Thoughts On Selling Out
Posted on January 8, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 175 Comments
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.
I’m curious as to what projects you have chosen to walk away from, in the context of this conversation. Is that something that you can, or would, be able to elaborate on at some point? Without insider knowledge of the publishing industry and what properties and concepts are out on the table, it’s hard to gauge what kind of decisions authors as a whole are having to make. I think it could add some depth to the sell out discussion. Just my two cents.
I think in this day and age it’s nearly impossible to sell out, isn’t it? Especially to the degree that everything’s fairly commercialized. I mean, short of wearing a large corporations logos on your clothes during your tours or something.
If it gives your favorite artist money to do what they do best then what’s the problem? I’d love it if Autechre or Richard H Kirk sold out. I’d get ot hear more of their stuff. Woo! Win-Win!
I’ve read SF/F my entire life. What you write isn’t selling out, it’s selling, period. You write smart, funny approachable SF people seem to enjoy. *minor chord*
As you point out, the whole idea of “selling out” assumes one was “in” to begin with. But in some ways, it’s also a variation of the snobbery found in some (not all) fans of literary fiction, who think that any book that sells more than 3,000 copies can’t possibly be “good” literature. Personally, I don’t think “good” and “popular” are mutually exclusive terms.
Sometimes I think charges of “selling out” are generally leveled by people looking at what they *think* their target’s life is like … and envying it.
“Now look at them yo-yo’s
that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’
that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free”
I’ve walked away from media tie-in work that didn’t engage me and the only real benefit to me would have been the paycheck; I’ve also backed out of discussions of books where I felt the trust I had in the other side to promote and market the work had been compromised by their actions. I don’t want to get into any more detail than that.
Did Michelangelo sell out to the Pope? Or Shakespeare to his audience? Or anybody who creates art with a particular audience in mind?
I suppose I sold out to every employer I have ever had.
One of the things I find so puzzling about that discussion on Twitter was the idea (NOT espoused by Scalzi) that giving a single care about your audience as an artist apparently signifies to some you’ve “sold out”. This would entail a view of art that seems highly solipsistic to me and also dishonest. Anyone who writes a book and then does anything with it other than immediately burying it in the back yard cannot credibly claim to me to be purely talking to him or herself. (I’d further add that most art where I’ve gotten the impression the artist really wasn’t all trying to communicate to anyone beyond their own skull was painfully boring to me, but that’s subjective of course and another discussion entirely anyway.)
Selling out is what the jealous call success.
It’s a term that shouldn’t be used by adults that realize how the real world works.
Would you consider it a sell out if the people doing the film of Old Man’s War, just loosely based it on the book, keeping the same title, character names, etc. but the movie version only has a passing resemblance to the book it was based on? I ask this in all seriousness and I hoped I phrased it in a way that doesn’t give offence..
As a reader and fan of a variety of authors I often wonder how authors feel to see their work “re-imagined” or to sell the rights to their work only to see a film version that is very loosely based on the original work.
I thought your cover of “I Can See For Miles” was very nice.
Making a living is not selling out. We all have to eat.
If you have a goal, aspiration, vision, or simply a personal standard or belief, and then *violate* that for gain — then you’ve “sold out”. Based on everything you’ve told us over the course of the years John, I doubt that this is the case. Only you know for sure, though :-)
@John: Please sell out as much as possible ;-).
An appreciative reader who looks to spend money on good books!
1. If you are writing books YOU woulld want to read, you are not a sell out.
2. Who wouldn’t want to see their book turned into a film? duh!
Selling out is doing something against your own goals or integrity, simply for the money or to get it done.
One of the best answers to your question is an apocryphal story in which someone was complaining to Virginia Heinlein that the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers was a travesty and nothing like the book at all. She pointed out that when the movie came out, Starship Troopers shot back up the bestseller list and it hadn’t come back down. Which is to say, regardless of the quality of the film it lead people back to RAH’s work, to experience it how he intended.
For my part I’ve told the producers that I would love for them to make a film in which the spirit of the book was honored even if they have to make a few changes here and there. But if they can’t do that, then they should make a film that will make a shitload of money, because that will be great for the books, and then they’ll make a sequel, and my sequel deal is 110% what my first film deal is.
So: Yeah, I’m not hugely romantic about the film. That said, what I know of the plans for the film suggests it’ll be reasonably like the book.
I’ll never understand the “So-and-so sold out!” crowd. Its not a real argument that says anything about the quality of work. Charles Dickens was paid by the installment (not the word as the myth likes to go), using a very formulaic process by which to attempt to guarantee maximum profit for himself and his publishers (and a regular check to Dickens). There is nothing wrong with this. This is how artists eat food and provides them incentive to produce another work instead of getting a job under a regular employer.
Selling out is where you do something you don’t want to do for money. Non-artists do it all the time, but they call it work. It’s only wrong if you are being paid to do something that violates your conscience, like become Ann Coulter’s ghost writer.
So is it only selling out if you regret it as you’re doing it? Michael Caine took countless roles in the 80s because he was afraid people would stop hiring him. By the rules Scalzi establishes, that isn’t a sellout because taking the money for future financial security was the point.
What about someone like Nicholas Cage? Is the determination of whether he’s a sell-out dependent on whether he chose to cash in after his Oscar by choice or if he did it for the money when he would have preferred remaining independent?
if the movie version of Old Man’s War casts Denise Richards as Jane, that might be selling out. (j/k).
To my mind, “selling out” means producing work that is utterly contrary to your principles or values. Anything else is just “selling”. (A book that is “explicitly commercial” is “a book that people will actually choose to read for their own enjoyment”, and I am having a hard time finding a problem with that.)
Thanks John! I really appreciate your answer. To be honest I was actually thinking of Starship Troopers when I wrote that. Though I can easily come up with a few more movies that fit in there as well.
And there’s the artist who “sells out” once so he is enabled to do more, and better, things. Case in point: George Clooney took the role of Batman for one of those painful sequels and they paid him handsomely for it. In an interview later he said the money from that film allowed him to make all those more “artistic” films he followed up with. Did he sell out? Yes, in a sense–he took the role, knowing it and the movie were crap, just so he could get a huge paycheck. Has he continued to sell out since? I’d say not (OK, I’ll give the Ocean’s movies).
Perhaps I am cynical, but when people yell “sellout,” it seems to be from a somewhat limited view of what they think a person’s art should be. While I have been guilty of calling certain artists sellouts, in general I try to remember that I am not an artist confronted with the sort of issues you’ve discussed, and I don’t know why that person made the decisions he or she did. If I don’t like the art, I don’t have to patronize it. It should not be my place to judge another person’s artistic choices just because they may not fit into my conception of what their art should be.
Some people have the curious notion that there’s something wrong with being both an author and an entertainer. Apparently, we’re supposed to be artistes, dedicated to inflicting soul-searing, life-wrenching experiences on the delicate reader. Some of us are just that, I suppose, but not too many of that ilk are feeding a family by writing. And not too many readers drop by Amazon hoping to have their souls seared and their lives wrenched.
Writing can be an art, but mostly, most of the time, it’s a craft. Crafts are pursued by craftsfolk who make useful things that people want and are willing to pay for. Nobody ever calls a potter or carpenter a sell-out.
From what I have seen of your writing (and I have just finished OMW) you are not in danger of being considered a sell out. The writer I would most compare you with is Isaac Asimov. Asimov loved to write and naturally did it for money. He wrote fiction and non-fiction and seemed to approach the process with the same ethic you do. If you were to make choices that you were ashamed of (perhaps claiming credit for 1/2 the films on Syfy) then you might be a sell out. But weigh that against your paying the bills and feeding your family. Honestly, it would be easier to call all those critics who have chosen to work in a cubicle 40+ hours a week when they have the talent to do what you do sell outs. You follow your muse. You don’t ignore it.
On OMW, I would not call it a follow up to The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. I see your novel as more what Heinlein might have written after Farnam’s Freehold as a follow up to Starship Troopers. I think you have caught the sensibilities of Heinlein quite well and added your own voice. I like it quite a bit and I am pleased it was recommended by the folks at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.
Was it “selling out” when Al Capp did Fearless Fosdick ads for Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic? Yeah, I think so, even though I laughed.
Warren Ellis makes much of these points as well in his recent interview on the Nerdist podcast.
remarkable that “sell out” seems primarily to apply to artists, not accountants or engineers or librarians. It implies that art is something separate from work, and that doing art as a way to make a living is inherently conflicted.
No one calls the fry cook who gets promoted to manager a “sell out”, no matter how much they enjoyed his work.
John, an outstanding assessment of “sell out” in both the creator and consumer senses. Of -course- you write in a way to make your storytelling more approachable. To do otherwise would be stupid. And of course you hope to make some bucks, as in selling movie rights to the fine Old Man’s War, which I bought in hardcover years ago and greatly enjoyed. What some critics don’t understand is that selling movie rights is NO Guarantee that a movie will be made. Some of my fellow SFWA authors who have sold movie rights tell me the ratio is at least 10 to one re sold rights versus actual film made. Still, if someone wants to buy movie rights and they are reputable, of course you sell them! A movie has the chance to gain you more readers and to make more pleasant the lives of other folks. Tom/T. Jackson King.
As long as an author’s content is still as good as the quality which made me a fan I have no problem if an author sells out even explicitly. They have to eat and to reach that level where they can “sell out” they had to put in a lot of work and live under a lot of stress that their whole attempt at creating a writing career might be just a HugeMassive waste of time.
And really, what business is it of a fan if they do “sell out”? I find it to be a sign of a busy-body fan (or one who doesn’t have a life) who worries about if an author sells out.
I’ve been told many times by friends that a certain author we both read “sold out” I immediately respond “So, is their work any good any longer?” and if the reply is “Yeah” I ignore the whole “sell out”-freak out.
John Malkovich said he did “Con Air” so he could also do small Portugese art films. If you’re doing the work with integrity and honesty, you can make anything a piece of art. Including and up to reality TV.
You’ll only be a sell out if 101 Uses for a Spare Goat gets phoned in.
I have seen someone walk away from what I considered well-paying work because the employer’s style guide mandated addressing the reader as “you” and he refused to use anything more informal than “one”. Yes, really. I do not comprehend this.
However, the prize winner for “selling out” discussions remains Devo 2.0, in which a large number of people who purported to be serious fans of Devo expressed their outrage that Devo had “sold out” in licensing their music to Disney for a teenage girl to sing. Yes, Devo “sold out”. In other news, “Weird” Al Yankovic is reputed to be doing some silly songs and even outright parodies of other artists on his next album. (I can’t even complain about them “selling out” in the first place, because that *was* the art.)
I suspect Nicholas Cage is in as many crappy movies as he is because he owes the IRS a ton of money and he needs to make that money somehow.
