Wrestling with Art vs. the Market

We all know William Shakespeare appealed to the common man, with stories that touched on moral truths built upon jokes about sex and farting. He followed a path well paved by giants like Euripides, who in a tragedy about the slaughter and enslavement of a population slips in a fat joke. I can imagine a theater critic attending the premiere of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and scribbling on his papyrus, “The playwright aspires to immortality, like our gods, but his words call upon our basest natures. This play will be forgotten in a fortnight.”

I’ve never met a creative who didn’t undergo a regular wrestling match in her head between the desire to create lasting art and the need to reach a more commercial audience. So often it is presented as an either/or. But so often in life it isn’t as simple as making a choice. When I was young I was struck by the powerful debates on the “60 Minutes” segment Point/Counterpoint, but Saturday Night Live’s Dan Ackroyd taught us how artificial the “debates” were with his four-word catchphrase to Jane Curtin: “Jane, you ignorant slut.

(Two side notes: One, after first seeing Ackroyd say that line as a kid I repeated it everywhere, until my mother taught this 10-year-old boy what the word “slut” actually meant. Two, SNL at its best has the erudite claim to art while appealing to our basest natures as well.)

Imagine if you had a creative partner, and each inhabited one side of that debate. It turns out there are Artist Road readers who fit that description. In response to my previous post, The Balance Between Authenticity and Creativity, a commenter with the unusual name of Inion N. Mathair explained in her comment that she is the mother of a mother/daughter writing team. The mother likes to ask if what they’re writing has a market, and the daughter likes to respond “I won’t sell out, just to sell a book.”

I had to check out Inion’s blog, and learned that Inion N. Mathair means “daughter ‘n’ mother in Irish Gaelic,” and is a pseudonym for the daughter and mother writing team of Ginger and Natalie Perrone. I’ve enjoyed spending some time exploring their blog, but it seems they’re depriving us of some really good content. Many of us creatives would get a voyeuristic thrill out of seeing the debate that goes on every day in our head played out by two different people writing the same work!

I grew up with someone close to me who wrote genre fiction, and now I’m in an MFA in Writing program now where every instructor has published beautiful prose, but in some cases the sales an instructor’s total body of work might fall short of the number of copies sold of one of that genre author’s many novels. I don’t think that you could say that the genre novelist made the “right” choice in ensuring her writing reached a broad audience, any more than you can say the literary novelist made the “right” choice in focusing most on producing a work of art that might or might not find readers.

Perhaps it comes from working in Washington, D.C., policy for a quarter-century, but too often we wish to polarize debates, when the truth involves a little bit of both. I’m learning everything I can from my MFA instructors on how to instill in my prose lasting literary value. And I intend to work to get that prose in front of as many readers as I possibly can, and am not afraid to pay attention to what readers crave. It worked for Shakespeare and Euripides. That’s pretty good company.

Do you find yourself torn at times between creating what your heart tells you is art, and what the market might not have as much interest in? The question truly does touch on the authenticity post I wrote last week, while taking it to a more practical level.

18 thoughts on “Wrestling with Art vs. the Market

  1. Patrick… I think it comes down to what we enjoy writing. I doubt I’d enjoy reading anything written by a writer who was self-consciously creating “literary art”. I’m pretty sure that Virginia Woolf was all passion as she wrote “Mrs. Daloway”. And Louis Lamour was all passion as he researched his westerns from his Winnagago. And Charles Bukowski his poems in his cheap hotel rooms. And Lee Child and Steve Bochko. I just wrote a “funny” novel, and it was writing in the humour mode that sustained me. It made ME laugh. I guess what I’m saying is that our own stuff better amuse the hell out of us or we’ll never make it to the finish line.

    I, too, was intrigued by the mother-daughter team comment from your last post. I wanted to be the fly on the wall at their house. I’ll buzz on over to their website and check it out.


    1. Thanks, PJ, I think you just nailed it. When I started my MFA and knew I’d be doing a reading, I decided I had to write something “literary,” but when I got to the first residency and heard other readers, I realize my piece was actually “pretentious crap.” I then wrote something I liked, it went well, and it turned into my “SPAM” essay that was published earlier this year. And if you’re writing humor, you have to think it’s funny, I would think. Kudos.


  2. Hi Patrick,

    I think life can be all about balance and this is one place where balance in our creativity can be literally fruitful. I paint works for the sheer sake of painting them. Yet, I also do commissioned works, which I can enjoy, but I get money for it. There is a market and interest. Much of my more recognized artwork has never sold despite being in galleries all over Dubai and the US. So, well, I guess it ends up being what matters most to a creative: are they in it for pure creativity or do they hope to make a career of it? I think my own motivations can vacillate between the two and that then reflects in the kind of work I make. And because I have another job, I have greater choice in that say. Yet we have famous artists in history who made ground breaking works, say Michaelangelo, who were commissioned based and thus market driven artists. Sometimes structure can push us to test our limits further and perhaps a market can also do that.

    Great dialogue, thanks for sharing!


