This past weekend we had house guests. A friend I hadn’t seen in a long time visited with her new husband. I hadn’t met him yet, but I knew he was a scientist who has been writing a children’s fantasy chapter book.
We ended up discussing writing over breakfast. The scientist-writer said that at a writing conference he attended writers were asked if they wanted to write timeless novels or if they wanted to be marketable.
The idea is that, as a writer, you can aim for the highest quality writing or you can focus on writing what will sell. The implication is that these two goals rarely, if ever, overlap.
My friend’s husband thought a lot of writers want to be marketable because they need to make money from their writing. He argued that this goal is a manifestation of capitalism (which he favors), and that the market should determine which are the best books, the most deserving of being read. I would add he is also talking about democracy (although he didn’t say that) and that the vote of the reader will shape what will be read and published.
But should the number of readers be the main or only consideration for which books ultimately succeed?
Maybe if I look at the subject through visual art, I can see the issue more clearly. I love the old and new masters at the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Courtauld. To be able to see a piece anew every time one sees it (or a representation of it) truly reveals the depth of the artistry.
But I admit that I love cels of Disney cartoon art. I love them for their imagination and because they resonate with the popular culture I grew up in. No way do I think they are art of the quality of a Renoir or a Picasso. And I don’t want to live in a world with only Disney cels. Or pictures of babies with angel wings (as cute as they are).
So I think the idea of capitalism determining the books that are published and that we read can be carried too far because we still need deeper, more complex, and finely crafted literature, not just books that sell well.