No Room for Error: Thoughts on Commercial Success and Writing Part One

A couple of days ago, I came across a piece in the Portland Monthly on one of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a fine piece, and it quoted Le Guin’s National Book Awards speech, in which she said:

We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art … Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit … is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

The piece continued with this:

Foremost among her concerns these days, it seems, is what Le Guin considers a worrisome literary shift whereby writers—squeezed to make a living in a world that attaches less and less financial value to their profession—view themselves more as brands and “content producers” than artists. “I see so many writers getting pushed around by the sales department, the PR people, and being led to believe that that’s what they do,” she told me. “That’s a terrible waste.”

Artistic resignation in the name of pragmatism—“letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write,” as she put it in her National Book Awards speech—elicits Le Guin’s especial disapproval precisely because she herself spent an entire career bucking what others thought she should write.

There’s a lot to like here. I’ve always resisted the notion that writers should see themselves as “businesses”, and talk about their “brand”. This entrepreneurialism is really an internalised neoliberalism, which has us see ourselves as individuals struggling in the open marketplace, when in fact, most of us are “proletarian writers” (as Philip K. Dick used to refer to himself as), that is, workers how produce for companies – but particularly declassed workers, with few rights.

What Le Guin is getting to here are the changes in the publishing industry itself: The integration of market mechanisms into every level of publishing, the tendency towards standardisation and repetition, the consistent debasing of narrative under these pressures, the elimination of the midlist, the ubiquity of the Neilson Bookscan as a measuring instrument, the determining influence of ‘numbers’ and algorithms.

Though there’s no way to be sure, I suspect even Le Guin would have had difficulty in this environment. Though her first three novels show some of her strengths, they are mostly uneven books, and each would have been caught in the midlist, I think. It was only with the Earthsea books and The Left Hand of Darkness that she suddenly broke through. This isn’t an unfamiliar phenomenon. Writer Scott Westerfeld once said to me, at a dinner, that “There’s something about your fifth book when it all comes together.”

But how many writers get a chance to write their fifth book, nowadays? The systems cuts them off. It’s succeed immediately or not at all, and that is part of the reason writers get pushed around and are happy to write what they’re told to. There’s no room for error.

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