Monday, May 18, 2009

Writers and Commerce

Last week another writer and I were comparing notes, the way writers do over dinner, and we agreed that we find writing harder now than when we first began and were arrogant and first published. Much of it is to do with the fact that the more experienced you get, the harder you want to push yourself, the more new things you want to try, and the tougher your standards become for yourself - you just won't let things pass which once upon a time you would have done. After we parted, however, I mused that there is something else which makes it all so much harder nowadays, for me at any rate: the sense of the market breathing ever more fiercely over your shoulder.

Robert McCrum thinks it's a myth that there were more good or great novels published in the past, and the conclusion one might draw from this is that 'literary' writers are ultimately unaffected by the commercialization of our literary culture. And in today's Guardian Mark Ravenhill goes so far as to express an opinion that a market-aware theatre has opened up opportunities for new and innovative writing. In Saturday's Review Andy Beckett weighed up arguments for and against the case that serious non-fiction is in decline, noting that the commercialization of British literary culture is not exactly new but held sway before the introduction of the Net Book Agreement in 1900.

Beckett's article ends thus:
In truth, it is too early to tell: serious non-fiction takes time to research and write and sell. But in the meantime, it may be a good idea for authors of such titles to be realistic about their place in the economic order. As John Feather writes in his history of British publishing, before Waterstone's, before agents and advances, before the invention of the modern book business: "The medieval author worked for himself, for God or for a patron, or indeed for all three." I'm not sure that career path would be so popular now.
Well, you know what? I know this is heresy nowadays, but that's precisely how the serious writer does want to write even now (well, for himself or God anyway: funding bodies, like medieval patrons, can be poisoned chalices): with total regard to his or her own moral, emotional, psychological and linguistic insights, and just hoping that someone out there likes the result enough to pay for it. It's the way, I believe, that good literature happens. Maybe great literature comes from authors allowing the market to breathe ideas over their shoulders as they write, but I kind of doubt it, and trying to block out those siren whispers - and struggling with the question of whether or not you have done so - is becoming one of the hardest tasks for a writer, I reckon.

Oh, PS: an article I wrote about the rise of the short story for the Writers' Guild mag, UK Writer, has just gone online.
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