Also, John, I just wanted to say I appreciate your level-headed and sensible response to most topics. I think it’s a sign of intellectual honesty that you respond to topics ranging from gender issues to making movies with a consistent tone and practical worldview, and it’s a reason I enjoy reading your blog. Even when I don’t agree with your stand I can count on a reasoned and reasonable position from you. I hope you keep sharing it for years to come!
So the anti-sell out people are arguing that all artists should die poor and unappreciated, like van Gogh? Seems a bit, petty?
So maybe we need to define “sell out.”
I can understand it in the context of, say, a political movement and someone who betrays his fellows to their opponents for cash.
Outside of that or doing something outright unethical, though, I can’t see it. I certainly can’t see it in the context of doing what you do to keep the family fed. In the case of an author who decides to feed the family by writing what the market has decided is worth more, all I can say to the critics is this:
“If you like the other things I’ve written more, how come you’re not buying more of it so that I can afford to do that?” Which is another way of saying starving artists are romantic only if you aren’t one.
It’s freaking FICTION, people. Get a life!
I would say that selling out is going against your convictions purely for short-term financial gain.
Apropos selling out: Will we get a post today to gush about The B-Team today? Just read through it and can’t wait for the second installment!
I wonder if some of this ‘sell-out’ angst arises from a romantic idea of a writer who produces True Art on their own, and only after it’s produced do they look to see if it might sell? – and possibly not even that, they wait for someone to stumble across it, so as not to soil its purity. Maybe not, maybe the concern is that someone is producing their art purely and solely for commercial reasons, ie, not for the art itself. Well – what’s wrong with that? If it’s readable/viewable/worth hearing, then if it wasn’t sold we wouldn’t be able to read/see/hear it! I do detect a sense of ownership coming into this – ownership by the fan (or whoever) of the artist – which is completely not valid. In the end, it’s for the artist/creator to decide what kind of deal they will or will not make. And everyone makes mistakes!
IMHO, anybody who tried to paint you as a sell-out would expose themselves as a jealous person with only a superficial knowledge of your work.
I’m holding up the “B-Team” posts until the official release date. But if you go Over to Tor.com, they’re having a conversation about it.
I’m often remind of the scene in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, when John Cusack’s character, having realized he agreed to rewrite his play to suit the needs of the mafia backers, freaks out, screaming out the window, “I SOLD OUT! I SOLD OUT!”.
That’s the standard of selling out, as far as I’m concerned: changing your work in a way you utterly disagree with in order to suckle on the sweet milk of dirty mob money.
There are two uses of the term “selling out.” One implies that artists have some moral obligation to make “serious” art. The person alleging the sell out usually defines “serious” art as “stuff I and a handful of my snooty friends like.” That’s why when any indie musical act gets a Top 40 song or other serious commercial recognition (read “$$$”) you’ll see a bunch of folks leveling the sell-out charge.
Artists have the same moral obligations as everybody else, which means not stealing, cheating or otherwise hurting others. After that, they can make (or not make) whatever art they want.
The other use of the term selling out is what I would submit is better called “phoning it in.” In other words, if Joe Megabucks Artist slaps his name on the phone book knowing that it will sell a bunch of copies before anybody realizes they got duped, well, that’s phoning it in. (Yeah, pun-like substance intended.) There is a bit of a moral failing to phoning it in, and that’s the same whether your an artist or a plumber – being lazy on the job.
I was thinking about David Cross selling out and doing the Chipmunks movies, and him talking about being in a place where he hadn’t been hired for anything in months, and he hadn’t had more than walk-on parts in a couple of years. I went looking for details, and the first article I saw has a title that sums it up pretty nicely: “David Cross Can’t Buy A House With Indie Hipster Cred”
Money only stops being important(maybe!) when you actually have plenty of it. Until then, you’re probably HAPPY if you can find someone to buy your selling out for a good chunk of change. I’m a liberal pro-feminism atheist, but I’m out of work and on a long “hiatus” from school, I suffer from depression and have no money for meds or therapy. So I’d be more than willing to preach the gospel of supply-side Jesus while condemning women using whatever degrading language my boss wants me to… and it wouldn’t even cost that much in the grand scheme of things. If someone wanted to pay me $1500 a week, I’d be on their street-corner of choice the moment the check cleared.
I don’t translate Swedish poetry but I do translate Swedish crime novels. Why? The kids gotta eat. Not to worry about other people and their attitudes toward basic earning-a-living kinds of writing. I don’t mind that people like and therefore purchase the work I’ve done. Maybe I’ll translate more poetry again in retirement, when the eating question is more settled.
My definition of selling out has two parts. Doing something that violates my personal morality/ethics for money that I do not really need. There are some things I would do in order to feed my child mouth that would violate my morality/ethics. There are a lot of things I’d be willing to do for money I don’t need.
I do think that a notion of “sell-out” exists (writing what I do not want to write for the sake of money), but as far as I can tell you don’t do that. Moreover, VW made it clear that this only applies once the writer has secured sufficient income for decorous living.
My idea of selling out is when one indiscriminately licenses material without any care or creative control. For example, KISS is one of those performers that I feel sold out at some point. I’ve never been a huge fan, so I’m sure there’s bias there; but, it’s one thing to spin off into other areas (comics, films, merch) if the goal is to do it well. If the goal is just to saturate all markets with low-quality art (or scare quotes art), then that is selling out.
I think many confuse experimentation and evolution as selling out. There is an unbelievable expectation to continue doing the same great thing without it sounding exactly the same or being exactly the same. Not every work will be dynamite, or ground-breaking, or introduce some paradigm shift.
I think selling out is when the artist doesn’t care anymore.
“Well, you know… success is like failure, it’s how you percieve it/ it’s what you do with it, not how you achieve it…”
The irony of that line, of course, being that it’s from one of Sondheim’s least-succesful works. It’s my favorite regardless.
Selling out is great, so long as it doesn’t take too long to get the next printing on the shelves.
When I think of “selling out,” I think of Lou Reed’s ad for the Honda scooter back in 1986:
Lou took that image of a streetwise sage that he had built up for nearly twenty years and used it to generate cash. But the whole idea of selling out has been diluted over the years, possibly because we don’t see our artists as “holy fools” anymore or perhaps because we now realize how hard it is to make a living in the arts.
As for “selling out” in Our Beloved Genres, I might say that a writer who gets known for hisser talent yet decides to dumb down his or her prose and gets into the “endless series” game might be thought of as a sell-out. Other than that, I can’t see much else that fits the definition For example, I know that Ian Watson (Warhmmer 40K), Greg Bear (Halo), and Elizabeth Hand/Terry Bisson (Star Wars) have all written media tie-ins and it hasn’t seemed to affect the rest of their career. And as far as movies are concerned, if Arthur Clarke can do it (2001), why can’t you?
I think selling out is nothing more than taking money for something you don’t agree with. If you’re not doing that, you’re just selling. There might be some grey area, but not much.
I think there is some kind of legitimate concept buried in the idea of “selling out”. I think Metallica palpably did so with the Black Album, for instance. But mostly it’s the flip side of artists whose work nobody is particularly interested in justifying themselves to themselves with the narrative that their work is unpopular because it’s Real Art and the unwashed masses only want Comfortable Pap. This leads, if one isn’t careful, to identifying all popularity as arising from the choice to stop producing Real Art and begin producing Comfortable Pap.
My unfailing litmus test for a terminal case of this syndrome is whether the subject can mention Lady Gaga without sneering.
Did I sell out because I took my interest in Computers and an inate skill in working with them and turned it into a well paying carrer in doing PC operating system and software deployment. What wuld be NT selling out in this case, being a script kiddie, joining Anonymous and hacking (something to be clear which I have never in the slightest considered)…?
When you talk about actors, etc. look at the middle career of Clint Eastwood – it’s quite surprisingly obvious which were the potboliers that then paid (in whatever sense) for the personal projects. Every ‘The Rookie’ begets a ‘Pale Rider’, or whatever. I’ll settle for that.
I see good art as validated by commerce. You make something that people like, and they will come see it/read it/watch it/buy it. If you are truly gifted, you make something that a lot of people like, and then make a lot of money from their collective patronage.
In my opinion, the whole “starving artist” motif is for people who are doing it wrong. Sure, some art is transcendent, but you can’t sublimate everything. I read science fiction not just because it’s thought provoking, but because I find the worlds and scenarios therein incredibly entertaining. It’s not bad to entertain people. That’s probably one of the most valuable (and if the canon of commonly-accepted literary classics is to be truthfully considered rare) artistic gifts.
I have a family. I would love to support them through my art. I have made a pittance as a freelance non-fiction writer, I’ve never made a dime off my photography or sculptures or graphic design, and I have not yet finished any fiction I could try to sell. I will keep working toward those goals, but until then, I use all the bits and pieces of those creative talents to excel in jobs in which I make a pretty decent living doing things I don’t really enjoy. I’ve done PR, ghostwriting for busy executives, reputation management, and constituent relations. I make ads and banners for company websites when we can’t afford to outsource it. I write news releases about things so tedious I can’t even remember them once they’re done. This pays my mortgage and puts food on the table and bores me to tears. Am I a sellout? I’m pretty sure my clothed, fed, happy children don’t think so.
From the outside looking in, it appears you’re living the dream in a way that few of us ever will. It takes the right combination of skill, luck, opportunity, and drive to make that happen. When I read your books, or your blog posts, I can pretty well tell that you love what you do. And you’re damned talented about how you do it. If that’s selling out, I would wear the label proudly.
I’ve always seen “Selling out” as making a choice you know will hurt the quality of the work in order to gain more cash. So like you said, if the author judges a work’s quality by how much money it makes or how popular it is, then it’s extremely hard to sell out. And on the other hand, attempting to write something with mass appeal without sacrificing quality is what makes an excellent book/song/movie/etc.
Four sequels to OMW hardly seems excessive; if you’re inclined to write more at some point, I’ll buy them, too. But I also enjoyed Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts immensely, so really I’m just happy you like to write.
I can’t imagine that selling out should be an issue to artists for as long as it is equated with success. If somebody paid me to “sell out” right now, you can be sure that I’d do it, because I write for the love of writing. I’m now beginning to get paid to write for trade publications. It is the most boring writing I’ve ever done. It also means I can eat something more than Ramen noodles for every meal. And yes, it’s writing specifically for a paycheque, something that could easily be defined as “selling out.”
Yet, for some reason, I feel no guilt. Just keep writing, Mr. Scalzi. I’ll buy whatever you sell out to as long as it’s good.
