Commercial or Literary or Both?

Oct 5, 2006Find joy today, Write!

Today, Dave Long is discussing something worthy of your writerly time:

He writes:

Because there’s two different “kinds” of books you can sell. One is acceptable and one is looked at askance. And we’ll spend the next couple of days talking about these two types of books and the dangers of lifting one too high on a pedestal or demeaning the other. The two types we’ll talk about? Books readers know they want. And books they don’t know they want.

Jodi Picoult, in an article entitled, “Literary Lust vs. Commercial Cash,” in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest, writes, “Some think a writer can have either clout or money—not both. Don’t you believe it.” Picoult, who makes a good living off her writing details the journey of her literary/commercial career. When a big, fat NY house asked her to sign with them, she asked, “Why couldn’t I write books that changed the world . . . and still make enough money to pay my mortgage?”

Interesting question, indeed. I’ve been looking over my tax records for the past several years, realizing this year I made thousands less than I had in previous years. Thousands. Why? Because I had to pay my way to the states several times for book stuff. I view that as an investment in my career, though now I’m not so sure it has helped. I hope it has.

The question is how do I write in such a way that keeps my literary feet on the ground while helping pay for my kids’ education? And in that, will I have to compromise my prose just so I can be a commercial success? Yesterday I received feedback about some novels I’m writing. The tenor seemed to be something like, “Gee, we love her writing, just not the subjects she covers.” The editor expressed interest in me if I chose to write something more contemporary. So what did I do? I dug up a contemporary novel I’d written, shot it off to my agent, and said, “Should we try again with this?”

Thankfully, I have an agent with a good head on her shoulders. She responded quickly: “I know you can see the end of contracts again, but remember you have proposals for 5 books out there that are more in your traditional voice. Let’s give it a month and see where those go.” So I sighed. And hemmed. And hawed. She’s right. That book represented me trying to force the square peg of my emotionally-driven fiction into the round hole of commercial contemporary. Truth be told, I abandoned that book with only a few thousand words to go. I couldn’t bear it. It felt like junior high school when my skinnier-than-Alfalfa body tried out for cheerleading. Not gonna happen, folks.

I got a kind rejection from a big, fat, secular publishing house for one of my emotionally-driven novels. They said something about my lack of sales (which is frustrating since my two novels have only been out six months and two weeks). “Have her sell a few tens of thousands more and we’ll look at her,” they basically said. But how can that happen? I can’t force people to buy my books. (Well, I could, but that might be illegal). I have to be patient, realizing my books are the kinds that folks have to recommend by word of mouth, something that can take years to garner higher sales.

So what to do? Do I write a commercial novel and sell out? I want to write books of my heart, but I also want to generate at least some income as I do that. Blend that all in with the complication that I view writing as a ministry as well and you get a melange of motivations. Jodi Picoult’s words help me here:

“Naturally, no one plans to be a hack when they set out to write the Great American Novel, yetdigestiblee reads are the ones that sell best. If you ask me, the trick is to be a commercial writer–but don’t sell out. Write for a wide audience, but don’t compromise what you write. I’m living proof that you can have your literary cake and eat it commercially, too.” (p. 90).

So maybe there’s a middle ground here. One where I write the stories that fill my heart, yet appeal to many.

There is much talk these days on the blogosphere about art and Christian writing, where there seem to be commercial camps vs. literary camps. What if the two joined? What if we wrote commercial fiction that appealed to many, but didn’t compromise our art in the process? What would that look like? I see someone like Brandilyn Collins walking that line well. She writes bestsellers, and her prose is lovely, lively, and innovative. She’s done it, folks. (Aside: today is her 50th birthday; please stop by and wish her a happy one.) Peace Like a River by Leif Enger sold LOTS of books, but the book was so beautifully written, I nearly cried.

As Christian authors and artists, I do believe we have a responsibility to give God our craft in such a way that it costs us something. I remember the Scripture about David wanting to buy a piece of land to offer up sacrifices. Ornan offers to give his land to David for free. 1 Chronicles 21:24 says, “But King David said to Ornan, ‘No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.'” Writing should cost us. The beauty of our words should come at a personal price, so that we offer our prose in worship to a holy God. For His pleasure. For His audience.

Yes, I would love to be a commercial success. I understand this is a business. But ultimately, I have to rest on God’s sovereignty. He elevates and demotes. He sees all this angst. He created me to write emotionally-driven “words so beautiful they hurt.” All I can do is write to the best of my ability, sacrificing for the sake of His calling, do my best to market what I write, and leave the results in His capable hands. It’s up to Him (and the buying public to a much lesser degree) whether I become commercially successful.

I may write the books folks don’t know they want, but perhaps, perhaps those books are what they need. So today I write, clicking away at the keyboard on another novel, wondering if this one will be successful in the world’s eyes, longing for my prose to be successful to the Audience of One.