Thoughts On Selling Out
Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders meditates on what it means to “sell out,” inspired by a Twitter conversation between (among others) Paolo Bacigalupi, Tim Pratt and myself. I put in a comment over there, but I have a couple more thoughts about selling out, through the prism of my own experience, so let me run them out to you guys here. These thoughts are in no particular order and a bit rambly.
First, I don’t think the sell out comes when you do things for money/fame, or mostly because of the money/fame, or even solely for the money/fame. If the desire for money/fame is intentionally and actively part of your career calculus, then the criticism or worry that you’re doing something for money/fame is a little stupid. Because, duh, that was always part of the plan, and thus always an option.
Occasionally I’ve had people gripe that my books are explicitly commercial, which they don’t like, and that’s fine. But I’ve also had people gripe that I’m a sell out because of that aspect of the books. Those people I look at like they’ve turned into a farting fungus. Dudes: I intentionally write approachable books designed to sell in large numbers, constructed to make that goal as easy to achieve as possible. That’s not selling out, that’s the actual plan. Intentionality is an affirmative defense. I’m open to accusations of being a hack, which is fair enough (I would disagree, but then I would, wouldn’t I). Sell out? I’m more dubious.
I think a major part of selling out has to do with fear. Specifically the fear that if you don’t take a particular action (write a particular book, record a particular song, do a particular role, take on a particular gig, etc), your career will suffer, and you along with it. It can also have to do with desperation and exhaustion — the idea that despite all your efforts, other options are closed, and the sell out option is the only option left. That’s another fear. Finally it has something to do with desire; not usually for the work you do but for what the work can bring: Money, fame, respect, opportunities and so on. Selling out is what you do when you’re afraid. Sometimes — not always, but more often than it appears from the outside — it’s not unreasonable to be afraid.
This is why, I will note, that I find it difficult to hold “selling out” against artists one way or another. I have been astoundingly fortunate in my career so far; I have never been in a position where I had to choose between what I thought was the integrity of my work, and the future of my career and (in a larger sense) my personal happiness. But I know people who have, and I know how much they’ve beaten themselves up about it.
What gets missed is the fact that work is work, and that we as humans live in the real world, and sometimes we have to make less than optimal choices in order to keep going. It’s easy enough for someone on the outside to mock a musician for doing the state fair circuit, or an actor for showing up in an appallingly terrible film, or an author for writing yet another book featuring a protagonist you think is past her prime — or whatever. But people have to work and eat and keep moving, looking for their chances. I’m not going to dump on them or judge them for that.
It’s also worth noting that what looks like a sell out to an artist and what looks like a sell out to a fan or other observer can be two entirely separate things. Artists, if they have any sort of success, often have opportunities fall into their laps they might not otherwise have gotten. The upside of these opportunities can be high. From their point of view they’d be foolish not to take them. From the point of view of a fan, however, the choice can be puzzling — a deviation from the thing that made that person a fan, and therefore (from their point of view) a waste of time and something to be resented. Cue “selling out.” Alternately, popularity breeds contempt in some quarters.
Over on the io9 comment thread, there’s some (perfectly civil and readable) discussion on whether — and under what circumstances — my selling the motion picture rights to Old Man’s War could be considered a sell out. I find it interesting because my standard as to what constitutes a “sell out” is vastly removed from that of the conversation there, in part based on my own knowledge of the movie industry and my own pull relative to those who would make a film. For me, for a film, a sell out would have come from grabbing at option money from anyone, just to have it and just to say we did it. We waited instead for the right people to come along — people with good commercial and/or artistic track records, who could actually get a film made — worked out the best deal possible and then got out of their way to let them do what they do. I’m here when they need me, and they keep me in the loop, and that’s pretty much how we work with each other and everyone’s happy with that. So perspectives are different depending on where you stand.
I don’t consider myself a sell out, and I think the logic behind the suggestion that I am is probably flawed — but at the same time I recognize that I give people lots of opportunities to label me as one. Old Man’s War has four sequels now, which (fairly) opens me up to questions as to whether I’m just grinding out the books. Fuzzy Nation was a reboot of someone else’s story, which can (and has been) seen as cynical appropriation for the cash. Redshirts — well, come on: Star Trek much, Scalzi? And so on. Add these to my public and enthusiastic embrace of the idea that writing to make money is not a bad thing, and I’m a fairly ripe target. And again: Fair enough. I would disagree but I wouldn’t deny the argument is there, nor that it could be defensible.
On my end, however, I know what projects I’ve turned down despite the money, and what projects I’ve walked away from because I felt the other party was trying to trade on my fear of what would happen if I walked away from the table. I know what I won’t do. In my mind, at least, it keeps me from worrying about whether I am a sell out. You can think as you like, of course.