Saturday, 25 February 2012

Gold or Glory

By Ashley Lister

From an author’s perspective I think the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is often seen as a dispute between those who write to say something important and those who write to earn money. A colleague once summed it up for me with the following quote from the bible:

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Matthew 16:26

Call me mercenary but I think the clue here is in the question. If a man gains the whole world but loses his soul, he has gained the whole world. Which would I rather have? A whole world or a soul? I think I’d like to have a whole world. From what I’ve heard about souls (from those people who claim to have them and know about them) souls don’t pay bills.

I don’t see many people staying warm through the winter because they’ve kept a good hold on their souls. I don’t see many people enjoying a surfeit of food, drink or wealth because they have souls. If it comes to profit or soul I’m going to pick profit every time. It’s far more useful for settling debts and putting food on the table.

I’ve been writing for money for the best part of two decades now. It’s never as much money as I’d hope. And there have been many times when I’ve had to compromise artistic integrity for the commercial benefits of coin.

For example, I once wrote a book in the form of a fairy tale. It was a very adult fairy tale with bonking and other narrative developments a person is unlikely to find in a traditional fairy tale. Nevertheless, it was a strong book and I was proud of the finished product. The editor I was working with at that time said he’d take it at the usual rate. But he wanted me to cut the opening line of, ‘Once upon a time…’ and also lose the ‘happily ever after’ line at the end. He also suggested we should cut ‘…all the other Hans Christian Anderson shit.

To my mind, these changes destroyed the instant identification of the story as being constructed in the fashion of a fairytale.

However, I accepted the editor’s suggested revisions. It was a simple choice. I could either say no, and keep the story as an integral whole that remained consistent with my original artistic vision. Or I could say yes and pay the mortgage that month.

Does this mean I’m a whore? Yes. Do I care that I’m a whore? Not really.

I’m naïve enough to believe that there is literary merit to be found in commercial fiction, and I’m naïve enough to believe that there will be eventual commercial success for all deserving literary work.

The Brontës’ first collection of poetry sold only two copies. Frank Herbert’s acclaimed science fiction fantasy novel, Dune, was rejected by more than two dozen publishers who couldn’t perceive its worth. Even the diary of Anne Frank was rejected by a publisher who said, “The girl doesn't […] have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level.

There are many similar fables of talent being overlooked by the writing industry.

Ultimately, the sheep will still buy whatever Oprah or Richard and Judy tell them regardless of the literary or commercial merit on the pages. The sheep don’t have the brains to pick books for themselves. It has always been this way and it will never change. But eventually, over time, literature is usually recognised and lauded appropriately.

All of which leads to the inevitable question: do I aspire to one day achieve literary success? The answer is: I guess it would be cool. But I don’t intend to go hungry waiting.



vicky ellis said...

So far my writing has actually left me out of pocket, i.e. with less cake than is optimal for a lady of sweet tooth. I quite like that about it, but then I am perverse.

My (unpopular) opinion is that writers (and all artists) should not be paid for their work. It should be something you do because you are compelled to do it. If others enjoy what you have done and want to pass copies around then that's groovy. I like a writer who is working 3 jobs and writing at 3am because it's the only free time. I think that having to squeeze the art into the tiny gaps left at the end of the day means that only the most enthusiastic writers will pursue it. It also means that the writers are able to write about something other than writing as they will know lots about, for example, building IEDs, breaking and entering, or extracting teeth in alleyways.

I also realise that most writers do this anyway because actually it doesn't pay. Well, good. Seems like the writing industry is working.

Right, time to build a barricade against the forthcoming rotten tomatoes ;)

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m never going to achieve literary success. There are lots of reasons for this but one of them is not the fact that I can’t string a sentence together because I most certainly can. The main reason is that I don’t write for a demographic any larger than one man: me. That other people like what I’ve written is a bonus but I’ve never once sat down and considered how I might tailor what I write to make it easier to market. I’m also not a genre writer. I can enjoy certain genres but I don’t have the wherewithal to work in them. In fact that’s partly what my latest blog post is about: Is anyone writing just fiction anymore?

Ashley R Lister said...


Your approach would work well if all artists were assigned Parisian garrets and we could enjoy a delightful consumptive death in the final act of our life's opera.

Sadly, my base appetites favour two things: I enjoy eating quite substantial amounts for a person with my svelte figure. And I despise working for tosspots. Writing helps to address both those needs :-)

But you're absolutely right that writers should know about more than just writing - otherwise they become so meta-fictional, self-referential and post-modern they run the danger of disappearing up their own backsides.

Ashley R Lister said...


I read your blog and found it very interesting and intelligent.

I'm glad that we've all got different reasons for writing. This is what makes interactions like this so exciting.

Personally I'm driven by a goal of publication. I'd love to be able to say that I wrote only for a demograph of myself but the truth is that I'm quite shallow and write to cater for as large an audience as possible.

I do enjoy writing to the restrictions of genre confines. I also enjoy stretching the boundaries of those confines and I get a great deal of pleasure from blending genres. (In truth, these are artificial constructs anyway and serve no purpose other than to help delineate sales targets).

But, most importantly for me, I write with the goal of publication at the forefront of my mind.

Thanks for taking the the time to comment.


Lindsay said...

Ash, me too. My desire to leave something behind on this planet which is recognised as good by an audience of people outweighs preciousness over my work I'm afraid. Not for fame or cash, just to fulfil a desire I have had since being a teen.My dream is to write and illustrate a childrens book and have it published, for two different age groups.It's got me through hard times and I am willing to sacrifice a few words someone else thinks don't work for that. I enjoy the process of writing a great deal but once it's over then I am left with something which doesn't mean too much to me, it's the creative process I enjoy. I never hold on to my artwork either, it's always given away, but I bloody love doing it. I don't think I'm selling my soul either. Creativity is a process, not a final product. I want to create a story which will make children smile, and I'm happy to do whatever I can to achieve that.

Ashley R Lister said...


You know I'm a huge fan of your illustrations and I dearly want to see you doing a full book.

I've got a copy of the Poet's Guide on my desk right now and your cover artwork is superb. I should also say that your vampire hamster remains one of my favourite pieces of children's fiction.

Can't wait to see you writing and illustrating a full length work :-)


Danielle Rose said...

Hey Ash, The post made me laugh. I'm pretty much a whore, I'd write about fish or aliens or Italian nurses or the relationship between a teenage girl and a monster dildo that ate her snatch for the right sum. (The correct sum being very small indeed, actually the last idea sounds right up my street.) Ideally I'd like to write YA fiction about randy teenage girls and criminal goings on but life isn't about what you would like to do is it?!
At uni I find myself writing things that wouldn't be my first choice because I am writing what will get me the marks I want, I'm writing for the tutors, my audiance, and for the mark scheme.
Anyway I'm off to make an amazing tea of hot dogs with past running through it.


Ashley R Lister said...


Every reply I could make in response to your comment pales in comparison to that picture of hot dogs with spaghetti inside them.

I love the idea for the story you've put forward. And I hope your tea is as much fun as the pictures look. :-)