I have spent the last years not making a living at being a writer; in particular the last 4 writing 2 novel manuscripts.  The first  went nowhere.  The second may soon follow suit.


For nearly all of that time I had as my credo an outlook very similar to this one, as outlined by Douglas Glover, writer (if you read the whole post, I got involved in quite an exchange with him, one that included regular Don Merritt, too):

A person writes because, through writing, he comes to know himself and the world better. A person may write for money or fame or to achieve social position by posing as a writer, but these are secondary and, to some extent, inauthentic motives that often result in inauthentic and second-rate writing. Inauthentic motives result in second-rate writing because they interpose someone else’s point of view between the writer and the work. The writer writes to an audience conceived loosely as a market. He writes to formula instead of form—and don’t be fooled: there are some very slick and intelligent-seeming formulas out there. Many people who want to be writers do not know themselves well enough to be able to sort out their motives. Again, don’t kid yourselves: most of what gets published is second-rate recyclable literature at best. (Why this would come as a surprise, or even be noteworthy, to anyone in his right mind I have no idea.) If you write to know yourself and the world better, as a means of becoming a better version of yourself in your writing, then certain questions need to be answered in the writing. Who are you? What does it mean to be a person? How can a person relate to other persons? What is real and how do you know the thing you think is real is real? What do you want? How do you differentiate, evade, quell, and dismiss all the false demands of fad, formula, packaging, expectation, received opinion, ideology, and commerce to achieve your own unique answers? How do you translate the answers into words on the page? And, perhaps most importantly, how can you make this fun? If you use your writing as a mode of inquiry, if your plots are dramatic collisions between self and other or between self and the real (always with the preceding questions in mind), and if you are brutally honest with yourself and your characters, then you have a shot at writing well.


But now I’m getting older and staring down the barrel of 30 years at a dayjob and with family responsibilities am not likely to take the leap into graduate school or MFA-land and thus secure a cushy teaching position (which are extremely hard to come by, in any case).  And so I’m wrestling with issues of “success”, and success as defined in American society as “money”, or at least, “making a living.”

My writing to this point has been very self-consciously literary.  I have taken as my models the Usual Great Ones, Nabokov and Proust and Dickens and Faulkner and etc etc etc.  You know, all those hoary old great books (and God, ain’t they truly great) that no one reads except for aspiring writers and college kids keeping the GPAs up.  The kind of writing that no publisher today would touch with someone else’s ten-foot pole.  No literary agent living today would get through the first paragraph of The Sound & The Fury without hitting “delete”.

So recently I’ve I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t attempt a  more popular mode of writing, the kind that does get read, the kind that people are willing to shell over some shekels to Amazon for.

But according to the credo above – which more or less used to be mine – I should eschew all such worldly concerns, and write solely for my own satisfaction, solely to achieve some aesthetic goal which I alone define.  By extension then, I should have no concern for any potential readers.  Either they see what I’m getting at, or don’t.  (In reality, there will be no readers unless first some editor and / or literary agent sees what I’m getting at first.)  I should not sully my pure aesthetic concerns with any form of pandering to the marketplace.  Hip hip hurrah for art!  Right?


I am not so sure.  Not anymore.  Later in the exchange Don Merritt told me to abandon all hope of making a living at writing.  In truth, I have only just begun to consider the possibility.  I used to ignore all that in pursuit of my own goals.  And as I consider what my next writing project will be, I am considering – for the first time – if I want to consider the reader, a potential audience, from the start.

Douglas Glover says that by doing as he suggested above, you have a chance at becoming a superlative writer.  I ask, who decides who is superlative?  Does the marketplace decide?  By that rationale, since about a billion people bought The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown must be a literary genius.  Lord help us.

But if it’s not up to the people, then is it up to the writer?  Can I just proclaim the genius of my unpublished manuscripts, which you’ve never read?

Do English professors get to decide?  How about critics?  I’m not thinking of the professionals so much as those who take the time to do starred reviews on Amazon.  You can even self-publish to Amazon, so everyone has a shot.  So – if a book gets, say, 100 5-star reviews, is it a good book?  If it gets 500, is it a GOOD book?

Who gets to decide, is what I want to know.

These may seem like naive questions.  (Douglas Glover characterized them as cynical on our comment exchange, which as I write this is still going on.)  But I mean them sincerely.  I admit to ignorance.

It would appear that after some years of concentrated writing, I have improved my techniques somewhat, but I actually know even less than when I began.  All I know now is that I don’t know.  Which is something.  But not much.

