Marauding marketers make a mess of a serious pulp fiction artist by selling lots of books
The old myth of the struggling romantic artist who can't compete with the carnival-barkers just won't die... we won't let it
I read a post earlier this week from a young author who writes genre books in the "Pulp Revolution" movement.
On the surface it was an ode to the power of art.
Art ought to aspire to greatness, reflecting the True, Good, and Beautiful.
But beyond the Platonic Forms, there was a current of anxiety behind it all.
How the heathens reading on the Kindle Store just don't care about good art...
How those blasted marketers with those formulaic plots and cardboard characters are colonizing the rankings and taking sales from the good books...
How can a lowly author of genre fiction compete against those odds?
I can admire the spirit. Everybody loves the underdog trying to make his way when the deck's stacked against him.
It's the undercurrent of negativity that I can't abide
I don't mean to pick on this author.
I don't know him, I'm only familiar with his online presence, but from the tone I assume (wrongly perhaps) that he's young and raw. Which is commendable if so, as I can only wish I'd had such focus and spirit when I was young and raw.
But this us-against-them framing sends a message, if only to your own unconscious mind.
Yes, I am powerless, helpless, despairing, anxious, and afraid.
You tell yourself that you are the underdog and like magic that reality appears.
That attitude signals neediness. Nobody can control the outcomes that happen. You can't lecture people on what they like (not if you want to sell books).
Plus, this narrative gets all caught up in that overused dichotomy between True Art and crass carnival-barking salesmanship.
Done to death. Not only is it sentimental angst-peddling, it's not even true.
Nothing gets in the way of a good writer being an excellent salesman for his own work.
Lack of Vision and Will To Get It Done
The part about the aspiration to truth, beauty and goodness, that part I like. It's good to have ambitions.
Even better when those ambitions are worthy.
But I'm uneasy about this thought that you only get to the True, Good, and Beautiful through this restless, exhaustive quest for realistic minutiae.
That only the serious artiste who takes his work seriously... who labors over it, who lives out the angst of the tortured romantic artist... can create any works of artistic merit.
Here is a tireless artist who will settle for nothing but the best.
The question is whether the best, in the superlative meanings of the Platonic Ideas, is realized through tireless research into background detail.
I certainly don't want to knock reading, depth, and immersion. These are essential for any writer worth reading.
But I'm sketchy on this belief that hitting the books in itself creates better stories.
It certainly doesn't matter much to "the reader" (although that expression creates its own problems -- more on this below).
Does it matter to the serious artiste?
Does it matter to the High Art that you are creating?
And what about the poor reader who only wants a few hours of entertainment?
There's several moving parts here.
If you're writing "pulp" weird, horror, SFF, or action/adventure stories, my first gut reaction is...
Don't be so damn pretentious
You're writing mental popcorn for a few hours of entertainment.
That's how your readers see it. You are giving them a certain cognitive and emotional experience.
Then there's the issue of craft.
There's a mile-wide gap between being well read and doing the research so that I can craft this story in exquisite platinum and diamond.
Having done something, whether by experience or training or reading or whatever, is important.
But good storytelling isn't good research.
Good storytelling isn't about stacking tropes, either.
I think both of these miss the point of a good story.
They implicitly accept...
The Myth of the "Perfectible Story"
Writers ought to know something about something if they're going write stories.
Otherwise you get empty-headed authors writing uninspired retreads of anime cartoons they watched five years ago, with write-by-numbers plots and cardboard characters following the formula of the latest Marvel cape-flick.
A pile of "tropes" shoved together into a pile that looks like a seven year old's uncleaned bedroom does not a story make.
No arguments there.
My complaint is about the belief that getting to PhD depth of knowledge about some subject translates to either superior story or superior craft in telling it.
The line between realism and indulgent nerdish worldbuilding is thin indeed. We already know how the worldbuilder's disease proves every bit a distraction as trope-chasing.
It takes a skilled and practiced hand to walk that line with the proper care.
In fact, this little border-war between "tropes" and high-art worldbuilders isn't really about storytelling.
It's a disagreement over the best kind of details to construct a story with.
Let's not confuse a solid authenticity of character, motive, and action, grounding in sensory details and emotions and opinions with...
Obsession with the details about unimportant stuff
The kind of stuff that requires research instead of authorial creativity and ingenuity.
Characters aren't collections of facts.
Character portrays a fictional person.
Persons like you and me, the real-live flesh and blood human beings walking around.
Persons are shaped by their history, memories, skills, families, cultural upbringing, psychodynamic motives, and Lord even knows what else we could throw on this list.
Research shapes that perspective.
But ultimately a character is what all of us are:
A single individual caught in the puzzle of existence.
Character is revealed through action. Action creates character. Story is nothing but the dramatization of successive and logically-related character actions and reactions.