  3. I’ve never understood the concept that writing for the “common man” is a bad thing. As though writing for the joy of the larger/largest audience is selling out. I’m currently in a masters program in creative writing, and have listened to many fellow students complain because their particular genre (steam punk, romance, fantasy, etc) is minimized by their instructors or mentors. They are essentially judged as writers based on their audience not on their craft. That is shortsighted.

    Writing is hard. Adding to that difficulty by demanding “high art” from someone who has a passion for steam punk is asking that writer to be inauthentic (rendering them and their message ineffective). I think the best solution is to let the writer follow their passion without judgment.


    1. “Adding to that difficulty by demanding “high art” from someone who has a passion for steam punk is asking that writer to be inauthentic (rendering them and their message ineffective).” You win the comment of the day, Cindy! What really draws us to art is the passion behind it. An architect who is skilled at assembling a house but does so with no passion builds a solid house that no one wants to live in. It is the same with books, or paintings (see Carrie above).

      And I know the types of students you’re talking about, both those feeling dissed for favoring a genre and those who do the dissing. Of course, life is filled with people who dismiss what they don’t understand.


  4. I always cringe when the word art comes up, because I love writing, but have never considered that what I write could be called art – maybe craft!

    I’m only just beginning to believe that non-fiction can be as creative as fiction, but I constantly run into the fact that most people seem to be writing and talking and thinking about fiction,
    I’m finding reading your blog and the discussions with other writers fascinating and thought provoking. – this is such an intelligent thoughtful corner of Blogland!


    1. Thank you, Valerie! Wow!

      Well, we’re on the same path. I’ve always called my professional writing–journalism–a craft. I’ve compared it to carpentry, in that you don’t need a degree, just time in the field as an apprentice. Pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction is teaching me the “art” side of it; the “art” in the art-committed life I’m pursuing is creative nonfiction as “art.” Nonfiction writers can be masters at both art and craft, as much as any fiction writer or poet!


  5. Patrick, I want to chime in with Valerie and say that I have enjoyed your posts and the openness of the commentaries. I found you via the “top 50 blogs for authors” and I keep coming back to read. Thanks!


    1. Thank you, Cindy! I’m so glad you found your way here through my new award, and you’re welcome to stick around! As I say in my “what is this” tab, the strength of this blog is the conversation.


  6. “scribbling on his papyrus, “The playwright aspires to immortality, like our gods, but his words call upon our basest natures. This play will be forgotten in a fortnight.”” HA! Hilarious. I just bet there was some ass like that, even back then. It’s fun to imagine, anyway 😉

    I love this post because you choose to take the middle way with the whole thing in question here – art vs. market. I see absolutely no reason why we can’t write really gripping tales, that also use beautiful language and imagery (and hey, maybe even have a deeper meaning, a theme, why not?). It doesn’t have to be either or with every book or story we write. The best stories often offer it all.
    Love the comments this topic is drawing.


    1. And as for our papyrus scribbler, note we don’t know his name today!

      Cynthia, I know you appreciate that it isn’t an either/or. It’s something the MFA program has helped synthesize in me, that it really isn’t, and I want both. I know, however, that some writers choose to pursue either “literary” or “genre” writing, and some readers choose to be dismissive of one or the other.


  7. What a fascinating post, Patrick. I am actually experiencing my own anxieties about this very issue as it relates to my work. My fiction is in the hands of a beta reader and will soon be in the hands of an editor known for her understanding of upmarket women’s fiction (the perfect blend of which you speak: literary and commercial). Will one tell me I’m not commercial enough? Will one tell me I’m too literary? Will I drive readers away with my style? Will I stick to my guns, to my heart, REGARDLESS? Will I follow the professional advice of someone who knows the ‘business’? I’ve been wondering — ok, I’ve been STRESSING about it, and I just don’t know how I’ll react just yet. I guess time will tell. Soon, very soon. But as you say – if it worked for Bill, then how can I go wrong with a hybrid of literary, sprinkled with commercial elements? (And is it uncouth of me to admit that I laugh at fart jokes as much as the next guy? Umm… girl?)


    1. First of all, Melissa, kudos for this adventure you’re on with your fiction? You know, one of the sucky (is that a word) things about being a writer is how much is out of our control. The manuscript has left your hands, and now you’re STRESSING about possible futures. If it helps, I would say don’t worry about how you’ll react to an outcome that hasn’t yet presented itself.

      I gather from reading your blog that you are intellectually curious and open to input, so I think your reaction will be to learn from whatever outcome unfolds. I hope the outcome is a big, fat publishing contract!


  8. This is somewhat of a problem I have, except with brand name.
    I like writing Horror, Fantasy, SF and spoofs, but I worry that it will confuse the reader and after they pick up a book that isn’t their cup of tea, they will not buy any more of my books even though they liked some of them in the past. I can write under a few pen names, but for a beginnign author it will be tough to get enough works out in each genre.
    I want to have a good consistent brand but I also don’t want to limit myself to one genre.
    I’m sticking to dark fantasy and horror for now, but my hands are eaching to write something different.


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