POSTSCRIPT: As I was finishing this post, Don Merritt posted the following over at Numéro Cinq, which is where all this got started.  It’s worth reproducing in full:

I once, in utter frustration, a long time ago, said something like this to my agent, that maybe I should just write genre formula fiction, sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and at least make a living.

She said, you won’t be able to do it. your attempt will stick out and stink like moldy cheese. Because, the successful writers of genre, formulaic fiction are not “writing down” to their audience. They are doing the very damn best they can do. They write directly to an audience that wants exactly what they produce, and they are doing it honestly and at their best ability.

You cannot fake this. You cannot write “down” to your audience and fool them. Judith Kranz (she was our example of this in those days) is writing the very best novel she could possibly write. She is better at this than you could ever be, because you have no interest in writing of this kind, you don’t read it, you disdain it, and it will always show.

In other words, if you want to be a successful genre formula writer, you have to actually be a genre formula writer.

An audience that loves Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is not going to want the Schlitz you offer them. They know the difference.

Just do whatever you do the best way you can do it. The only success, really, is being the best you can be at what you love.

Not the sort of success that pays the bills, I note – but maybe the only real kind of success there is.

Is it?

Editor’s Note: reprinted, with permission, from Court Merrigan’s blog.  PB



  1. It may not seem fair, but making a living as an artist means you are part of a market. As part of the market, it’s the market which decides what has value and what doesn’t.

    As for what sells, I think most people in their busy, work-filled lives don’t want to read a book that’s work to read, they want the more mindless, entertaining, easy “beach reads”, if they read at all. Do you really expect to find intellectual readers among the people who do nothing except watch reality TV?

  2. Despite the hype to the contrary by the literary establishment–critics, English professors, NY literati, etc., greatness is determined by time. To say any current writer has literary genius that will live forever is usually proven wrong.

    All you have to do to know that is to look at the reviews and comments about various authors we consider part of the literary pantheon then look at their contemporaries who were considered to be part of that pantheon but who have been forgotten.

    Heck, all you have to do is look back ten years or more to authors who were hyped as a lasting genius and no one remembers who they are now.

    I certainly agree that you should only write genre if you truly love genre because most readers can spot a phony.

    Also, surprisingly, genre is harder to get right than literary fiction because of reader expectations.

    Some years back, I talked to Lee Smith, a highly respected Southern literary writer, who told me that she had tried to break into the category romance market when it was wide open. After one novel, she quit because she discovered that writing these books was too dang hard.

  3. Common Sense, in the short term, yes, the market decides what has value. I repeat my question: does that mean The Da Vinci Code or Twilight is successful writing? Surely the market is not the only determinant of value. It’s just that I don’t know what is.

    And no, I don’t expect to find readers among those who only watch reality TV.

    Tracy, Shakespeare threw in a few dirty jokes for the groudlings, but he did not write for the market. The “Royal” in his’s Company’s name was not a branding moniker; he actually wrote and performed his plays for royalty. It is a misnomer, I think, that he wrote the pulp lit of his day. The literate public of his day was far too tiny to be considered a market, in the modern sense, I think.

    Marilynn, to prove your point about greatness being determined by time, check out this list of bestsellers of the 1920s, supposedly the halycon days of literature:


    How many of those names do you recognize? I know about half a dozen at most. No Great Gatsby, no Farewell to Arms, no Sound & The Fury. And yet, somehow, these are the books we remember.

    I think you are right that you can’t fake genre. Genre writers are doing their level best and you can’t compete, if you’re not also.

  4. Court, an interesting listing. I’m familiar with over half the authors listed, and a surprising number have remained in print over many years which some consider a true mark of greatness. I know Orson Scott Card said that a book can’t achieve immortality unless it’s passed along from generation to generation of readers. I tend to agree with him.

    Books like THE WIZARD OF OZ have been enshrined in our collective consciousness and our hearts rather than in the halls of academia, but I consider that equal to, if not more important, than academic plaudits for books almost no one reads except under duress by some teacher.

    Actually, Shakespeare did write as much to the cheap seats as he did to his noble sponsors. If he hadn’t, the rabble would have pelted his actors off the stage with rotting vegetables and other noxious things. They also helped pay the bills that the sponsors did not.

    The major influence the nobles had on his work was his subject matter and the care he had to take not to insult the Queen, her ancestors, or the over-sensitive nobles.

  5. I would agree that The Wizard of Oz has seeped deep into our collective cultural consciousness, but that’s because of Judy Garland, not because of the book.

