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The Sell-Out or the Purist?

The other night, as a party of writerly types was winding down, I was caught up in a commercial versus literary discussion. Purity of purpose versus reaching out to readers. Aesthetics versus money. Art versus entertainment. Respect of the literati versus wide readership.

As a novelist who has published over twenty books, I’ve written both art and entertainment. I tend to know, when I first set out, the novel’s intentions. Truth be told, editors and readers often see things completely differently, as is their right. I’ve had a novel bought by a more commercial press only to be told that they see me as one of their literary writers. And I’ve had a novel bought by a more literary imprint who saw the book as one of their more commercial titles.

And so it may come as no surprise, I have a take on this age-old debate.

My bottom line is this: both are traps — the desire for readership and the desire for respect.

At the party, I had loud, obnoxious things to say about David Foster Wallace, having finally seen The End of the Tour. In the biopic, we see a novelist at the height of critical and commercial success expressing his deep fear of being perceived as a sell-out, as a prostitute, as he put it.

Now, my grandmother was raised in a house of prostitution; her mother was the madam of the house. And so this hit close to home. I doubt there’s anyone alive today whose very existence doesn’t, in some way, owe their existence to a woman in their lineage who was forced to have sex for money — through prostitution or being sold into a marriage or a marriage based on a transfer financial holdings, from queens to commoners.

My great grandmother started her house of prostitution during the Great Depression so her three children wouldn’t starve. As the sole breadwinner for a family of six, I’ve written certain books of mine with a very keen eye on market. (Others with no eye on market at all.) Wallace’s distaste for or more pointedly, perhaps, his fear of being perceived as a sell-out struck me, suddenly, like an enormously privileged posture.

But, don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him; I never knew him. Instead I blame our weird culture that forces writers — and other artists — to choose between two extremes: the pure artist (sometimes called the starving artist) or the sell-out. It feels punitive, and, as soon as I cast my suspicious eye on our culture, these limited extremes feel really familiar to me as a woman. I’ve been here before.

Madonna or whore – and here we are back to prostitution. Or, as they put it in the Breakfast Club, a slut or a prude.

In retrospect, Wallace was struggling on many fronts and I can’t begin to imagine, and wouldn’t presume, the very serious mental health issues he was trying to work through. But I wish we could have erased these fears and just let the writer write.

To me, the snapshot of Wallace’s life that the film reveals is of a man who has fallen into trap of respect — art for art’s sake – and was held there so tightly that his fear of the commercial world that gets books to readers in exchange for cash had become almost crippling.

As a woman, I’ve figured out that there’s no good answer. You’ll most likely be ridiculed alternately as a slut and a prude, depending on the person who wants to bring you down a peg and why. And I’ll add here that our culture doesn’t always leave boys and men much room to hold a middle ground either.

So where does that leave us as writers? I believe that our culture is particularly hard on anyone who steps outside of the daily grind to pursue a life in the arts. We’re deemed uppity, full of ourselves. We deserve to struggle. To be worthy of this escape from an ordinary grind, we should sacrifice greatly. Some think we should be pure artists, willing to risk starvation. Others believe we should give back to the culture by providing entertainment that actually reaches out to the common man.

Some of you know yourselves very well. You know exactly the careers you want to have and have no ambivalence. Some of you want to write books for readers, books that sell and sell well. Others want a life of the literary arts, deeply carved. Some of you really don’t care how you’re perceived, especially by people who want to put you in your place.

These outside voices can also be really damaging. But what’s far more damaging is if you’ve internalized some of that dichotomous thinking.

So what if I’m right — and I’m easily talked out of all of this, but for the sake of argument — and if both the desire for readership and respect are traps? What are we writers who want one or the other — or, let’s face it, both — to do?

Well, I could tell you that to remain truly pure, you have to avoid both traps — the desire for readership and respect. In short: stop wanting either.

There are two problems I see right off.

A) I don’t think that’s possible. The desire will just be suppressed and likely come out in some strange way. (And, personally I’d rather not see someone try.) 

But B) Both of those traps are also fuel. I love reading high-octane work — both literary and commercial and maybe especially those fueled by the desire to be both literary and commercial. We are creatures who want whatever it is that we want from other creatures. So wanting is a drive that sometimes gets us back to the brutal work of writing.

I think that Wallace needed to write. I need to write. I assume that most of you need to write, on a very deep level. If no one were watching at all — if there were no hope for either readership or respect — I would make things, most likely with words, but give me a stick and mud, I’d start creating something.

Look, this argument is never-ending; it will endure forever.

And whenever someone comes down really hard in one camp or the other, I suggest a bit of caution. If someone is really pro-commercial writing, pro-wide readership, not just for themselves but as the highest standard (the only standard), I tend to wonder if they’ve been hurt by a lack of critical attention and a sense of respect.

If someone seems most proud of the fact that readers can’t possibly understand their brilliant work and that purity of art is the highest standard (the only standard), I start to wonder if they’ve been hurt by what they’ve perceived as a rejection from a wide readership.

(I should confess that I’m no stranger to either of these disappointments.)

Don’t be swayed by either of these arguments. Know what you want. Make peace with what you want. And then want what you want.

So, my advice, in the end, is this: want. But be aware of that wanting. Let it be fuel but don’t let it take the wheel and drive.


About Julianna Baggott [1]

Julianna Baggott [2] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [3] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [4] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [2].