I think that selling out, for an author, is generally defined as writing a book in a series that the author feels is finished, and no longer has anything to write about. Selling out in that sense is important to me because it means the works aren’t as good anymore, and they tarnish what came before to some extent. It’s certainly relative, and hard to guess at its accuracy; for example, David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels go on and on and on, and after a point it seemed to me he was writing them for revenue stream and not because he had a story he wanted to tell. After about 8 or 9, the quality went down for me, and I felt that he was selling out. But it’s entirely possible that his writing just got worse, or the stories he was telling were less in the range of what I’m interested in (I mean, I do love cats, but …), or I just got burnt out on the series.
None of the rest of the definition is really important to me. People write for various reasons, but pretty much all of them need money. Writing something that is more for-the-masses than for-the-few is perfectly fine – after all, if the masses like it, then it’s probably not bad. There should be something for everyone to enjoy, and the fact that one writer is writing things that are a bit dumbed down for me, or whatnot isn’t hurting me any, I just don’t read him or her.
Movie wise I guess I don’t care, unless the movie is truly awful. I don’t think I’d call it a ‘sellout’ unless it was clear from the beginning it was going to be awful – sold to someone who makes bad movies, or sold to someone totally inappropriate. I will probably be disappointed if the movie is not very good for OMW, but I won’t think it equates to selling out.
I recently heard an interview with Kenny Rogers. The interviewer asked if he ever got tired of singing The Gambler. Kenny said of course not. He knew people wanted to hear The Gambler, so he sang it to them. The conversation was between his song and the people who wanted his song; everyone else could go get their own song. I thought that was really quite lovely.
I wish fans dealt better with the unavoidable fact that creating art burns up irreplaceable bits of a limited lifespan. If someone (like me, for example) chooses to write obscure kinds of books or stories for the pettiest of petty cash, this price for creation still has to be paid in full.
Any artistic results of such efforts strike me as being, in large part, a gift from the creator both to her or his self and to the fans, not a right owed to any of them, and certainly not a duty that automatically overrides all other duties a person assumes. Given all that, if my fiscal circumstances worsened and I suddenly saw a way to make all my living with my writing, I’d be tempted to sell out. And I doubt that, much of the time, resisting such temptation would be the right thing to do.
Further thought. In Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt writes about getting a comedy gig in a wretched hole of a club in a wretched hole of a town and having all his stuff greeted with stone-faced silence. Then the club owner brings in a local whose material comes exclusively from Playboy and Reader’s Digest, and the crowd loves this guy, going nuts as they roaringly chime in on the punchlines of his jokes because they all know them.
Selling out is what would have happened if Mr. Oswalt had taken the lesson the club owner intended to teach and begun imitating that individual.
I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years or so, most of that in mainstream journalism. About five years ago, I took a job at a corporation, one that is privately held and that I believe has integrity out the wazoo — something that, to my mind, mainstream journalism had begun to lack. Nonetheless, I was accused of selling out by a few of my colleagues.
The fact is, the fire in my belly for journalism had burned out, and my new job not only allowed me a greater degree of financial freedom, but also gave me the free time to focus on writing that I enjoyed. The result of that effort is my first novel, coming out May 7 from Night Shade. Should I have stayed in what I believe to be a noble profession when my heart was no longer in it? That would’ve been a disservice to the readers. Instead, I chose to work at a place I believe to be good, and I was able to focus on more “artistic” writing. So far, it’s working out.
Writing is my skill, how I make my way in the world. I have few other talents that would put food on the table, and I’ve no inclination to the fast-food grills of my college years. My only criteria for the application of my writing skill is my ability to face myself in the mirror each morning. Again, so far, so good.
I don’t think of John of a “Hack” so much as a “Bludgeon.” or maybe even a mallet…
I have all ways reserved the term “sell out” for those who have obviously turned away from their own advertised credenda.
I got tangled up in the concept of a “Twitter conversation” for a while there, but, yeah, good post. And as Stephen King once wrote in an excellent essay about writing, “Some of you are calling me crass and money-fixated. And some of you are calling me bad things.”
John, thanks for this. My thoughts on the topic (located here: http://scribblesplatter.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/dont-starve-for-your-art/ ) were not nearly so well articulated, thorough, or accurate.
As you’ve said (paraphrased), “I thought making money at it was part of the plan. How is that selling out?” There’s got to be a difference between being flexible, in a collaborative sense, and being a sell-out, in which the integrity of the work has been compromised by your attitude.
I really don’t have any extra value I could add to this.
I will consider myself a sellout when I look at my work and decide the only value in it is the money I got out of it. Assuming I ever get to the point in my career where people have opinions about it one way or another, others will consider me a sellout much sooner than that, for various reasons that will probably hurt my feelings. That’s life.
To imply “sell out” says that your goals to have best-selling fiction that people enjoy WASN’T your goal. Like you were doing it as performance art.
Since I normally see selling out spoken with the same tone of contempt as whore, it makes it clear to me that it’s all about control. People who use the accusation of selling out are just simply butt hurt that they don’t have control over an artist and their work.
Re: OMW, I just read it (for the first time) last week, and I was struck–struck, I tell you!–by how ready for a movie it seemed. If you told me you wrote it with a movie in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. This, I should note, in no way interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. Imagine that!
(Likewise, if you say that wasn’t really in your head when you wrote it, then I say okay to that, too. We are the movie-going generation, and our books are intrinsically different from things written a century, or even half-century, ago because of it.)
My friend Rachel once said something very wise to me: “That’s why they call it ‘work’ and that’s why they pay you. If it was 100% fun and fulfilling all the time, someone would do it for free.”
The lucky few get to have jobs that are fun and fulfilling a lot of the time, but sometimes it’s just work, and that shit has to get done. Even people who get to write whatever they want to still have to file taxes and buy cartridges for the printer and read pass pages and cringe when a bad review comes out (and no matter who they are, there will be bad reviews somewhere).
And sometimes it’s about a paycheck. And that may or may not be “selling out” by whoever’s definition. But I say it’s pretty shitty of people to begrudge an artist a living. Even if an artist is doing a particular job solely for the cash, SO WHAT. Artists gotta eat. Artists gotta pay rent. And if an artist wants lots of money so she can buy a fancy sports car or a vacation house in the Himalayas, that’s her prerogative.
Anyone who doesn’t like what a particular artist is producing is free to not spend money on that artist’s work. DUH. This is fundamental stuff.
There are writers who went on too long in a series I liked, or changed the nature of that series to something I no longer like. And I wish I had more of that stuff from the beginning, but that is not the nature of the world. All series rise and fall.
Let us also consider that even if an author continues producing quality work in a series, the reader changes. The reader gets older and has other life experiences. And these may transform him into a person who is no longer impressed by the sort of book the author produces. Is the the author’s fault? Hell, it’s not even the reader’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just life.
To me, “selling out” is taking the money and not delivering enough of your branded performance. “Phoning it in” as someone said above. Yes, I’ve done it, for one reason or another. Too busy. Too tired/ill. Too bored. Anger at a deal that was intentionally sold to me as one gig because I’d already rejected what it became (“bait and switch” is probably the term to use.) Some of those I regret, some I don’t.
To Mr. Martinez above, I would not consider your taking a job, even though I did mention working a 40+ hour a week job as part of selling out. That is because you are still writing. The fact that you also feel the need for the security of a regular paycheck is what is helping your focus what time you can on writing. Too many excellent writers need to go on line to raise funds to meet medical bills because they have little or no coverage. That is not selling out. That is merely survival. Good Luck.
To me, selling out always implied that there was someone to sell out – an audience or a group that an artist speaks to being betrayed by that artist for reasons that are not aesthetic. It all seems to flow out of the beatnik aesthetic and the sense that those artists were of a collective with each other and their audience. if one of them wrote a toothpaste jingle, and tried to hold up that the jingle and the toothpaste were somehow of a piece with that collective, that was selling out. Trading on some good will with an audience, or violating the moral values that underpin your work.
Since then it seems to mean “commercial actions I don’t like”, which may be the beginning of a real criticism, but feels more like an umbrella for a lot of disparate commentary.
When one writes ad copy, one simply embraces the concept of selling out. The only issues are how much, how often, and how soon.
Whoops! I thought this episode was going to be about that new “Guinness Black Lager” I’ve been seeing in the stores…
I loved OMW and the sequels right up to Zoe’s Tale. That one I saw as more of milking the tired cow. Having said that, I cannot fault you for getting as much money as you can for your work. That’s what capitalism is all about.
The fuzzy book, I agree that for many it could have been a crash grab or simply something to do for lack of something original. Only you of course know the truth. I have not read the book so I cannot say if it added anything to the original to warrant its’ existence.
As for Redshirts, I have a copy albeit I got it second hand at a garage sale for $5. I plan on reading it some day but my main reason for getting it was first that it was “Star Trek”, sort of, and second it was $5 bucks.
That OMW is being made into movie I think is super cool and I never once saw it as selling out. My excitement over that is equal to my anticipation of Ender’s Game. I do expect to enjoy the movies and in the end feel that the books were better but that is normal.
I thought Zoë’s Tale was the same story from another POV at first. When I actually read it I found that it was an entirely different story set in the same historical background. This is rarely done, but I really liked it.
This comes up in indie music a lot because being a semi-successful indie musican sucks; for a lot of people it means you’re too busy with the music to hold down a decent day job, but the music itself isn’t paying as well as a day job would. After a while of this, you just have to find a way to make a living. So a lot of bands, two or three albums in, will suddenly release an album that to their fans sounds like The Suspiciously Pretty-Sounding One. Often the aim isn’t to sell more albums, but to license tracks for ads and whatnot, which is an increasingly important revenue source for musicians.
The trick is whether musicians can figure out how to make The Pretty One in a way that’s consistent with what they were already doing, or with a direction they want to go in. For whatever reason they chose to go pretty, Blonde Redhead did a fairly good job of making themselves sound shimmery and smooth with 23 in a way that followed logically from their earlier music (in fact that album’s both prettier and meaner than the one before it). TV On the Radio did something vaguely similar with Dear Science. But with some musicians, you can hear that they’re phoning it in, or faking music they aren’t comfortable with or just don’t do very well. That doesn’t usually even work much. Works aimed solidly at the bottom line might or might not also be good, but if the creator wasn’t at least having fun the product usually won’t sell. Audiences can smell lack of fun the way dogs smell fear.
That said, the rumor is that back in the day, will.i.am was approached by a couple of music execs who said, “we’ve decided to make Fergie a star, so do what we tell you and our label will get behind you and push,” and will.i.am cheerfully took the money and headed straight for the lowest common denominator. And look at him now.
Erick said: “Michael Caine took countless roles in the 80s because he was afraid people would stop hiring him.”
As Mr. Caine remarked re. ‘Jaws IV: the revenge’: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
And I’m fine with that, because it kept him on peoples’ books, and we got him in a lot of Christopher Nolan’s films as a result.