    A few titles are both popular with the folks and academia; Great Gatsby , say, or Catch-22 , or To Kill A Mockingbird . Others, like, say, As I Lay Dying , are mostly with us because literature professors keep foisting them upon undergraduates. So I don’t know how those rate on Orson Scott Card’s sniff test. There is an undeniable greatness to Faulkner when he’s on, but he’s unreadable by contemporary standards.

    Although, come to think of it, so is Shakespeare. So I don’t know what the alchemy is.

    I’ll defer to you on Shakespeare knowledge. Maybe he was writing for the plebes as much as the nobles. But, in a parallel to Wizard of Oz, his works are remembered today not so much because they are read, but because they are performed.

  6. Court write: Can I just proclaim the genius of my unpublished manuscripts, which you’ve never read? …. Who gets to decide, is what I want to know.

    Well isn’t that one of the oldest questions concerning anything artistic. Music, art, writing, etc. Writing, like all of the arts is ultimately and totally subjective. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid. End of story.
    We have ‘literary’ writing and we have ‘popular’ writing. Literary is called literary because the, generally, self appointed elite call it literary and hence superior. Popular writing is liked by the majority of ordinary people. My own personal opinion is that when something is liked by the vast majority of ordinary people, then that makes it superior, de facto. In my world the people get to chose and define quality in the wider sense.
    The Art world is similarly structured. Self appointed elite who try to tell us that a messy bed in the middle of a gallery is high art. The vast majority of ordinary people don’t buy into this kind of self indulgent nonsense. So the elite and the terminally over-wealthy get to play int heir own silly sandbox while the rest of the people enjoy beauty and form and shape.

    For the artist/writer I guess it all comes down to what you want out of life. Popularity and/or self fulfilment. Some writers are completely fulfilled writing their natural style and end up incredibly popular. Some writers chose the elite style and end up scraping a living but also fulfilled. Equally the opposite can be chosen. It’s all up to the artist/writer imho. ‘Integrity’ is in the eye of the beholder. Success is achieved by matching one’s own chosen criteria.

    My only request is that they don’t complain and whinge about it. It is their choice and like all of us we make choices and get on with it.

    On a recent episode of “Antiques Roadshow” an elderly gentleman brought a quite large painting of a middle east scene with locals and jar carriers. It was really beautiful imho. The expert, in an amused manner, regaled everyone with the story of how these paintings were ‘knocked off’ in their hundreds, if not thousands, a hundred years or more ago in the middle east, with several different artists contributing their speciality character in the paintings and they were only worth about 200 euros. The man was not dismayed. He smiled as he looked at the painting and said, confidently, that he and his wife and family absolutely loved it and it has pride of place in their home. The expert bit his lip … and said ‘well, I can’t honestly disagree, it is quite beautiful’.
    For me this encapsulated the ridiculous world of the elite art world.

  7. Howard, I disagree that everyone’s opinion on literature is equally valid. As I mentioned in my post, by that rationale Twilight must be fantastic literature. Clearly something else is at play. Great literature must have an audience, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it’s a popularity contest.

  8. Hmm, this discussion needs some new fodder. So I offer this:

    Literary works are often considered to be those that challenge the reader to think. They aren’t just entertainment. They’re about something other than the literal characters and the literal story line.

    Some are constructed as delights of English prose, filled with words you rarely see or hear and with sentence constructions you rarely see or hear. They use adjectives, adverbs, participial phrases, similes, metaphors, other rhetorical forms, and complex-compound sentences combined into lengthy paragraphs, all of which would lead to almost instant rejection if present in a genre work. The reading comprehension level for genre fiction is tenth-grade at the most, and more typically sixth-grade. Literary fiction is typically written at a college level.

    Some literary works are symbolic in nature, and some others are allegorical. In either case, the reader is expected to recognize that the story is not the story—it’s at most a parable—and to consider what the author was really talking about. The author might have a personal perspective that s/he is trying to convey, or conversely might be illustrating that some situation has no clean solution.

  9. Bertrand Russell was certainly not an elitist. He was wealthy enough to play cricket all day and dally with women every evening; instead he devoted his writings and his 98 years of life-work to improving the education of — and the living conditions of — the poor and the middle class.

    It would be great fun to meet for tea and discuss this captivating theme (Quality versus popularity) with fellow TeleReaders. Maybe there will be a “TeleRead MeetUp” in our future, or a TeleRead Ebook Conference.

    Here are some things that I’ve read on this theme that might be of interest.

