Art and Entertainment and Commerciality
Chad, who is an architect, sent me this question today, which I am answering publicly with his permission:
I read a repost on Tor.com this morning regarding Ursula K Le Guin (rest in peace) where she made several interesting comments regarding “the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.” This is something that I constantly wrestle with in the work we do as well and, given that you have been outspoken about writing commercially successful (to make money even!) and accessible books, I wanted to get your take, if you are willing:
How do you balance the commercial viability of your work and stay true to yourself or your “art”? Do you see your work as “entertainment”, “art” or both?
I’ve answered this to some extent before, but it’s worth checking in again on this for those of you who don’t want to hunt through the archives.
To answer the first question, with regard to the work I do with Tor, and especially since I signed that long contract with them which pays me a significant amount of money that I know Tor hopes to get back through book sales, I recognize that the work that I publish with them is meant to be explicitly commercial — that is to say, meant to sell lots and lots of books. It’s a cornerstone of what I write for them.
The good news for me is that generally speaking this is not a huge imposition, or really an imposition at all. I like writing commercially appealing science fiction, and not just because (relatively speaking) it pays better than writing something aggressively abstruse and/or not commercially focused. Again generally speaking, the storytelling that appeals to me most frequently as a reader is of a commercially accessible sort. When I started writing my own fiction, it made sense that it would be a mode that I would follow into.
I don’t think writing commercially accessible work is particularly restrictive in terms of the topics one can address in the work; “commercially accessible” is a mode, not a limit. Nor do I think it limits what one can do in terms of artistry. I think you can make a strong argument that staying within the bounds of which is “commercially accessible” in any era means that you prioritize some elements over others and that the amount you can “stretch the envelope” is less (or perhaps better stated that you can stretch it in fewer simultaneous directions) than if you feel free to disregard a commercial imperative — that the art goes to where the audience already is more than it challenges the audience to follow. But I don’t think it makes it any less art, or that commercially accessible art can’t move and affect people with the same intensity as art that has less overt commercial intent.
And let’s also make sure to note that this isn’t a binary thing; art isn’t either “commercially accessible” or “obscure and difficult.” It’s not just a spectrum, either; it’s a multidimensional plot with several axes, and a lot depends on your intent, your expected audience and your aim.
(Also, of course, art meant to be commercial can fail at being commercial, and art that doesn’t give a shit about its commercial prospects can be wildly commercially successful. Ultimately no one knows anything — you just do a lot of guessing. If you’re smart, you pay attention to the market you’re playing in and your guesses are at least informed. But the ground can shift under your feet faster than you can respond, especially when there are months and sometimes even years between you turning something in and it being published. To Le Guin’s point, this is why a smart commercial publisher shouldn’t just go with “safe” work — you have to take chances not just to lead a market, but sometimes to make a market.)
I like writing commercially accessible work, but what about those times when I want to do something creative that I expect not to be commercial, or that I can’t even guess as to its commercial prospects, or that I have no intent for it to be commercial? Usually I just do it anyway, because I enjoy doing it and I feel fine from time to time just doing stuff and not worrying if it’s something anyone else will dig. For me, my photography and music stuff easily fits here, but there’s occasional writing I do that doesn’t fit with everything else, too. Sometimes I’ll sell it (for example, The God Engines), sometimes I put it up here on Whatever, and sometimes (rather infrequently, but even so) I just keep it for myself. Maybe you’ll see that stuff later, or after I’m dead, or never. And that’s fine. You won’t miss what you never see.
As for whether I see my work as “art” or “entertainment” or both, the answer is “both,” with the understanding that I don’t find “entertainment” a belittling term nor do I find “art” an ennobling one. Art is a creative act; entertainment is an amusing one. Lots of things overlap. There’s bad art and life-changing entertainment; there’s great art and entertainment that fails. There’s lots inbetween in both cases. I aim to make good art and good entertainment, generally speaking, and usually at the same time. Whether I succeed will be a matter of taste. But at the very least, most of the time I like what I make, and I’m my own first audience. So that’s a start.