On the subject of number of sequels, I don’t think there’s any magic number where, once you hit it, we get to sit back and question whether you’re “grinding them out.” Sometimes the first sequel is crap. Sometimes the first book is bad, and the writer hits their stride later in the series. *shrug* I’m presently waiting with bated breath for the 13th book in one of my favorite series, and I haven’t loved all of them, but I’ve never considered the writer a sell-out for writing them.
The way I see it.
1. Any book published after the 1st one will have some reader screaming sell out.
2. Craftsman care about what you don’t see. When they put their name on something, they feel comfortable doing so. They know the work they did is strong inside and out. If you don’t feel comfortable putting your name on it, you have sold out.
3. You can only take care of your side of the street. If OMW comes out with Bruce Willis in a blue jump suit, you should get a better lawyer and be prepared for….
4. If 90% of the posts on this blog start with WT as in “What the…….”. you may have sold out.
I think the notion of “selling out” suggests thick lines in the sand which I don’t believe actually exist, since all art is subjective and all artistic goals and careers are highly individual. The most commercially successful and on-the-nose-for-broad-market-tastes writers I know (i.e. people hitting #1 and #2 and #6 on the NYT hc list for weeks at a time, or appearing year after year on the NYT mmpb list, etc.) are people who are doing what comes naturally to them, writing what they want to write and are most suited to write–lucky for them, it also happens to be what lots of people want to read, probably because these writers, like their readers, have a taste in books/story which is common and widespread at this particular point in time.
Very often there are business decisions associated with this happy circumstance, such as, “I make tons of money for writing this type of book which I like to write, and I’ve only been offered some green-stamps for writing a different type of book I’d love to write. So I’m focusing all my attention these days on the lucrative stuff.” And I think to suggest that this is selling out would be to demonstrate a truly tragic absence of common sense.
I often hear or read snide speculation that someone successful is “selling out” or “just in it for the money,” etc. It’s the sort of of comment that always comes from someone who has no real understanding of how much work, effort, and commitment is invested in becoming successful as a writer (or any other kind of artist).
Finally, whenever the subject of “selling out” comes up, I do something rare for me–I think of some advice of my father’s. He’s been a pro writer my entire life, and the advice is, “It’s noble to starve for your principles, but it’s chickenshit to let your wife and child starve for your principles.”
When I think of selling out, I think of a moral dimension, e.g., taking money to promote a cause in which you do not believe. Just doing work for money is what a lot of people do, I fail to see how it’s any more reprehensible in a writer than in a guy holding down a cubicle to feed his family, but there is a time when “selling out” could actually be morally wrong.
I’ve just wrapped up my 44th book. I write books for money. I don’t think of myself as an artist; I think that I’ve learned the craft of writing books about computer software and hardware, but I don’t see that as my art. If someone were to accuse me of selling out, I think I’d just have to laugh. Making money from writing books was always the point. It’s a better living than I’ve made from anything else I’ve done.
The best response to being called “sellout” I’ve ever heard was from Jason Newstead when he was still in Metallica. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Yes we sellout. Every house, every show we play.” Personally, I think the only one who can say whether or not a creator has sold out is that creator.
Greenday Good Riddance.
I think the whole concept of “Selling Out” is bunk. It’s the less savory sibling of “I knew them when…”
I’ve also encountered similar things with musician friends (I am not myself a musician), except the Suspiciously Pretty Album is never about getting their music licensed, so much as it’s about “Wow, with the money from those first two albums and the tour, we can afford more than 20 minutes in the studio.”
Any creative self-employment is going to involve some less-than-exciting production work. That’s not selling out, that’s doing what you need to do to have the career you want. You make $20 mugs that people will buy so you can make a beautiful $1000 venetian-style glass masterpiece that’s going to sit on the shelves for months before it sells. You turn out pirate shirts so you get the customer who commissions a custom gown that’s going to take weeks to make.
Michael Caine, Nicholas Cage, other actors in bad movies? We call that “paying the rent.”
Rob Meyer: Many thanks!
Being a sell out is not a bad thing, it is a part of being a functioning adult.
My thoughts are that the vast majority of employed people are sell outs, myself included. I’m doing a job I don’t really care about just because it generates a paycheck.
If you have passion for your work I don’t think think it’s really possible to sell out as long as you keep doing that. When you do something for money that you do not have passion for, you have sold out. I don’t mean in a day-to-day sense, but in a ‘general work goal’ sense.
I am intensely jealous of people who have a passion for what they do, largely because I don’t think I’ll have a chance to nurture my own passions professionally.
All of this talk of selling out and reasonably expecting to be paid for one’s work reminds me of Piers Anthony and his fight against the same attitudes decades ago. Never seems to end.
What IS selling out, anyway?
“Selling out” involves hypocrisy. Making money from the fruits of your labor is fine. Making money by selling Sony the recordings of your Occupy Wall Street drum circle covering 60’s protest songs is selling out.
“Selling out” is about expectations and trust. You trust that the artist or whoever in question will be in a position where they can give their best effort. You also expect them to do something that is similar to that thing you liked before.
In my mind, it’s much harder to even give someone the sellout label when it comes to movies as they are inherently commercial. The exception might be with actors who do a role that they’re not really suited for, and so they sort of muddle through to get the paycheck. But that’s where managing expectations comes in.
Writers, especially novel length writers, are almost immune to this charge because it’s not that easy to sit down and write even a bad novel to begin with. On top of that, it’s their world, they have complete control of what goes on their and so you don’t have people coming in trying to “fix” the work so it’ll sell a bit better. At least not to the extent you do with musicians and singers.
And the music business really the area that has the worst offenders. Up until recently, the studios owned the distribution channels. And in many ways, a huge music success is like catching lightning in a bottle so it’s perfectly understandable how easy it is to succumb to fear and let the studio try to “fix” your act.
Then there’s the case where they take their work in a direction you don’t like but they aren’t really being pressured. They still get that sellout label by some critics, but is that really what they’re doing?
I like money. I do stuff for money. That doesn’t mean I’ll do anything for money, but, yeah, I do stuff for money. What my limits and values are, and how far I’m willing to compromise them, are my own business, not anybody else’s. I see accusations of “selling out” as jealousy.
Well unless you’re Clive Barker or Michael Crichton or another novelist that makes movies, you were never going to make Old Man’s War the motion picture yourself. So basically what you’ve said is, someone, someone you could reasonably expect to bring their own artistic integrity to the project, might as well take a swing at that curveball, so just remember to pay me when you do it. Selling out would be if you had a vision for the movie and any designs on realizing it as you saw it, but instead sold it to someone else because it was easier. This is the point certain dickish superfans seem to miss. As an artist, selling out is compromising your artistic vision, not the fan’s vision of what your artistic vision should be. Fans like that are no better than the corporate entertainment industry they rail against. The only difference is that they lack the power to turn artists into their personal puppets, but they’re every bit as ready to stick their hand up the artist’s ass if the opportunity presents itself. They think they’re critics. But real criticism has value. They’re nothing more than losers desperate to live vicariously through others because they’re too lazy to try and make their art.
Or worse, they’re posers desperate to be too cool for school. Posers don’t want the masses to like what they like, because it would cast doubt on their self-image as a special snowflake floating above the unwashed masses, and their fragile egos can’t take that kind of puncturing, so they cut off their noses to spite their faces.
Then there are the fans that think that any financial success in a capitalist economy is evil, because they lack the rudimentary cognitive faculties required to understand the difference between an artist writing a popular book and the appalling labor conditions that manufactured their iPhone that they bought anyway because fighting the system is fine as long as it doesn’t compromise their own comfort. To paraphrase Dogbert, they really should be the first against the wall when the revolution starts. In the meantime, here’s your foodstamps paid for by us working stiffs, you hipster d-bag.
With regards to any “fan” in any of those three categories, I’d be disappointed if you didn’t draw their feeble ire.
To me “selling out” is part of what one does not do when it comes to what many buddhists refer to as Right Livelihood part of the eightfold path. Right Livelihood is the idea of earning a living without compromising ethical precepts. So, if you are writing propaganda extolling viewpoints you disagree with, just for the cash, you could be considered to sellout. Likewise, if you write a “self-help” book that you would not only find unhelpful but detrimental to the reader if they followed your advice. Again, you have probably sold out. If you are writing ad copy that extolls a product in a way you know the product does not- again you have sold out. If as a writer, you are just doing it for the money, and are intentionally offering a weak hack work that you would find reading a waste of time, but believe that through great marketing you can convince people to waste their time on it (because if someone else wrote it- you would find it a waste of time) . Yeah, you’ve probably sold out.
This is not the same as writing something that you believe to be of value to others but not necessarily to yourself. IE if you’ve written something because you believe it is exactly the sort of story someone not like you might like, but for all the ethically right reasons. Thats just empathy.
I notice that when John talks about OMW, he was definitely trying to write something of value for the reader. Something that he would want to read. He might fail, though not by me, but the exchange is not the problem
@mipomi: I’ve always understood it as “abandoning one’s principles (artistic or otherwise) for the sake of money, fame and/or prestige.” My personal definition would replace ‘principles’ with ‘ethics’. If your principles include getting paid for what you write/draw/sing/play – at least some of it – it’s not a sellout. If the work you deliver is of progressively lesser quality once you’ve made a name for yourself, then we gotta talk.
There is a SF/F writer I could name but won’t, who built much of his career on doing good work-for-hire but was still writing and publishing his own good stuff in between – about one novel of his own for every four for hire. To me, that’s not selling out. But over time, years after his own independent work became the bulk of his income and popularity, that work slid into a long period of repetitive and badly-written pieces that smelled of contractual obligation at best and grinding-them-out-for-the-cash at worst, and that is. He’s gotten better since.
On the flip side: Over the years, I’ve had several friends with small indie bands of various genres. Almost invariably, if they became semi-popular (i.e. drawing consistently large audiences and finding themselves in some demand for bookings even at a local level), at least one member of the band would go into a meltdown of OMG PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIKE US WE MUST HAVE SOLD OUT AND THEREFORE WE SUCK. This does not help anybody.
There is no sin in being paid for your art.
selling out is what other people do. It is very rare for someone to descibe their own actions as a sell out.
Selling out like everything else is not a black and white issue; there are so many shades of gray. It is not necessarily bad. You commented on Nicholas Cage and his owing taxes; it may be selling out but he needs to survive. Therefore the shade of gray here. Each person has to do what is best for themselves and those who depend on them.
I would like to say that I had a job that I enjoyed very much and made decent pay but I felt that the way they did things was against my ethics. I left as soon as I found another job. If I had not found another job, I would never had left even though I was not a happy trooper. My obligations to pay my bills trumped my ethics in this case. Just keep thinking shades of gray.
Is it a sellout if you beat your poor faithful little car to death just to try to pay the property taxes?