    An excellent article about distinguishing the difference between popularity and quality:

    Is the Long Tail Full of Cr*p?

    One of the most frequent mistakes people make about the Long Tail is to assume that things that don’t sell well are “not as good” as things that do sell well. Or, to put it another way, they assume that the Long Tail is full of cr*p. After all, if that album/book/film/whatever were excellent, it would be a hit, right?
    Well, in a word, no. …

    An entire book on the subject: by Andrew Keen, who believes that amateur opinions — opinions without knowledge that pretend to be knowledge — are harming our culture:

    The Cult of the Amateur

    And of course the classic by Ortega & Gassett:
    The Revolt of the Masses

    Bloomin’ Controversy …
    How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

    And Lessons from the World’s Longest Novel …
    How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
    Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9dwwVvGfVQ
    Author web page: http://www.alaindebotton.com/literature.asp

    For me, that’s the vital difference. I might be entertained for a short time by a novel or a James Bond film by Ian Fleming. But quality authors like Proust, Kazantzakis, Hesse, Thoreau — and so on — not only provide reading pleasure, but never fail to give me wisdom and courage, and transform my life.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks
    (Not an elitist book; New edition coming in September 2010.)

  10. Howard said, “Well isn’t that one of the oldest questions concerning anything artistic. Music, art, writing, etc. Writing, like all of the arts is ultimately and totally subjective. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid. End of story.”

    When someone says this, I know they slept through their college English courses or didn’t take any. Matters of taste can’t be disputed, but matters of quality can. It is possible to quantify the quality of a piece of fiction from the craft to the resonance. It’s possible to say whether the fiction is competent or a work of art.

    As to literary fiction, it’s a genre just like any other with certain requirements of subject matter, literary style, and reader expectations. Most writers of literary fiction deny this because this makes them seem as lowly as mystery or romance, but it is the truth.

    As to my being an elitist, yes, I have a number of degrees in literature from some excellent universities, but I write genre fiction including romance and science fiction. You can’t be more populist than that.

  11. Michael – I think it might be even more fun to meet over vodka and scotch!

    What Michael says: “I might be entertained for a short time by a novel or a James Bond film by Ian Fleming. But quality authors like Proust, Kazantzakis, Hesse, Thoreau — and so on — not only provide reading pleasure, but never fail to give me wisdom and courage, and transform my life.”

    This pretty much sums up what I think about the difference between literary and genre fiction. Therefore I dispute your claim, Marilynn, that literary fiction is merely one more genre. Literary fiction, at its best, goes beyond mere entertainment. It elicits that little thrill at the base of your spine that alerts you to the presence of beauty.

    The fact that the vast majority of contemporary literary fiction does not give you that little thrill, the fact that the vast majority of it is downright dull, only means those practictioners aren’t doing it right (in which category I place myself, though I’d like to escape the ghetto!).

    Literary fiction, in general, aspires to art. Genre fiction, in general, aspires to entertainment.

    I would say that the BEST kind of writing combines the best of both genre and literary writing, in becoming artful entertainment. Or entertaining art? I don’t know – but my favorite books generally have a healthy dose of both. Genre fiction very very well written can approach art.

    Sadly, very little that is written today is either genuinely entertaining, or genuinely artful. Or so it seems to me.

  12. At the risk of annoying my learned friends here on Teleread I am going to persevere with my anti elitism argument ..

    Doug wrote: Literary works are often considered to be those that challenge the reader to think. They aren’t just entertainment. They’re about something other than the literal characters and the literal story line.

    The issue I have with your statement above, Doug, is that this is exactly what elites have always said about what they consider to be superior. They always fall back on the “oh it’s too challenging for ordinary people, too complex.. etc.” In fact I believe that elites often intentionally chose to elevate obscure and quirky art/writing to that of being ‘superior’ for the sole reason that it marks them out as being the only ones to ‘understand’ and ‘appreciate’ them.
    I do not believe that there is a persuasive argument that we can equate ‘complexity’ or ‘challenging’ with quality.

    On my reading of Mr Kean’s own description of his book and Random House’s own description I would opine that he is the quintessential and most obnoxious variety of elitist. In fact the very name and sub title of his book drip with patronising elitism.
    Those that think one has to be a professional to have a valid and valuable insight and opinion into what are wholly subjective topics. The insider journalists who now find that the bloggersphere are being respected as much as their precious ‘professional’ journalism. They are appalled that ordinary amateur people are being compared with them. The truth is that journalism is a very tiny professional community and many many people who have pursued other careers have equal or more talent for writing and assessing and opining than these professionals. The only culture being harmed by this fantastic revolution is Kean’s own personal culture bubble. This is most definitely being harmed in a big way.

    Michael above talks about receiving wisdom from ‘quality’ authors. I contest this vigorously because I have learned many’s a piece of deep insight and wisdom in my life from reading mainstream popular novels and popular television and film – and I don’t believe for a moment that those learned from ‘quality’ books are any superior, except in perception.

    I do sympathise with those holding these elitist views however 🙂 when one grows up in or becomes part of a community that considers itself to be an arbiter of quality, it becomes exceedingly difficult to see the world in any other way that through those eyes. Everything is interpreted through those eyes and it all ‘makes perfect sense’.

  13. Howard, speaking for myself, I am not at all “annoyed” (as you wrote); there is no risk in that. We are having the same kind of conversation here at TeleRead that I have frequently enjoyed with my friends, sitting across my dinner table, as I attempt to persuade them to non-violently disassemble their televisions, and to replace all that wasted tv-screen time with reading quality books.

    Here in these comments that we exchange, I am trying to understand how you see the literary world, and where exactly we disagree. Maybe our disagreement will change my views; maybe they will change yours. (Most likely, as when two inert elements meet, there will be no change at all.)

    Here’s our first disagreement: I don’t see only two circles of readers (“elitist” versus “popular”), I see many. As Court said, dividing this pluralistic society into two classes only just seems too simple to be true. There is a big middle that contains many readers who love “quality” literature with a passion, and distinguish it from mass market products. We are not snobs because we make careful and intelligent observations and distinctions.

    I think that the “popular” writers themselves would disagree with your slant on this. When you listen to interviews with popular writers, they often admit that they write for money and fame. They would laugh out loud at the notion that what they are doing is quality: they admit that they would rather sell than starve. They may call themselves “talented” or “good craftsman”, but they don’t pretend that “great” books do not exist, or that their work is anything even near to great.

    Our main disagreement is about the difference between quality and popular writings. You have been saying that the most popular is the highest quality. And I disagree very strongly with that.

    Here are the most popular (and wealthiest) contemporary authors.
    [Quoting below from one of my own essays:]

    From the 12-month time period from June 1, 2009 to June 1, 2010, the income of a small number of writers soared, while other authors and books worth reading are neglected, rejected or unpublished. J.K. Rowling had a low year, taking in only 10 million dollars — keep in mind, though, that Rowling did not publish a book during those 12 months. Nicholas Sparks earned 14 million, edged out by John Grisham with 15 million, Janet Evanovich with 16 million, Dean Koontz with 18 million, and Ken Follett with 20 million. The fourth and third highest-paid authors were Danielle Steele (32 million) and Stephen King (34 million). The 40 million-dollar club has one member only: Stephenie Meyer, creator of the “Twilight” series. Soaring far above all other authors, with 70 million dollars made last year, is James Patterson. As mentioned above, Patterson does not always write his own books (he employs a team of assistants). And if you bought a new book recently in the USA, then there is a 1 out of 17 chance that it is a book by Patterson. Patterson’s recent book deal guarantees him another (estimated) 100 million dollars if he can crank out 17 more novels by the end of the year 2012.

    In sum, the top list is:

    1. James Patterson
    2. Stephanie Meyer
    3. Stephen King
    4. Danielle Steele
    5. Ken Follett
    6. Dean Koontz
    7. Janet Evanovich
    8. John Grisham
    9. Nicholas Sparks
    10. J.K. Rowling

    Howard, here are two questions for you that will help me to grasp your point of view:

    1. Are you arguing that because these are the most popular, and these authors have made more money than any other authors in history, that the quality of work of these specific authors is significantly better than all the other authors now and in the history the world — of course, adjusting for inflation through the centuries ?

    2. What are the names of these “quality” authors who you have been talking about, whose wisdom is no better than the mainstream popular novels and television programmes and blockbuster films ?

    Howard, in the end, we might agree to disagree; that’s fine with me. But I do want to mention a marvelous semi-autobiographical novel by Jack London (it’s in public domain and free), titled Martin Eden. Martin was a working man and, for a time, a pirate — not an ebook pirate, a pirate on the high seas. He didn’t “get” the point of quality books until he was in his mid-twenties, when he met a marvelous woman who taught him to distinguish the genuine in literature, from the commercial variety.

    I think that my slant on this theme would become much clearer to anyone who gives a careful reading to this surprising and delightful novel. But just read the book for your own pleasure and enlightenment.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

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