“What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day. He went on to say that building lists of titles that were eclectic, sourced from a variety of different countries, truly original and – frankly – clever, was getting harder and harder to do.
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, the publishers, or the media, but I wonder if writers aren’t to blame a little bit too - writers and, to some extent, the Internet.
Follow any forum for writers; and while many 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 many fields, 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.
Myself, I think this is actually how readers and editors want writers to think. They don’t need any more accountants, or salesmen. The have plenty of those already.
Does anyone share this perspective?