Jubal Harshaw was not a sell-out, not matter what anyone says.
Four OMW books? I’m fine if you write fourTEEN books in the OMW universe. There are so many corners of that universe that could be explored more. So long as you feel good about writing books in that universe – because I don’t think you’re ever going to want to write/publish a book you’re less than completely satisfied with – I’m going to feel good about buying them.
Sorry if that was a little off topic.
I’m with Sam — write all the OMW books you like. I’ll buy ’em.
People sell out to make money–pay the rent–and none of us I think have problems with that. Renting your faculties to other people in exchange for a buck. We all do it. The question is whether or not art, something rather more personally created, somehow deserves higher respect from us.
So here’s the thing: art is great. But art is at the same time mostly pointless unless art can be seen. I have no issue with an artist of any sort “selling out” to hit the big time and get out there. It’s just good marketing. I do start to have issue though with people who upon hitting it big don’t progress from there. Once you have the resources to do it with, IMO you have a duty to yourself to do whatever it is that you want to do, not whatever is necessarily popular. This is where things sort out fairly quickly. Those who can use what they have to further their own ambitions I’m very cool with. Those who go back out and just keep trying to make more money (Katy Perry I detest for this) either were never very good artists in the first place, or have sold out.
Okay, so I’m a bit of a pretentious teenager. My thing w/ music and TV and lit and whatever else is that I like to be entertained and also somewhat challenged. I can enjoy just entertainment (I’m an avid Dresden Files fan), but eventually I do tire of it and so I go dig out the Gene Wolfe. I like both but I consider Wolfe to definitely be an artist compared to Butcher.
Take from this whatever you will.
Essentially, the term “selling out” has meant that an artist has sold out the integrity of his artistic efforts by acquiring money and possibly fame from selling things “commercially” in the “mainstream” and having those projects be popular in that perceived mainstream and wanting that attention and money of the mainstream in the first place. If you’re not avant garde and unorthodox in what you are doing, with no large, corporate, widely distributed backers, you’re selling out. So basically as soon as you accepted the publication deal from Tor, a large publisher for paperback reprint nationally distributed in the main market, you sold out. The sheer fact that you would let your work be published by a large publisher in mass market paperback counts you out and any further success you have counts you out further. It is only when you labor in obscurity and struggle that you are not a sell out. Once you take the coin, you have sold your soul for the coin. Real art is art that most people don’t get and is not popular and cannot find a slot in mainstream venues, and the artist doesn’t care because he or she has integrity and vision beyond normal ken. Of course, the term in real life is applied very inconsistently. If an artist’s work is liked by the person using the term, the fact that he is recording with Sony Records or publishes with Random House may be granted an exception. But the more an artist seems interested in money for his work and the more generally popular the artist becomes, unless the artist is already dead, the more the artist will be considered a sell-out by those who use the term. All your publications with Subterranean Press cannot save you. You sold your art for filthy lucre a long time ago. :)
It seems strange that you would be accused of selling out because you write approachable books. So… not selling out is to write tomes that are so dense and unapproachable that no one will read them? What is the point of that, might I ask? The Art? Bah. It’s all so arbitrary anyway. Do what you love and let it go.
Good point, katyasozaevra. There’s an element of literary snobbery to the term ‘sell out’ as used by some.
Some people figure you sold out if you get a second printing. They are right, but they are wrong, too.
The way I see it, your purpose in life is to write novels (and the occasional story) that people really like. The best way to measure that like is to measure the number of books they buy. If they buy and recommend the books, you aren’t selling out. To the snobs that think you must always write great insightful drama that will only be appreciated by critics, I say “go to Hell.” Why is a book that is liked by maybe 25 snobs on the planet better than one that is liked by thousands of real people? It isn’t. Keep on writing the stuff your fans like. And we will keep buying them.
Tool covered this years ago. Hooker with a Penis.
“I sold out long before you ever heard my name.”
“Commercial” as a criticism? This from the crowd that thinks unless reading the book/story causes you have a migraine it isn’t “art”. I would not limit the motive for selling out to fear – desire to hobnob with the glitterati works too. For my money when I look up “sell out” on Wikipedia I will see Lee Child’s picture.
I think that most of the novels that are coming out these days are commercial. If you think that an author is too commercial then simply don’t read his/her books. Personally, I don’t mind if a writer spices the novel with a couple of sex scenes or some vivid futuristic battles.
Regarding your novels, I think that you keep a reasonable balance between art and commercialism. Because of that, they are fun and easy to read. The least commercial work of yours that I read is The Sagan diary. I have to admit that I didn’t finish it. It was ok but too melancholic for my taste.
The most commercial successful sci fi writer that I read is Peter F. Hamilton. I think he goes too far with the horny teenagers that sleep with half of the town and then save the galaxy. But I keep reading his novels because he uses some great ideas like downloading your personality, nanomedicine and so on.
‘Selling out’ isn’t just about the arts. My job involves selling out during every moment of every day. It’s an evil company that does evil things, and I’m a part of that. I need the job, and I don’t know of a single honest company in the industry.
Maaan, I was into calling out sell outs before it was all the rage. The scene hasss moved on. You’d know where. If you know anything worth knowing, that is. Snap snap snappio daddio. ::jazz taps back into the night::
So, if selling out is abandoning one’s ethics or etc., then how can anyone legitimately accuse someone else of selling out? Unless that “sell-out” has previously, explicitly, and fully espoused their ethics to everyone, then 1) it’s nobody’s business, and 2) the accuser is talking out of their ass AND projecting their own ethics onto someone else.
To me, the accusation of sell out says volumes more about the accuser than the accused.
There are some strange minds out there … last I heard, you made your living by writing. Hence, you write stuff that will sell. If it doesn’t sell, I suppose you’d take up a career in the hospitality industry, but you’ve been selling your writing for many years now, so why should people expect you to start doing something different?
I don’t think giving people what they want is a bad thing. I’ve not read through all the comments so I hope I’m not repeating anyone, but Jason Newsted (former bassist for Metallica) once said of the band’s success that “yes, we sell out. Every seat in the house, every time we play, anywhere we play.” Who wouldn’t call that success?
If your next book was a ‘Walmart Exclusive’, I would consider you a sell out.
I never thought of you as a “sell-out”. I’m surprised that this is even an issue. Now, if you run for Congress…
As soon as I see the John Scalzi bathrobe with matching Scalzi slippers and toilet paper, I’ll call you a sell out. But could go for a John Scalzi action figure, that’d be okay.
The John Scalzi action figure should come with a laptop, a banjo, and a package of bacon as accessories.
@JJS: only if you go for the retro Scalzi figure. Believe the newest model should have a uke.
IMHO there is a difference between “selling” and “selling out” . Selling is making a living practicing your craft, selling out involves hypocricy or compromising your personal ethics for $$. For example; a politician who was vocal about/promoted gun control during his/her campaign then upon winning, accepts money from the NRA and is silent on the topic – is a hypocrite and a sell out
I’ve always found it interesting that “selling out” only applies to the arts, and nowhere else. A pilot hasn’t sold out because he left the military and went to fly for the airlines, and engineer hasn’t sold out because he went to work designing frivolous throwaway doodads, a doctor hasn’t sold out because she went to work taking care of the rich instead of saving the poor in Appalachia, a software designer hasn’t sold out when he begins designing video games instead of control programs for state-of-the-art medical equipment. Why is it that only those in the arts can sell out, and everyone else is just taking their skills to another venue?
(Disregarding the morally reprehensible “mob lawyers”, accounts laundering drug money, etc–but that’s not selling out, that’s making a deliberate career decision.)
The whole notion of ‘selling out’ seems silly. As if artists or writers weren’t allowed to make money. If I recall correctly, when the Vatican archives were opened they found some invoices from Micheangelo asking for payments owed to him by the Church. And, as reinforcement, Dr. Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
I read through the comments looking for discussion of my two cents and didn’t see it. Apologies if it’s there and I missed it. I don’t really believe in the “sell-out” concept either — people have to pay the bills. However, what about a scenario where an author pens a great book where the main character happens to be gay/black/female/green/blue/transgender/insert-race-here and the publishers say “hey, we would love to publish this book and we can make you a ton of money, but only if you make the main character white male.” Distasteful right? But what if by making that change — and that change didn’t really affect much of the rest of the otherwise great story — the author then becomes famous and has the money and resources to write other books that have any characters they want? To me it’s all very grey. Did the author “sell-out” by changing the main character? Maybe. Probably. But in the end was it worth it?
I think selling out has to do with the notion of doing something contrary to what you actually want to do because of the external pressure to attain some gains (money, fame, security). I come from academia and I’ve seen it there – people write papers that are trivial rehashes of what they got published last time rather than doing more risky research that might not get publishes. I’ve been on panels at cons where authors admitted to writing that fourth book in the “trilogy” because someone told them it would sell well, but next year they promise to write the book they really wanted to write.
I think selling out is a very real thing, but it’s hard to judge from externalities. As you noted initially, the creator may have intended some effect (accessability, conformance to popular themes) that resulted in success. That’s not selling out because the creator hasn’t twisted their work around to accommodate the pressures. It can also be very subtle. I’ve been in more than one bar-at-a-con conversation in which an author admitted that they didn’t realize until afterward that they were selling out, because they were dissatisfied with how the finished product had ended up.
Everyone has internal standards of integrity (to their art, to their vision, to their muse, to science, to truth) and it’s deviations from those standards that result in selling out.
John, have you ever had something you really wanted to write, an idea that really got your juices going, but then declined to write because you didn’t think there was a market for it? (which would seem to be sort of an anti-sell out, if there is such a thing).
As always one of the last to post, but hey. You, a sell out? I don’t think so. You are what you are and it appears that your work speaks of a progression, never mind what that is exactly (that’s an art issue anyway). Nothing I’ve seen indicates fear (as you correctly point out).
And just so we’re in the clear, I’ve enjoyed this literary progression of yours.
@Biscuitpusher: I would argue that it would be very, very difficult to write a “great” book in which a fundamental aspect of the protagonist’s identity could be changed (i.e., erased) without profound damage to the book and/or its greatness, in the scenario you posit, and that your “thought experiment” has some deeply flawed premises.
The concept of ‘selling out’ is related to something being ‘bad for x’ (baseball, America, scifi, whatever). These are abstractions used to say ‘I don’t like this’ in the language of authority, by people who have none.
Simply taking on projects for a paycheck isn’t selling out (unless you think any paid work is “selling out” in which case get off my lawn you hippie). Even doing work you don’t like isn’t selling out: I doubt the people who pump out my septic tank particularly enjoy doing it, but they are performing a valuable service and earn their pay.
I’d define selling out as doing work which compromises your personal integrity: endorsing or promoting ideas you consider actively bad (as opposed to just “don’t agree with”), or doing something which you genuinely believe to be harmful.
