A writer friend recently asked me: would you rather be an author whose craft is incredibly accomplished but who sells very little, although he is immensely appreciated by a select few (à la George Saunders, above, although of course his most recent book seems to have catapulted him to higher sales and increased popularity), or a writer who is not in any away exceptional in terms of literary quality but who sells millions of copies and is very wealthy (the example he gave was Suzanne Collins, although arguably someone like Stephanie Meyer would be more appropriate)?
I had initially no idea which of these models attracted me more. At this point in my life, getting published in a minor Canadian literary magazine seems like a major accomplishment. Still, my friend’s question made me ponder.
I began to think about those middle-aged literary writers who are sort of well-known. They get nominated and sometimes win some of the big literary prizes, they write important books with big themes, they receive positive reviews, they sometimes teach in renowned MFA programs, and yet they never seem to reach the stratospheres of literary fame. They’re the David Gates’s, the Jim Shepards of the book world. There are dozens of them. They appear to be able to support themselves with their art, but they don’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies or go on widely advertised book tours and The Guardian never quotes their Twitter accounts (as they do, say, Magaret Atwood). Admittedly, the first kind of writer, arguably under-appreciated, probably don’t want all the attention that the famous kind gets. They’re quite happy to be doing what they do and, as long as they can make enough money to be comfortable and support themselves to write the next book, they’re happy, right?
Another problematic of this debate is the fact that my friend may in fact have expressed a false dichotomy (albeit one that you often hear). Why is it that we always assume books that sell a lot are of poor literary quality, while finely written books remain obscure to the majority of readers? Certainly, there are authors who are able to bridge both worlds. Ian McEwan is famous and is wealthy enough to own a large house in London and a Georgian mansion in the countryside, and yet I definitely consider him a literary writer. There is nothing remotely pulpy about his books. Junot Díaz is another example: he is tremendously famous, he won important prizes, his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and yet he is a literary, and even brainy, author.
And, a full answer to the question demands that we take a look at today’s publishing industry. Back in the day, publishing houses were ready to nurture talent; they would buy young writers in (often at a loss) on the basis of potential and stick with them until they broke through (Mordecai Richler is a case in point). Except now publishing houses are tightening their belts, which means they can’t use their bestselling authors to support a list of mid-range literary writers. Because they can’t risk losing money, writers who don’t sell aren’t given second chances. In this context, what my friend was really asking was: are you ready to starve for your art. So, in a way, the question that was asked to me could’ve been: would you rather be an eminent master of craft who struggles to pay the bills (and probably has to pick up a day job to finance his writing, which may not even be published) or a successful sell-out. Of course, coming back to my earlier point, I think I have enough faith in readers to believe that there still exists a middle ground: quality writing that also sells.
Of course, no matter what my answer is, it won’t change anything to what I will (or will not) accomplish. Anyone’s future as a writer is as much a matter of fiction as the stories they write. We don’t really get to choose. We just do our best with the skills we have and try to produce the best work we can in the circumstances. With any luck, the stories will find readers who appreciate them.