionally and ask myself what, exactly, I’d be likely to write if I wasn’t considering where it might be published. What would change on my list of projects I’d like to do one day? What would get re-prioritized?

I’m not sure I can even conceptualize an answer to that, because thinking about markets is so ingrained in the way I write these days. I suspect I would end up writing short, slightly weird stories whose sole purpose is entertaining a half-dozen people among my friends who can provide more immediate feedback on what they like and what they don’t.

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