So it’s not selling out to work for [insert name of your favorite political hate-figure here] if you don’t really care one way or another about [hate-figure]’s ideas — but if you really believe those ideas are not just wrong but evil, then you’re a sellout.
I think this has a lot to do with perspective. A fellow like Paolo Bacigalupi writes things that do not always have happy endings. Many might suggest that he is a bit dark. Now what are the odds that he is told by editors and publishers to put in more puppies and prince charmings? I bet he is pretty sick of that type of feedback.
So to him, changing the story that he intended to write would be selling out. The nice thing is that there is a market for his work. Me for one. I LOVE his stuff. To serve the market that he knows is there, people who like his stuff they way it is, selling out would be to ruin the very product that people have come to expect from him.
Now if you look at it in a vacuum the way that I think John Scalzi did, I think the point is very fair. Bacigalupi did set out to write things that would be commercially viable, and he is an author for a living (as far as I know). Being commercially successful is something that should never be seen as selling out. I would go as far as to say that if Bacigalupi tried to put in the puppies etc. he would do the opposite of what a sell out might have a a goal.
Hell, at this point, Scalzi does not have to sell out to make money. He can write what his audience wants, in a way that is easy for them to consume and enjoy and be successful. Then he can do what he wants to (assuming there might be something he is afraid would not appeal to as large a base which might not even be true) and it would still sell.
In short, I think you are both correct, but sometimes words take on different meanings based on what experiences you bring to the table. At least that is what Cain taught me.
Now I want a Bacigalupi book with puppies.
Is selling out the same as turning something artistic into a commodity that mostly exists for financial purposes?
As I read the comments here, I think about Orson Scott Card. He used to be my favorite author, but over time he’s changed. It some ways, it feels like either I’ve outgrown him or I’ve become less tolerent (or more observant) of his desire to push his opinions as indisputable facts.
I preface with that so put perspective on my question in relation to him. Ender’s Game is an incredible novel. Speaker for the Dead is an excellent sequel. Xenocide and Children of the Mind don’t live up to the expectations, but that’s neither here nor there.
Those four books tell the stories he wanted to tell. They weren’t a sell out. Yes, he wrote Ender’s Game to write Speaker, which was the book he felt more strongly about, but he made the decision to write what he wrote when he wrote it.
It’s what happened a decade later that causes my question. He created an eZine and used short-stories in the Enderverse to spur subscriptions. He created his spin-off novels of Ender’s Game. He has to update an entire chapter of the first book because of significant, obvious continuity errors. He had an “Official Ender’s Game Product” logo licensed and included on all work. And now, the last Ender book or two have been co-authored by someone else. If it’s like other co-ops with two authors (James Patterson, Tom Clancy) that usually means the “name” author creates the outline and does a polishing pass and the secondary does most of the work.
If he’s doing it because he knows people will buy them (and he’s said his Ender books sell far better than new IP) and not because he’s fully invested in the universe anymore, can that be considered a cash grab?
Can an outsider ever define a cash grab without knowing the grabbers intentions?
The most common definition of “Sell out” I run across seems to be: Someone who did something differently that appeals to a lot of people but not to you; particularly if you don’t like the people it does appeal to. On top of that they make a lot of money doing it that way.
I am reminded of a quote from an old Norman Spinrad novel, Bug Jack Barron.
“The saddest day of your life isn’t when you decide to sell out. The saddest day of your life is when you decide to sell out and nobody wants to buy.”
@Scalzi – I think Bacigalupi puppies would end us all. Entertainingly. For the puppies at least.
OSC sold out long ago. The original Ender’s game was a gem, the novelized version was bloated. Sort of like Elvis in the 50’s vs Elvis in the 70’s
See John, I do try to stay consistent. :)
Whoops – re-read and that sounds like an insult. None was intended!
I’ve got a piece of advice for folks who want to bitch their favourite author is a “sell-out”. Gets into arts patronage and put your credit card where your damn mouth is. It would be absolutely spiffing if perfumed unicorn farts were legal tender, but that’s not the world I or anyone else lives in, so put up or get lost.
@cranapia – the very notion that you would perfume the unicorn farts shows that you are a sell out. Unicorn farts are perfectly fine the way they are! :)
Also, excellent point.
“To my mind, “selling out” means producing work that is utterly contrary to your principles or values. Anything else is just “selling”. (A book that is “explicitly commercial” is “a book that people will actually choose to read for their own enjoyment”, and I am having a hard time finding a problem with that.)”
I appreciate hearing the struggles of a person in a different profession. As a primary care physician I am constantly given the opportunity to “sell out”. It is so much easier to give the patient what they want, whether it be the pain medication they want for their poor life choices and mental anguish, an antibiotic for their cold, or “a pill” for their gluttony and laziness. I see them rolling their eyes when I encourage proper diet and exercise. I can hear their thoughts scream, “Just give me the antibiotic!” when I explain that they have a cold. It would just be so much easier to write a script, wish them a good day and see the next patient. Sorry, can’t have that antibiotic for your cold yet. Check back with me in another ten years.
Some folks seem to call anybody who manages to grow their popularity (and customer base) beyond a certain level a sell-out. It’s like “Oh Noes! now the NORMALS have discovered my favorite author/singer/actor and it isn’t a secret for just the cool people anymore.” Rather than blaming their skewed views on their own preconceptions and needs, they label the artist as a sell-out.
There is a famous author who I won’t mention who wrote a book about once a year or so and I loved those books, and I couldn’t wait for the next one. But when the next one came out, it had a co-author. The book was a series set in the same fictional world, but with different characters, and the original characters would occasional “pop-in”. But I could tell from the writing, it was the co-author who wrote it. And then the next book was different series set in the same world, but with a different co-author. And then another… and then one of the series even changed co-authors. These books were all dreck in my opinion, and many went straight to paperback, never getting a hard cover release. To me, the original author sold-out his world. To me it seems that it is all about the money now, and it has even tainted (for me) his original characters. I bought the latest book that he wrote the he wrote, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet… maybe I never will.
JJS; 9/1:33 am: “Why is a book that is liked by maybe 25 snobs on the planet better than one that is liked by thousands of real people?”
Because the peasants don’t know art, so if you write something that pleases the peasants, then it isn’t art. Or at least that’s what they tell me. Unless the 25 discerning people like it too, in which case it is art even if the peasants also like it. Or not. As Woody Allen had in “Bullets Over Broadway”: “The proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work completely incoherent. It means you’re a genius.”
FL Transplant; 9/10:33 am: “I’ve always found it interesting that “selling out” only applies to the arts, and nowhere else.”
That’s because those professions are considered largely non-creative work that is mainstream in the world in all their applications. Art is supposed to be on the edge, away from the mainstream. It’s supposed to be above concerns of money and artists are supposed to be pure. If an artist “sells out,” then that person has no vision or has compromised their potential vision. It’s assumed that the person is not doing what he wants to do but what “sells” and that everybody knows what that is and it’s a dependable formula that always works. Which is completely contrary to any actual evidential data, but hey, it’s art! Truth needs no logic.
Dan; 9/1:15 pm: “A fellow like Paolo Bacigalupi writes things that do not always have happy endings. Many might suggest that he is a bit dark. Now what are the odds that he is told by editors and publishers to put in more puppies and prince charmings? I bet he is pretty sick of that type of feedback.”
Publishers loooovvvve dark books. A large number of readers love dark books. Horror, rape and violent gore are always welcome. Bacigalupi’s publisher didn’t tell him to give it a happy ending. The Wind-Up Girl was a NYTimes bestseller. So again, no. There are many instances of books we like not getting as wide an audience as we would like, but those circumstances never have to do with whether the book had an unhappy or happy ending. And vice versa on the books we don’t like that do well. I am unaware of any epidemic of puppy novels anywhere in fiction, much less in SFF. However, I would probably buy a Bacigalupi puppy novel too. Do you think we can get him to sell out? The reality is that written fiction is not monochrome, so there is not one set of elements that guarantees sales and is therefore commercial sell-out.
But it’s a moot point because as a SF writer published by a SFF press, by definition, Bacigalupi is commercial and therefore a sell-out without true art. By those who like to define these things. No category market SFFH author has a chance of selling out because by dint of what they chose to write (and the publishers they chose to work with,) they sold out from the beginning.
Selling out is a morality issue and it does tend to get dictated by the person’s views about artistic morality and what sort of artist should be respected.
Kat Goodwin at 7:19 pm: Not sure I am talking about the dark that I am. I mean even the horror, rape et all have someone who gets away or finally offs the killer. I would imagine if someone took the stories from Pump Six to 10 publishers, 8 of them might suggest that the stories were pretty hopeless albeit well written. “Maybe if the Yellow Card Man protagonist was a bit less of a sociopath we could publish it” kind of feedback. He knows that what he wrote is good and that if he sticks to it long enough, someone will be able to hear his voice and get him published. The answer in that case is to find a better publisher not to change his story. Changing his story seems like what he is talking about from the sell-out standpoint.
Either way, your point is well thought out. If there were a formula for commercial success, there would be a stampede to sell out.
Also, now I think the great 2013 Paulo Puppy Push needs to happen. Then again, I am afraid of what would happen.
An artist friend of mine got curious about the historical roots of “selling out” as a concept, and established pretty quickly that wherever it may have originated, the idea’s always been pushed by people wanting to make money off others’ art. Gallery owners in 19th century France and Britain, music publishers, and so on down the road. There’s always someone willing to pump artists full of the idea that their creative genius must be sullied by grimy commerce, which the artists can leave to others willing to *hand to forehead, sigh* bear the burden for them, so that they can remain blessedly free to heed the muse.
Then it gets internalized by artists and by fans, who seldom stop to look at just how well it serves the interests of some groups of people profiting from the whole arrangement.
(Lest anyone think this is a slam on publishers and such…it isn’t. Lots of good producers, gallery owners, and other folks in the art businesses who work their very best to see that everyone involved can do well, very much including and starting with the people making the stuff. Commerce doesn’t have to be a ripoff just because people who like ripping others off often find it a handy tool to do so.)
@ Kat Goodwin
Lot’s of stories portray rampant villainy, but very few indeed allow the villain to triumph. Even The Windup Girl can only be said to have an ending without any clearly triumphant characters, but it’s far from the worst ending he could have written. At least AgriGen failed in its bid for unchecked power. When villains are allowed to win, they’re usually antiheroes, but Bacigalupi’s villains are not especially sympathetic (admittedly, I’ve only read the one book by him which, while very well written, was not to my liking as I’m not a big fan of straight dystopian or utopian literature).
Morality implies some coherent application of principles. “Selling out” is a taste issue, one where certain people believe their tastes are objectively superior to the tastes of the bourgeoisie. That they mistake their personal mores for moral reasoning doesn’t make them the same thing.