Aristotle saw this as clearly as anyone, before or since.
I can agree that the purpose of art is truth, the revelation of beautiful, good, fine, excellent, and noble things.
I can hardly disagree with a point I find so obvious and self-evident.
You lose me when you say that you get there by packaging up more objective facts and details and nerd-minutiae.
That's just a different kind and quality of trope.
The problem of writing art in a shameless marketplace is a manufactured non-problem
Point one, you can market and sell your work as sure as any of these sales-savvy "genre colonizers" can do it.
And you can do that without dressing up as a dancing clown with balloon animals and dropping a greasy bucket of KFC on the white linen tablecloth, to borrow an image from marketing great Dan Kennedy.
If "bad books" can become bestsellers through clever marketing, then what prevents a book of true quality from getting there?
The answer is simple, even if you don't want to hear it.
Your standard of quality isn't the quality that the reader wants.
Things don't sell because of what they are.
Things sell because of how they appear to the people who might want and buy them.
But let's pause here and get back to this concept of "the reader".
Who is that?
Do you know?
Before you slag off "the market" for being drooling rubes who can't appreciate good art, you'd better be able to answer that question.
Who are your books for?
What experiences do you create for them?
If "the market" doesn't want your high-flying art... maybe the problem is with you.
Your high-concept Platonic values might make you feel good... but...
What are you doing for the people you expect to buy, read, and enjoy your work?
Point two, you can get good-enough at your craft that you don't need to do all this worldbuilding background research to tell well-crafted stories that sell.
Your writerly career is not about this book... or any one book. It's about all of them. Write, publish, move to the next one.
As a reader, I don't care. When I pick up Robert E. Howard or Lovecraft or Burroughs or Leiber story, I'm looking to see monsters get punched in the face by warrior barbarians.
That's it. Give me cool monsters and punching and I'm happy.
If you want to talk excellence, Leiber's as fine example as you'll find. His Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories are fantastic, at times horrifying, laugh-out-loud funny, populated by interesting, strange, and compelling characters, written with a "high literary" ambition yet easy reading style, told as a serial with no hurry to advance the "plot".
I don't know how much research he did for these tales set as they are in an invented sub-created world (though there's much overlap with the world of medieval Europe and the Hellenistic Mediterreanean in a few stories).
Whatever the case, Leiber had done a little reading in advance, no doubt.
What makes the world of Nehwon plausible and our heroes' adventures so exciting isn't the research.
It's the word-craft.
If an expert were to tell me that the barbarian Fafhrd's war-craft was not authentic, that the Grey Mouser's thievery was wrong in so many ways...
I'd tell that dork to take a hike.
Don't go messing up my entertainment with your fedora-tipping nerd crap.
Point is, I don't know about the reality behind the imaginary world. It's entirely irrelevant to my experience.
But that's me. Some readers clearly do care.
Tattoo this on your forearm:
You Are Not Your Audience
I'm a particular sort of reader. I write to readers who are like me.
My own stories take place in fantastical settings and I make no bones about this. My worlds are more created than researched.
There was a time when I obsessed over numbers. I read research papers about different kinds of biology, did math to figure out the length of planetary orbits, calculated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
I didn't write any better stories.
I barely wrote any stories because I was so busy reading and researching so I'd have a "realistic world" and "interesting people".
What a waste of time.
I'm not writing to the fedora-tipping gammas who will write me angry screeds because I wrote a sword-fighting scene wrong, accidentally had a character fire six rounds from a five-shot revolver, or wrote about a planet that couldn't exist if you do the math.
I find those people tedious and I don't want them in my world.
If my kind of writing drives them away, that's a perk.
This strategy is not about "writing to the market".
I don't care about the market.
I write to my readers.
"There's no market for my work" might mean that your work is pretentious, over-written, and more focused on getting obsessively-detailed research into the story than telling the story as its best told for the reader.
There is no binary between selling to a large readership and making good art.
That divide is one of those self-imposed categories.
A mental prison of your own creation.
Don't buy it.
You have more opportunity to write, publish, distribute, and promote your work than any time in history.
There's no comparison.
The belief you must be rid of is...
The false belief that a perfectible story is a better story
Perfectible doesn't mean perfect.
It means that the author believes that slaving over it by researching details, constructing characters and plot-events out of those details, editing, revising, sending it off to 20 first readers and a crit group of self-interested drama magnets yields a better story.
Perfectible means that a story can be moved towards perfection, even if it is unattainable in reality, if the writer lavishes enough care -- usually by committee -- on the precious work.
That part I doubt very much.
Here's what I do think happens.
You, the author and writer, learn, grow, improve, and become a better storyteller with each story you tell.
You don't improve by rewriting one book to artistic perfection.
You do improve by writing lots of books.
Instead of perfecting that one story... Perfect Yourself As A Creator
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