Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Becoming A Commercial Novelist

Photo by Deborah Kuchar

Define Commercial Fiction

Fiction intended to make money. And in today's literary culture, that means conventional storytelling -- providing vicarious experience, a guided exercise in let's-pretend, characters that the reader either identifies with or finds amusing, a sense of rising action and immersion in an imaginary world, and so on. Dramatic fiction, in other words.

The Case Against

This is a juvenile activity on the parts of both the audience and the creator. The highest forms of literary expression deal with literary issues, not those of an imagined life. This kind of work can be pure hell for those of us who can sustain ourselves on the beauty of prose separate from any other concern. The marketplace used to be a snakepit, but has since been thrown into utter chaos.

I don't read fiction for pleasure very often. Since I don't read, how do I put myself in relationship to the audience? (For those who don't know, it's not like I'm unread. I was a compulsive reader up until I learned how to write properly, and went through a minimum of a book a day ranging up to five for most of my life. Yes, sometimes I read at freak speeds. I have one of those brains.)

I hate the idea that I might write down to my audience. I feel a little woozy and hubristic at the idea of writing for an audience.

I have no audience. What the hell am I thinking? I write stuff that makes demands on the reader. Nobody wants that crap.

And these days I look down on a lot of fiction. I mean, I read people like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald (to name a couple of writers who are too dead to be offended) and get irritated and judgmental. If I've developed a distaste for the form, how can I hope to do it well?

And there is nothing about the transmission of fiction that leaves me feeling good. I love bookstores and bookstore owners, but once you've seen a dumpster full of books or a row of carts filled with shelf-damaged books returned without payment from chain bookstores. I'd always dreamed of e-books, but now that they're here, I regard them as ugly ecological and labor disasters, part of the internet company store that is helping strip the planet bare as fast as possible while impoverishing as many as possible.

And what am I going to do, go on and do the same kind of project over and over just because I can do it? What about higher artistic goals?

The Case For

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. Everyone around me has regarded me as a nascent writer my whole life. And now I actually have the goods. I can write a deep, solid novel in less than a year, and I have a backlog of ideas that could fill my life if I never came up with anything else.

And I still love the form. I just am not in the audience anymore. The act of writing is terrific. The skill of projecting myself into another writer's work has been turned on itself, and the results are a hell of a lot of fun. I get more escapist pleasure out of writing than I ever did from reading, and the sense of being in control of the work resonates through my life, and makes me a stronger, happier, more confident person. The pleasure I take in writing imbues itself into the work. This isn't a masturbatory pleasure. It is a means of engaging with the world. I cannot give pleasure unless I experience it. The bargain we work with the world is more complex than I'll ever understand.

Reading fiction is a good hobby. It's one of those things like athletics that has a cascade of beneficial secondary effects. It is actually good for people. And the type of fiction I write -- dense, evocative, intellectually stimulating and demanding, highly emotional, rich in sensory detail -- really gives the brain a workout. I've seen enough responses to my art to know it works for the right audience. It's good for people and it makes them happy.

I do have an audience. The are personally connected with me at this point, and there aren't many of them. But the response to my work has been encouraging. It is going to take years more before I understand what the actual scope of my situation is, and it may never actually settle into a predictable pattern. But what I have seen so far is the growth of a...  the visual in my mind is of a slender yellow coral that sends out branches at ninety degree angles, covered with a green mist of algae. It branches and branches.

It may form a reef.

I have a publisher. I have the skills. I enjoy the work, and I am good at it. Why fight? Why not see how far it can go?

The Decision

I'm going to devote myself to commercial fiction for at least three novels before I make up my mind where to go next. Being a novelist alone isn't enough of a life, but if it can be a rewarding part of my life, then yeah. Why not? I have performance and visual art as arenas for my pretension. I can afford to do some middle-brow work for a while.

So. I've got Helping Henry in the works, then my big space opera, and then the next Henry.

And then we shall see. I have a graphic novel project I want to do, and I've been feeling weird about not doing paleo-art. But for the next year or two, I'm going to be a dedicated commercial novelist.

Then we'll see. Goddamnit.