Who needs Bacigalupi puppies when you have Tool?
Yes, both were doing it for money. But I think one was most definitely NOT a sellout. The other….
I feel like this article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/knaan-on-censoring-himself-for-success.html?_r=0 really resonates what you had to say about selling out being based in fear.
Dan: “I mean even the horror, rape et all have someone who gets away or finally offs the killer.”
There are many books where that doesn’t happen. There are thousands of books and hundreds of bestsellers, and dark material over times gets more media attention, reception and sales than books without it. But there is a convinced social belief that the mass audience is obsessed with happy endings, and that therefore publishers doggedly demand that all authors write them. Which is really not the case. What is often the case is that an editor, a magazine board, or several at a publisher may lobby for a change that might not fit an author’s vision, and that is understandable as they have their tastes and have to decide what the company will invest in relative to the audience they sell to. And this is always touted as being the view of all publishers, editors, magazines, readers, etc. with only the few discerning folk in the world ever disagreeing. And that second claim is bunk. I do think we are still facing a lot of issues concerning gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, of publishers convinced — with that same social belief unbacked by actual statistics — that the audience has problems with gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation and so many of them will cling to stupid old ideas and cover treatments. Until something is successful that challenges those assumptions, in which case most of them chuck them out the window. But progress has been way slower there in SFF and elsewhere than we could have hoped. But dark, grisly tragedy? Always in season, along with things where there is partial victory (some horror, a good chunk of suspense) or total victory (the family pulls together, etc.)
Baughblog: “Lest anyone think this is a slam on publishers” — In the 19th century, it was a totally legitimate slam of publishers. It’s only been relatively recently that publishers were not simply hired printer/distributors instead of the investors/licensors they are today, and they weren’t necessarily great at passing on the profits to the author after the author paid them for the printing. Bestseller lists were initially fought against by publishers because the sales data necessary for them would then alert authors as to how much they were actually selling and require the publishers to pay them properly. The situation has greatly improved and the business and business relationship has changed over the last 100 years, but issues do come up. And music I think still very has that let us take care of that for you and charge you mindset going.
Gulliver: “but very few indeed allow the villain to triumph.”
That’s the social belief. It’s the tragedy has died off belief. But in written fiction, it’s not necessarily the case.
“Morality implies some coherent application of principles. “Selling out” is a taste issue, one where certain people believe their tastes are objectively superior to the tastes of the bourgeoisie. That they mistake their personal mores for moral reasoning doesn’t make them the same thing.”
I’m not sure that moralities are always coherently applied. But call it a philosophy then, of humanity. It’s a bit more than just a taste issue. At its center is an ideal of purity, that an artist is an artist by dint of adhering to the particular notion of pure art, and if the artist deviates, the artist is fallen, dirty, no longer real or worthy. The measure of purity often has little to do with the actual artwork and more to do with things like if the work is published in paperback only, if it’s a category press publication and thus affiliated with a particular category market (almost all of which are impure,) if it’s a large press or a less prestigious imprint in a large press, if it sells well, if it gets a film deal with a non-artiste director, whether the author actually needs money and uses it to pay bills, etc. It’s a particular view about how the world works, and people have them for music, fine art, films, etc.
@ Kat Goodwin
Oh, I know tragedy is alive and well, probably nowadays more than ever. In tragedy, the protagonists usually secure their own downfall, and the villains are just there to help them hang themselves. I admit, I’m kind of splitting hairs now, but I was referring to the rarity of stories where the villain (not an antiheroic protagonist, but the antagonist) decidedly triumphs. Tragedy is the triumph of fallibility over good, not evil over good, which is why when people say it’s just a tragedy or it’s such a tragedy or it’s a real tragedy, they usually mean there wasn’t any obvious malicious intent that brought about the pertinent events.
True, they often are not, and rarely, if ever, always so. I suppose if the snobs have concrete notions of their values – and I’ll concede that they typically do with regards to the artist herself rather than the artist’s work – then applying them is moral reasoning, albeit from values chosen to reinforce the established critical elite by explicitly defining it in part as nothing produced by those kinds of people.
Sounds a lot like classism.
I lack your knowledge of the history of publishing, but I quite agree with you about the music industry. The thing about the bestseller lists is fascinating. Did the publishers try legislative obstruction or merely social engineering? I’m constantly aghast (though never much amazed) how reliably IP sellers will talk out one side of their mouths about the sanctity of copyright while trying to use the force of the state to beat their competition silent and deprive the IP creators of their own property rights.
Gulliver: Lot’s of stories portray rampant villainy, but very few indeed allow the villain to triumph.
Well, “Dexter” has been getting away with serial murder for a number of seasons now. And I haven’t watched much of it specifically because of how it fetishizes murder.
For the most part, I don’t think the issue is whether villany “triumphs” or not. I think what matters is the running tally of force. If the bad guy gets away, but ends up suffering more damage than he dished out, then most people will see it as “ok”.
Seriously, there is a pattern, and it is easily discernible here:
The movie “300” showed the villian, Xerxes, winning. But what we see on camera is more damage being inflicted by the Spartan on teh Persians, than we see on camera the the damage being inflicted by the Persians on the Spartans. the warhw score is +602, which means it shows a LOT more persian blood and persians dying than it shows Spartan blood or spartans dying.
hell, it’s not limited to fictional accounts of the battle of thermapolye. In the real battle, the Spartans lost. They were eventually overrun. Their “last stand” provided almost nothing in the way of strategic OR tactical advantage. And yet, it is historically remembered in a positive light of the Spartans by many people today.
And I would say that is because the Spartans inflicted more damage than they took, even if in the end, they were defeated.
Compare that to the movie “Pork Chop Hill”. It has a warhw score of -92. You see a LOT more americans dying in that movie than you see enemy soldiers dying in that movie. In the movie, the battle is portrayed as a kind of victory, but in actual history, the real battle the movie was based on was a defeat. In the movie, we see the good guys get beat up way more than the bad guys, but in the end, the movie portrays the overall effort as a victory, thereby counterbalancing some of the cost.
Very, very, very few movies have negative scores. “Unforgiven” with Clint Eastwood has a score of plus 7. The movie is considered to be a statement against violence, but even then, it shows the bad guys getting shot or killed more than the good guys.
So, if the villian survives or triumphs, the question would be: did the villian get beat up more than the good guys to win? I’d say that for the majority of stories, the answer is “yes”.
I can’t think of any popular stories, especially movies, where the good guys got beat up more than the bad guys AND the good guys lost. If the good guys lose, they at least inflict more damage. And if the good guys take more damage than the bad guys, then the story will show the good guys winning in the end despite it all.
In “V for Vendetta”, V dies in the end, but the movie scores +116, meaning V inflicts a lot more damage than he takes before he dies.
The kinds of “sell outs” that we are seeing the last few years have been the sort of moral sell outs with regard to the good guys committing torture to get the bad guy. Prior to 9/11, Americans held torture as an evil thing that evil countries did. Since 9/11, we’ve sold out our principles for fear and have knuckleheaded stories like Jack Bauer in “24” torturing several different people in a single day and getting information from them.
What we will never see in popular fiction is that torture is what gave us all the false intel that lead up to and justified the invasion of Iraq: WMD’s that didn’t exist. Yellow cake that didn’t exist. Mobile chemical labs in the desert that didn’t exist. KSM was waterboarded 183 times in the month before the US invaded Iraq in 2003. And as a result we invaded a country based on lies.
It will be a long time before popular fiction shows an american torturing foreigners and getting nothing but false information that causes damage for the Americans. Instead, what we see is our principles sold out in stuff like “zero dark thirty” that tries to pretend that torture helped us get Osama Bin Laden. Torture, in fact, did not help us get Bin Laden. But you won’t see that in popular fiction for a long, long time. Because if the good guys “lose” by having to lower themselves to torture, then it will be compensated for by having the torture provide something bigger and better than the cost we paid by giving up that principle.
Gulliver: “I admit, I’m kind of splitting hairs now,” — You think? :) You admitted, for instance, that you don’t read/like dystopias.
“Sounds a lot like classism.” — It’s very class oriented, but not entirely in the traditional sense, more in an A group/B group sense. There is the downtrodden in the gutter aspect to it, though there is also the well-off, highly educated intellectual in that gutter who doesn’t have to write for money and so can write for art aspect. It depends on the person and that person’s individual views. Within the SFFH category market, within SFF media/press, (commercial/mainstream to many outside it,) the distinctions get a great deal more complicated as to what constitutes as “pure”. So that’s why some people only view Scalzi as selling out with a film deal, etc.
“The thing about the bestseller lists is fascinating. Did the publishers try legislative obstruction or merely social engineering?”
Mostly they just tried to talk everybody out of it. Which didn’t work and bestseller lists became a valuable marketing tool, although always a controversial one. Michael Korda did a fascinating book called Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999, which talks about the history of the lists in the U.S. and goes over the actual lists of the bestselling books for the entire year, which blows apart many of the myths we have about bestsellers. He does end the book a bit pessimistically and off-beat for the last years, lamenting the domination of a small group of authors that developed. But that domination lasted only for a short period. In the 1990’s, the turnover rate of the bestseller lists sharply increased and that continued into the oughts. The number of non-white authors also increased, though that’s dropped again in the oughts. Thrillers always do best, but SFF has made amazing gains in the last twelve-fifteen years. It tells you a lot about book publishing too. The relationship between authors and publishers became one of partners in the last 150 years, with the publisher investing in the work through licensing.
For me, I have no interest in putting myself in charge of an author’s career decisions or artistic purity. They get to do whatever they want to do and I get to decide if I want to sample their various wares or not. And I’ve always found vast variety in the wares that are available. Now, with SFFH books alone numbering in the thousands each year, more than any one person could keep up with, I think a lot of the obsessions in SFFH are even less relevant and tend to be mired in the language of the past, including misconceptions of the past.
Ah, but Dexter is an antihero who rationalizes murdering villains.
And while I agree with much of what you said, I’m not sure how it contradicts my point.
Anyway, I thought of a better way to explain what I was trying to say earlier. There is an expectation in fiction that the stories we make up will adhere to some moral logic. Whatever the moral system in play, it is portrayed as essential to the fabric of that fictional world, as an objective morality that implies the consequences for the actions of the characters, a teleology. But in real life, the universe doesn’t pick sides, because there is no author to make it do so (unless you’re of particular religious traditions, obviously). It’s up to us to enforce moral consequences, and we can and do fail because we are imperfect. Stories don’t portray this. So yes, Dexter and other antiheroic fiction portrays behavior we recognize as sociopathic, by pretending that it serves some utilitarian good of preying on predators. Whether we agree with that reasoning isn’t the point (I certainly don’t). What matters in the story is that the antihero believes it, and his or her Cartesian theater is the one the story takes place in. If the antihero ever comes to believe he or she is truly the villain of their own story, their fall becomes inevitable, and that is indeed the formula for many a tragedy. Victory by a villain of their own story is, literally, unconscionable, and so fiction that portrays it is, IMO, widely regarded as immoral.
