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03/02/2006

Comments

R. J. Thomson

I optimistically disagree that 'serious writers will never attract a "popular" audience', and am baffled that you 'don't see why they would want to'. The current publishing/media climate does make it hard to imagine the best work being paid the most attention, but the idea that seriousness (in this sense 'good' seriousness - depth of thought, purpose, vitalism) is opposed to that which can be popularly found among humans has nothing in common with my experiences, at least, either as a reader or day to day person. The second point is bizarre. Of course writers, and I would think particularly serious writers, want to reach a popular audience. To write is to place enormous faith in the value of communication. To hope for fewer, rather than more, readers, would be entirely contrary to that conviction.

Dan Green

By "popular audience" in this context I mean the audience that consistently gobbles up the new Stephen King and the new John Grisham. Serious writers will indeed never reach this audience. Since this audience is mostly characterized by its indifference to the "serious" in writing--whether in theme or form--it's beyond me why serious writers would want to reach it.

R. J. Thomson

I've started my commenting career on a bad note, especially as I enjoy the blog very much, but I'll stick to my guns on this one.
Serious writing is about more than serious writing, it's about life as a whole (even as a passionate reader, I draw a distinction). That writing has a fundamental relationship with experience in general is a point I'm pretty sure you appreciate, based on your 'Life records' post of a few days ago, on Shakespeare. Shakespeare told his truth as far as he could relate it. What writer would want to do otherwise? In doing so, Shakespeare was also writing for, playing to, and reaching a popular audience.
Saying one kind of audience is 'undesirable' is easier kept as a generalisation. I think it would be impossible to say to two adult people, 'This writing is so good it's for you but not you', which is ultimately what it comes down to.
I like this (isolated) quote, from Mark Vonnegut: 'We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.'

Dan Green

I don't in the least object to writers reaching as wide an audience as they can--although I don't necessarily think this should be a primary goal. If you do good work, and readers come, great. I do question the wisdom of seeking the "popular audience" as I defined it in the previous comment. Since this audience appears to have no interest in serious fiction--however we want to define it--only compromise and watering-down is going to have any chance of reaching it. Occasionally good writers hit the jackpot and a particular book catches on. Also great. But the temptation then becomes to repeat whatever perceived formula it was that seemed to work, usually to much lesser effect. This, at least, is what I have observed in my years of following the contemporary "book business."

R A Rubin

The problem is the publishing business which Dan Green has offered in these pages again and again. The life has been squeezed out of Lit for the masses and we will not see Faulkners on book shelves evermore.

Donavan Hall

Natalie Sarraute said that the novelist need not waste their time with writing light entertainment; the cinema does light entertainment better than the novel. The novelist who tries to write a traditional novel today will be in direct competition with the cinema. Not that Sarraute is God, but contra-Thomson she would also say that serious writers have no business competing for a "popular audience" --- it's a waste of creative time and energy.

Nick

Nice to see RJT here - how did you hear about the site? That's an in-joke that only two people (including myself) will get, and it leads us nicely into the problem of exclusivity, which is bugging RJ. I think it's a question of priorities: it is certainly a misguided priority to start writing with 'I want to be really popular' in mind (this isn't high school). It seems to me that the central motivation for writing is not 'Everyone must hear me now!' (one grows out of this) but 'If I don't do this I think I'll go mad'. That's not to say a fair few readers wouldn't be welcome, in terms of the 'communication', or connection that RJ mentions and because it would enable one to go on writing more easily (this latter seems the most compelling argument to me at present) by limiting the day job, for example.

This is probably more Dan Green's position, but I don't think it's entirely opposed to RJ either. However, the point that Rubin and Hall touch on is crucial, and a quick look at the broadsheets (such as today's Observer, in Britain) is enough to inspire a rising sickness in the gut.
As soon as art is forced to cater to a market it is dead. Any serious writer (to continue the terminology of the post) looking at the situation in publishing will realize that the issue is not one of give and take between writer and publisher, it is not a question of 'striking a balance'. It is rather a battle for the survival of art against commerce. My tone here may sound portentous, it may court ridicule (you'll just have to suck it up) but it is the truth nonetheless.

I don't really know who I'm addressing this to as most people on this site understand this simple point. It's one of those things that needs to be repeated, as those of us who care have a responsibility to uphold art against the tide of bullshit. This is where many critics, and perhaps academics, seem to miss what's at stake. They weigh the merits of various pieces of trash ('hot' young authors, established 'big names' who can't actually write - Jay McInerney anyone?) instead of dedicating themselves to defending art against the many forces which threaten to destroy it (which is not to say that these forces will succeed, but this is certainly not thanks to media 'arts coverage').

R. J. Thomson

I never said writers should try to be popular. In what I said about Shakespeare I suggested what I perceive to be a lasting truth, that writers must write from 'the heart'. Given that the heart is an endlessly individual entity it follows that popularity is irrelevant to the best creative processes. But the idea that writers - or those writers who propagate their work at all - wouldn't want to be enjoyed by ordinary people is naff. Anyone who thinks they are fundamentally exceptional is less interesting for having that attitude.
It is possible to write effectively in a style that actively alienates the reader. The deliberately boring bits in Ulysses are like this. They are qualified, though, by the context of human understanding that dominates the book - a sense the boring bits, in the whole scheme, add to. Tough writing is fine, but I'm not going to fight to get close to a writer who isn't really offering anything. I think I have this in common with the popular reader.
There is a lack of consent about the publishing problem. Dan thinks it is the audience that 'consistently gobbles up' trash. Nick blames publishers and the media. Predictably I don't blame the audience: it is acknowledged in all marketing circles that investment in promotion pays dividends. Why should it be any different for publishing?
In the face of the growing power of the internet, publishing as we know it has a very short time to live. Whether the coming change will be in favour of democratic 'free' reading and writing, or an even more centralised kind of Amazonia, I don't know. Either way, now is a time writers should abandon vanity and celebrate the opportunity to write, and disseminate, more than ever, exactly what they want - with the exciting proposition of impending, and certain, change to the literary landscape.
I like being called RJ. It's good.

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