Why ‘commercial’ is not a dirty word

For me, it comes down to one simple matter: Why do you write?

There is one major dividing line, of worth, within literature, that which lies between art and commerce. Some automatically hear the word commercial and assume, mindless, shallow, silly, and a million other derogatory terms which amount to the really puzzling phrase, ‘worthless entertainment designed only to make as much money as possible’. Words sometimes assume new meanings which really bewilder me and seem in most ways a reduction of their original intent.

When did commercial evolve to mean crap? When did entertainment evolve to mean mindless?

To entertain : to engage and hold the attention; to amuse; to interest.

Where does the mindless come in? Surely it is an adjective that must be added, yet it has become an inbuilt presumption.

As for commercial, it simply doesn’t make sense to me that we save our worst for the public. In no other arena except for art would this be so blithely accepted as the truth. Can you imagine sitting around talking about your new upright hoover, you know the far poorer cousin to the brilliantly effective Hoosit, but it’s so easy to get seduced by the crap… If I burn the toast I scrape the worst off, if I am working in a hotel serving breakfast I throw it in the bin. Knowing that others will read what you write should make you strive to be the very best you can be, knowing they will pay you for the privilege should keep you up at night.. at least now and again anyway..

Certainly commerce is not the natural forum of risk. The work has been tested, tried, like your hoover, (vaccum cleaner if American) and proven to do its job. But what is the job of literature? Entertainment? Certainly to engage and hold your attention would seem to be the only way by which it will work. Unlike a film, a book will not play without your willing and active participation. Perhaps that is why I have no inbuilt prejudice against the paradigm of publishers and agent as gatekeepers. As long as they are functioning under the premise of, does this do its job? Did it engage, did it hold my attention? They are the testing ground and it was, perhaps still is, common to employ readers specifically for this purpose.

I have – honest! – no issue with the label of  art laid against literature. Likewise I am not against experimental fiction; some would say a subset of lit-fic, I would say the only valid form of lit-fic I have ever come across and am thus willing to accept. And equally, as befits my entire point, to say commercial fiction is bereft of artistic merit is ridiculous. The difference lies not in quality, an entirely subjective measure, but in intent. Why do you write?

The artist, the experimenter,  people who break down walls, headbutt them into oblivion, write their entire manuscript with their toes, are as necessary in this field as they are in any. Most of today’s conventions are yesterday’s innovations. Don’t know why the toe thing never took off.. And much of what drives an artist – self expression, intellectual curiosity, emotional catharsis –  is also present and vital in commercial literature.  The difference, the crucial difference, is that art has the needs of the writer at its heart, while commerce considers the needs of the reader.

The artist has no interest in mass consumption, making money or amassing fans. They publish, yes, because this is their classroom, their laboratory. They put it out there so that others can see it, absorb, ponder and contribute to the discourse, even if in doing so they take it out of the classroom and put it onto our shelves, it is still not commercial.

Any book can be both, of course, some would say, and I would likely agree with them, that the best work is always where the two merge. As a writer I try always to be my own reader. It is my one piece advice (the rest of this is simply theorizing), the only one I would even consider laying ‘should’ before. The writer in me could play with words forever, the reader wants to know what happens next..

Advertisers figured this out a long time ago. Don’t tell people, Buy this great hoover, show them the happy housewife saying, I love this hoover, its made my life so much easier… The problem arises not in understanding how to reach people, but when people stop being honest. Those words, it would seem, are easily bought, clever marketing mistaken as passion. I truly believe that those writers so often dismissed as sell outs, the Meyers and Browns, are writing the books they genuinely would like to read. Whatever you make of their skills as either storytellers or writers (though I struggle with the distinction myself), they are passionate about what they do. The Da Vinci Code is an easy sell, a controversial arrow shot straight through the heart of the worlds largest religion, but it was in fact Dan Brown’s fourth novel and followed the very same formula he’d clearly already fallen in love with, as had, I would presume given their relatively poor sales, his publisher and agent.

When we stop asking, what do readers want, answering in the only true way we can, with what the reader in us is looking for, and start asking instead, how can we make them part with their money? That’s when we’re in trouble.

I think we’re in trouble.

This is not commerce, its a con. The trailer is better than the film. Books are being selected and sold on the basis of their blurb. The tagline matters more than the product. A writer is told to be a commodity, be aware of the market, know the genre your work fits into, and genre, more than ever before, more than I have ever been aware of, is all. They have become ruts, checkout lines designed for speed and ease, sales pitches for the unimaginative.

Writers should be writers. Good writers, productive writers, driven by the desire to be the best they can be. They should be readers, avid, passionate and willing, but they should not ever be salesmen. This is not commerce. It does not entertain. But it is most definitely mindless and crap.





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