The farce of this, as you illustrated with Dexter and 24 – which I admit I’ve never seen and don’t really care to for the same reason I won’t waste time on the Zero Dark Thirty movie, namely that I’m disinclined to suspend disbelief for craptacular intelligence fiction (which is very nearly all of it) – is that there is no uniform moral system to all fiction, and everyone who takes in any amount of it will take in stories with moral systems disparate from their own. So insisting that a story have at least some moral system that the characters cannot possibly dodge is not a condemnation of moral systems with which the audience disagrees, but of the possibility that there is no natural morality, no teleology. Hence heaps of Persian casualties. As an aside, the Battle of Thermopylae was both less important than the movie 300 indicated (though why anyone would expect historical accuracy from a comic book movie is beyond me), and more important than providing almost nothing in the way of strategic advantage. But we’ve already had that discussion in another thread and I think we should avoid digressing into it again, so I shall demure.
I will say that I have no objection to violent stories, but I do object to stories where the consequences of violence are greatly underplayed. Though they are not always the consequences our moral systems proscribe, violence does always have consequences. Extracting violence from all or nearly all fiction would, IMHO, be no better than portraying it as consequence free, if one value of fiction is to illuminate how the world actually works, which it is for me at least. The catch is that explicating portraying or even just alluding to the consequences of violence often gets fiction denounced as immoral, but portraying it without consequences is widely considered clean, at least by the Ostriches* who set the standards for our Western entertainment industries.
*Yes, I know Ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand, but society sure does.
I’m a little late making this post so i don’t know if you will actually read it, and no I haven’t (yet) read the other posts; but in my opinion there isn’t really such a thing as selling out. If what you do enables you to continue writing your types of books based on your ideas, that, you want to reach your readers then isn’t that the most important goal as a writer. EVEN if at some point or another you may pump out something to keep a publisher happy in order to get that multiple book contract which gives you more personal power to write what you want? Everyone has to do a little grunt work in order to be granted some freedom. And I would think as a writer, it would be a small price to pay in order to be able to write and get published, the books that you dreamed of. Unfortunately unless you give a little and as they say sell out, even if you were to write the greatest story in the world, in today’s publishing world it would reach nobody and your story would be lost to all but a obscure few. So I guess I think it’s not selling out, it’s paving the way to make sure what is IMPORTANT to you isn’t lost in the morass of bureaucracy and stupidity. Just a thought, I hope it’s not a stupid one. Because I don’t think self publication, etc would accomplish this, it just doesn’t reach enough people, and the works WOULD get lost & buried. What do you think John? And as a secondary note it’s really easy to make accusations of selling out when your not in the position, looking at a contract that would take care of YOUR family, or to be able to write more than one GREAT book that no one appreciates until you’ve been dead 50 years, easpecially when you had so much more to say.
@ Kat Goodwin
I think I was a barber in my last life. But I also realized I hadn’t done a particularly good job of expressing my still-forming thoughts in my previous reply to you. I covered them better, I hope, in my reply to Greg.
I’m fine with dystopian elements. I use them liberally myself. I also use utopian elements. What I tend to steer clear of is a piling on of doom and gloom or Pleasantville. Which isn’t to say I think stories that go there are badly written, and I definitely don’t feel I wasted my time reading The Windup Girl. I just prefer a bit more ambiguity at this stage of my aesthetic evolution.
Again, I’m not nearly as up on publishing history as you, but I know in classical music, which I’ve studied both as a listener and a performer, that, until relatively recently, there was a prevailing critical view that the purpose of aristocratic (or at least wealthy) patrons was to provide an educated elite to shield artists from what was seen, by the Establishment, as the base tastes of commoners, to the point that introducing folk elements into classical music was so scandalous that is took centuries to become fully accepted.
On the one hand, I do understand the reasoning that an audience educated in the art their patronizing will have a fuller experience, just as a data-set will mean a lot more to a specialist trained in the relevant field than to just any scientist. On the other hand, I do believe that sort of exclusivity can and does often lead to insularity, allowing the elites to maintain unexamined beliefs unchallenged by anyone they or the art/music/film/literary/etcetera worlds will take seriously. And embubblement breeds stagnation. It also places participation at a credentialed level out of reach of people without access to power and influence, whether it’s relegated to the aristocracy or the rich or the Ivory Tower or the in-crowd or the whatever groups, races, orientations, religions or cultures from which the liberal zeitgeist has decided to allow admittance into the clubhouse.
Gulliver: I agree with much of what you said, I’m not sure how it contradicts my point.
I was suggesting that “very few [stories] indeed allow the villain to triumph” might be more accurate if tweaked to say that stories can be binned into (1) “good guy wins” or (2) “villian wins but took more damage than the good guys”.
An example of (1) would be something fairly straightforward like “Fifth Element”. If the good guy wins in the end, it doesn’t matter who takes how much damage leading up to that point. I think this explains why “Porkchop Hill” works as fiction. It shows a lot more American soldiers dying than it shows enemy soldiers dying, but the Americans win in the end, so we shrug off the cost as long as we win.
An example of (2) would be something like “300”, which shows the Spartans losing the battle, everyone we consider the “good” guy ends up dead (except the narrator), BUT leading up to that defeat we see the Spartans dish out a lot more damage than they take. If the good guys LOSE, then this will generally be compensated for in the story by showing the good guys doing a lot more damage than the bad guys. To quote a really bad line from a really bad movie that summed up this effect almost perfectly:
If we’re gonna lose, lets take out as many of them as we can.
Gulliver: “And embubblement breeds stagnation.”
It does. Also the tendency to make broad, unsubstaniated claims. But the ideas of selling out in art aren’t simply a matter of educated, well off folks making the accusation. In fact, quite often the accusation of selling out is aimed at those folks being the audience for a work — that an artist is making mainstream stuff for the preppies. And the people making that claim are not necessarily educated and well off. There is that struggling in the gutter aspect, the unappreciated rebel idea that has a grain of truth to it in the world which is then stretched beyond any real resemblance to the world (but which works great for stories.) The basic idea is that there is a very small group A who have discernment, who stand outside the mainstream, who fearlessly explore truth and beauty and art whatever the cost (the Rebel Alliance if you will,) and that there is then a very large group B (the Evil Empire,) the mainstream crowd which thinks in stagnated ways, which is pandered to by the better part of creative works, which is mostly about money and marketing, and which either doesn’t understand art or can but does not understand it as fully and fearlessly as Group A. Group A can be formed on the basis of any number of criteria, and the sins of Group B likewise. But whatever criteria is used, it’s always a siege mentality of being overrun by Huns. Even those who consider themselves part of Group B may go along with the idea that most in Group B are Huns, such as the idea that readers always all want happy endings (because Huns would want that,) or that bestsellers are hardly ever also acclaimed, that selling film rights is an author doing it for the cash, etc. So the notion of selling out, whatever criteria you use for it, is the notion of the author going over to the Huns, which, if you’re in Group B you may not consider much of a big deal, but if you consider yourself to be in Group A, trying to stand against the siege, is another sign of the desolation and destruction of the universe. (I mean no disrespect to the culture and history of the Huns.) And that’s something that goes beyond tastes and into a viewpoint of art in the world perhaps.
@ Kat Goodwin
Eh, fair enough. I make no bones about the fact that these are my personal opinions about what I see as trends in society. Not trying to paint everyone with the same two brushes.
So, just by way of clarification, I never said or implied that all readers want happy endings. Only that I believe that the vast majority of readers want stories that exhibit an exorable internal morality where good triumphs over evil, as both are defined in the story’s moral framework.
I knew what you meant but, if it’s any help, I usually refer to the nominal lemmings as the horde(s) given that it conveys the same sense of besieging barbarians without as much cultural specificity.
Meant to say inexorable, not exorable. Sleep time.
IMO it seems a lot of people who scream sellout just don’t value (in a monetary sense) whatever that person/group/company produces. They might love a music group, or buy the author’s books the first day they come out, but they object when those same people make millions doing that, because they can’t understand why those things are more valuable then what they are doing or something they value more. It also boils down to how hard those same people think the sellouts work. Making a living in a “artistic” type of work is not “easier” (as in effort) than another blue or white collar type of work. Putting your a** in a chair every day to write is not easier than being CEO of Apple. But one pays more.
WT??, John? “Redshirts Breakfast Cereal”? “Old Man’s Orthopedic Shoe Inserts”? And if those weren’t selling out badly enough, the Scalzi-Style Bacon Kit, with a perforated-punchout color-by-numbers cardboard cat on the back of the package and an included piece of bacon-pattern duck tape?
This was selling out
Here are my thoughts on selling out:
It’s none your business what I do to make a living as a writer, just as it’s none of mine what you do to make a living as a writer. One man’s selling out is another man’s means of paying his mortgage, and screw anyone who condemns anyone for doing what he or she has to do in order to survive.
I think, like a couple of previous posters, that a good definition of “sell-out” is to do with morality and closely related to monetary gain for doing something you are not convinced of and/or you don’t have to work for, but allow others financial gain on your merits.
Writing for money is not selling out
Producing more crowdpleasing fiction is not selling out.
The above mentioned “Redshirts breakfast Cereal” smells like selling out if it’s not a single incident.
In case of writing I think Tom Clancy has been toeing 8and lately overstepping) the line. It started when lots of cheap action-thriller book series surfaced bearing the Title “Tom Clancy’s somethingorother”.
Not written by Clancy, not remotely in his ball-park quality-wise (assuming, you like early clancy) but using his Name to boost sales. Would the first series of these cheap by-the-numbers book have sold nearly as much being published (only) by the Author Steve Piecznik (sp?)? I don’t think so. The publisher (IMHO) used Clancy’s well established name in the Arena of military techno thrillers to sell a no-name (mostly) to gullible Clancy readers.
Continue this with “Clancy” Video Games an more…
Looking at the latest “Tom Clancy” Novels they bear his name (with “some Author” in small print on the cover) and from the quality and writing speed alone it’s discernable they are not exclusively his novels. But marketing and cover design fool (a lot of) readers.
That would be – to conclude – the road to selling out.
Adding now Tom Clancy night-vision goggles, Tom Clancy survival knives or Tom Clancy hollow point ammunition – all products which Mr. Clancy can not (to my knowledge) produce and infuse with any of the tradecraft that made his name. And you have a sellout.
But still. I think it needs the (sadly available) gullible masses to go for the sell-out items as well.
[Off topic and stupid besides – JS]