“What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day, over a bottle of wine. He went on to say that creating lists of titles that were eclectic, sourced from many different countries, and – frankly – clever, was getting harder and harder to do. Safe bets are increasingly the order of the day.
I’ve heard other people in the business say more-or-less the same thing, especially since the recession started to bite. Most of them blame the retailers, or the publishers, or the media, but I wonder if writers aren’t to blame as well. Maybe even the Internet.
Follow any on-line forum for writers, and while different views will be expressed, the core message from 'those who know' is the same: publishing is a business; you can’t buck the market; leave your ego at the door; the writer is the servant, not the master. Given the difficulties new writers face getting into print – the sheer size of the odds stacked against them – it’s no wonder the message gets home: writing is a craft, not an art. Like a screenwriter-for-hire, you produce what your paymasters want you to produce, or there’s the door.
Allied to this is a subtle, but intimidating anti-elitism, that seeks to characterise artistic endeavour in almost any field, but especially literature, as self-indulgent or pretentious. I read one comment posted on a newspaper forum that said: “The days when the few speak and the many listen are over.” He thought the explosion in twittering and blogging and YouTube meant that the novel was effectively dead, and good riddance (especially the ‘literary’ novel, naturally). He obviously preferred the alternative: that the many speak and nobody listens.
I wonder if all this market realism hasn’t gone too far and struck home too deep. Should new writers (or old ones, for that matter) really be worrying about publishers’ bottom lines? Shouldn’t they – it almost sounds like heresy to say it – be worried about following their own vision, going where the Muse or the spirit or their imaginations take them? In short, thinking like artists – even if they fail. Because most are going to fail anyway, at least in financial terms. The trouble with all this wary pragmatism, with writers streamlining their ideas until they fit seamlessly into a recognizable sub-genre or type, is that it starts to make anything that doesn't fit look eccentric and risky. In other words, true originality can be mistaken for naivety or even incompetence - resulting in a swift No Sale.
One of the UK’s most eminent literary agents wrote a short piece in the Guardian newspaper last year, offering advice to new writers. It ended: “Don't second-guess the market, but do persevere and write authentically.” In other words, to use the well-worn phrase: to thine own tortured imagination be true.