A recent blog post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner got me thinking about finding purpose as writers. Not in a higher-power sense, but in a more pragmatic way. Are we out there to sell, writing with a strong commercial bent? Or are we telling our heart’s truth—even if that means we reach a smaller group of people? Do we want to make a living from our writing, or are we content to reach a smaller group of people but perhaps take a more literary bent? As Gardner points out in a related post, the books that win prizes don’t always become bestsellers. The books that are bestsellers sometimes don’t get the best reviews.
I’m not sure I believe in this dichotomy and, to be fair, neither, it seems, does Gardner. We can find a middle ground, writing for market and still trying to unravel the mysteries of the human condition. I do believe that is possible. The books we love tell us something about ourselves. There are many writers whose works are testaments to the fact that writing popular novels doesn’t mean letting go of the search for deeper meaning.
So how do we find the line? What’s the difference between Milan Kundera and Sherrilyn Kenyon? Aren’t they both telling us something about ourselves? Don’t they both move us? I enjoy the works of both and consider them good—no, make that really good—writers. Who wouldn’t cry while reading about Karenin’s smile in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? (I dare you to try.) Who isn’t moved by the healing power of love that is such a strong motif in Kenyon’s novels?
I often dream of writing those “high-art vs. low-art” categories on a board. Where does J.R.R. Tolkien go? Ursula K. Le Guin? Do they belong next to reality shows like Rock of Love or Jersey Shore? Have they “earned” a place next to Pablo Neruda and Albert Camus? At the end of this imaginary exercise, I envision myself drawing a big ‘X’ over the entire thing. I believe this is best done with chalk in a rough, wide movement to achieve the most dramatic effect. One must always be dramatic when asking such questions. 😉
It’s the work of scholars—and perhaps humanity as a whole—to ask and ponder questions about art and society. All sides have merit and value. You don’t have to love Twilight, but I think it’s still worth scholarly study; it’s still worth talking about. It’s still worth pondering why we love the books we do and what that says about us as individuals and cultures.
So, as writers, do we have to choose? Who out there is torn between writing what’s “literary” and what “sells?” Have you been asked to choose? If so, what would you choose, and why? Is there a line we have to toe, and how do you find it? And I wonder, if I write a thousand novels, will I ever know the answers to these questions? Or are there no answers?
Well, I’m getting verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves!