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.

39 thoughts on “Art and Entertainment and Commerciality

  1. “…sometimes (rather infrequently, but even so) I just keep it for myself.”

    You have a whole series of unpublished novels featuring yogurt, hyperintelligent bees and drop bears, don’t you?

  2. Interesting. My copy of Quack This Way arrived today, coincidentally, and I was running in circles trying to figure out some stuff this article clarified. Thank you, John.

    I’m reminded of Brandon Sanderson saying that he had to become a somewhat proven author before publishers would seriously consider publishing the Stormlight Archive.

  3. Well, that did clear up a lot of questions in my head. There’s a certain amount of viciousness that comes out among literary authors when they hear I write scifi “genre”, and the ever eternal conversation about art versus commercial success (“If it’s a bestseller, it can’t be any good” and so on). Thanks, John.

  4. Some members of the audience just want the ground up mash of all that has come before in the genre. There is some commercial success to be had providing this pulp.
    I respect the artist who can bring originality to the work, I’ll contribute to the commercial success of art that looks at things in a new way, a different way.

  5. More or less agreed, albeit I’m writing in a slightly different genre. As a romance novelist, I have written editor-suggested plots (I don’t know if this is a thing that happens in SF) that weren’t necessarily what I’d have gone for on my own, but I enjoyed them, and I think I did good work on them; certainly I put as much effort in as I did for the stuff I wrote for my own entertainment, or more so because some of the subject matter wasn’t as familiar or came less easily (heh heh) to me.

    As a general rule, in modern romance, I think there are some tropes that would be harder to publish under one of the bigger, non-indie publishers (poly, for example: while “menage” is a definite subgenre, I’ve seen it mostly as indie or self-pubbed) for the market reasons you describe. But I don’t think that any of the guidelines make what I sell less art, any more than the ninety-thousand-word novel I wrote for my own entertainment, about elves in Camaros and Evil Jem and the Holograms is *more* art.

  6. “Maybe you’ll see that stuff later, or after I’m dead, or never.”

    After reading a couple of great books completed by someone else after an author has died (“And Another Thing” for Douglas Adams by Eoin Colfer, “Variable Star” for Robert Heinlein by Spider Robinson), as well as books not being finished (“The Salmon of Doubt” by Douglas Adams) and instances where the author specifically has said they don’t want anyone to finish anything unfinished (recently, though I can’t remember who it was). Do you have a preference? And if it’s to allow someone to finish your work, do you have an author you’d prefer to do so?

  7. I guess the same question could be asked about the art and commercialization of architecture. I’m sure Howard Roark would have something to say about it.

  8. Howard Roark was the vehicle Ayn Rand was using to preach a doctrine only tangentially related to architecture. The Fountainhead does not really represent the business or art of architecture, nor was that Rand’s real concern in writing it.
    (You probably know that).

    The interesting thing in the field of architecture is how many things we have to balance on a daily basis:

    -client needs
    -aesthetic design
    -urban planning, place making, space making
    -quality of detailing and material
    -building code, zoning code and life safety

    This is why Mr Scalzi’s note about a multidimensional plot is particularly interesting to me…

    (Yes, I posted the original question to him…!)

  9. Thanks for this. I’ve been wondering much the same thing of late concerning the art, or at least self-entertainment, that’s been flowing through me lately.

  10. @ArbysMom: You may be thinking of the late Sue Grafton, who reached the penultimate book in her alphabet mystery series but hadn’t done more than write down a possible title (“Z is for Zero”) and maybe a hint of an outline for the last book, and who forbade her estate from farming out the last book to someone else.

    IMO, this leaves the field wide open for a parody starring Grafton herself as she returns from the grave to wreak vengeance on those who would dare complete her life’s work, titled “Z is for Zombie,” but I fear I’m not skilled enough to write the thing.

  11. @ArbysMom

    Terry Pratchett did Sue Grafton one better and left instructions in his will for his friends to crush his computer hard drive with a steamroller after he died. Which they did, in a ceremony televised by the BBC.

    My kind of memorial.

  12. Your perspective on entertainment reminds me of Michael Chabon’s essay (http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/27/books/bk-chabon27), which I think I first read at an exhibit of Ben Katchor’s work. It’s stuck with me for years:

    “Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. … But maybe these intelligent and serious people, my faithful straw men, are wrong.”

  13. My profession is computer programmer. Years ago, I was part of a big project with a company that made nickel alloys, which they sold to other manufacturers to make things like jet engines, or the wires they use in braces. The whole project comprised accounting, billing, customer management, etc., but my “little” part of it was to build the system for recording and documenting results for all the various tests they do to make sure the alloy meets the industry and client standards. Things like “tensile plastic strength” (TPS Reports. Ha!).

    A “functional” consultant had taken the time to lay out (on paper) the seventy or so “screens” that I needed to build, but as I listened to what the client needed to do and why, it became clear that I couldn’t just build those “screens”. A lesser programmer could have, and probably a greater one could have too. I couldn’t. To hard-code those screens would mean any changes required me, or someone like me, had to come in and do the fixes.

    I pitched the idea of building ONE screen, and having it dynamically re-form for each of the 70 tests they needed to document. The client would have the ability to format each test’s questionnaire as they pleased, and to add new questionnaires as needed. I gave them a way to create reports from the completed questionnaires, and to link them together into what they called standards. It was my masterpiece, and the client loved it. The functional consultant didn’t like that I discarded his work, but he came around, I think. There was a frumpy, quiet, middle-aged woman (on weekends she was a change ringer) on the client side of the team who suddenly became fully engaged. It turned out that she had designed a remarkably similar system decades ago on the aging mainframe that they were replacing, and she had been maintaining it ever since. She very quickly picked up what she needed to do and set to work building the questionnaires. The client named the new system “Super Rachel” after her, and that was okay by me.

    I got about 95% of it up and running, when the bottom dropped out. The project (not just my part) was over budget and over time, and it had been a fixed bid. The client’s company stopped paying the bills. My company told all of us to fly home (from England) immediately. Everything from then on went through the lawyers. My company (the company I worked for) won the lawsuit, but collapsed anyway. I heard later that the programmer who replaced me had high praise for the work I had done, but I never heard if they ever put it into production.

  14. @Andrew Hackard and @Indoor Cat: Thank you! It was Sue Grafton I had heard about. I thought it was touching that her family said that for them, the alphabet ended with Y. As for Pratchett, if that’s what he wanted, that’s what they should have done. (Did they?) An author’s wishes should be sacred in that respect. Since I’ve only ever written 100 words for NaNoWriMo, it’s hard to relate.

  15. Commercial vs. artistic: always reminds me of Iain Banks’ story about his early writing days. He said, more or less, “I always thought of myself as a science fiction writer. But I wrote ‘Against a Dark Background’ and couldn’t get it published, and I wrote ‘Use of Weapons’ and couldn’t get it published, so I thought: the problem here is that no one knows my name. I just need to get _something_, anything, out there with my name on it; then I’ll have a record that publishers can look at, and they’ll be more likely to take more of my stuff. So I need to abandon science fiction and write something really mainstream that appeals to a really broad, generic audience and will have no problem finding a publisher – I need to sell out, basically.
    “So I wrote ‘The Wasp Factory’.”

  16. I’m an enthusiastic amateur musician. At 51 I’ve long since given up dreams of commercial success, and it was so freeing to let that fantasy go.

    Now I write to amuse myself. If the song about how we all have Sisyphian trials in our lives inspires a 13 beat phrase with an 11 beat deliberately incomplete Twelve Tone tone row over it, well, so be it.

    Please understand that I’m in no way trying to claim some sort of artistic superiority over folks who make a living through art. One listen to my stuff would disabuse anyone of that notion.

    It’s just that I’d like to live in a more beautiful world.

    I’d like *you* to live in a more beautiful world.

    And to that end I’d encourage folks without commercial aspirations to make art, any art. And then to judge it not by its technical merits or commercial viability, but by the joy it brings you in the doing of it.

    Because beauty isn’t just in the product of artistic labour it can be in the act itself.

  17. I think the key thing in what you are saying here, Mr. Scalzi, is the importance of blowing up the false binary between art and entertainment, and the associated judgment that one is better than the other.

    Also your point about leading markets and making markets is crucial as well.

    But I do think that Le Guin was saying something very important not about entertainment, per se, but about the commodification of art. Which is a slightly different topic. That acceptance speech including her comment is only about six minutes long and is floating around out there as an embedded video in a lot of her obituaries and the tributes being published this week, and it’s absolutely worth listening to.

    Thanks for the post.

  18. On the art vs. entertainment dichotomy, similar to the literary vs. genre or academic vs. crass mass market…

    Neal Stephenson did a Q&A on ur-blog slashdot in 2004, and I’ll never forget his answer (which itself has been debated; ask Google).

    He divides writers into Dante writers and Beowulf writers, and since he is Neal Stephenson, he drags in cultural and economic analysis while being entertaining.
    It’s question #2 here:
    https://slashdot.org/story/04/10/20/1518217/neal-stephenson-responds-with-wit-and-humor

  19. I was just discussing with family yesterday that constraints seem to force us to be more creative, not less. So if I were required to write rhyming verse, it would be noticeably less craptastic than if I wrote “whatever I want” (although still pretty awful). If I am creating a character that “has to be a Bard, other than that, go crazy”, it’s a better character than “make whatever you want”… even if I hate Bards*.

    So “commercially accessible” as a constraint may actually lead to BETTER art, in some ways.

    *the event that led to the discussion yesterday

  20. @Dane Lynne: Yup. Commodification of books was the problem she was highlighting, or that’s how I read her, too. Treating books – art – as nothing but any other commodity, a thing to be sold and bought. And also the idea that the main value of a book, the only value that decisions about writing or publishing a book are based on, would be its (predicted) commercial value. In lieu of its artistic, political, philosophical, or, why not, entertainment value.

  21. (And I’m not trying to say that publishers should never consider the commercial value of books; if they didn’t, they’d be out of business very quickly. The problem is when the commercial value of art is seen as the only value that matters.)

  22. FossilFishy: I’m stealing that….’cause that’s a thought that should be shared around the world….

  23. @Greg, I recognize “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” as an RAH quote, but I must disagree with it. A few examples:

    A. Tappan Wright created over many years a huge mass of work about an imaginary country and convenient. This was a purely private effort, never intended for publication. After he was dead, his daughter (IIRC) extracted from the papers the novel Islandia. Many people have thought quite highly of Islandia, which is not quite like anything else i am aware of, but most clearly fits in the “Invented country” genre, like The Prisoner of Zenda or LeGuin’s Orsinian Tales I think the evidence is fairly clear that Wright was not a blockhead. (And to anyone who has not read Islandia I recommend it.)

    A better known example: JRR Tolkien. His early works, which eventually formed the basis of The Silmarillion and the background for The Lord of the Rings was surely undertaken without commercial motive. And while he did seek strongly to have LOTR published, it was not primarily for money: the initial economic returns were trivial and no one predicted more.

    Another example: Alice’s Adventures Underground (the first version of Alice in Wonderland) was written purely for the amusement of a small group of children (and no doubt of the author also) — only later was it issued commercially, after a through rewrite.

    Yet another: Tom Paine wrote Common Sense. and his other pamphlets not primarily for money, but to persuade, in fact as political propaganda. Given that RAH named a fictional starship after Paine, I doubt that the considered Paine a ‘blockhead” , nor do I.

    Of course, most published fiction is intended to be commercial, otherwise it wouldn’t be published. And as others have said above and elsewhere, “commercial” need not mean “lacking in literary merit”. But initially non-commercial writing often has significant merit of its own.

  24. @spywholoved, you wrote: “I was just discussing with family yesterday that constraints seem to force us to be more creative, not less.” In some cases this can indeed be true. I find formal verse often elicits more creativity from me than does wide-open free verse. But an artificial “commercial” template may be too constraining and stifle creativity. I have read that genre romance fiction used to be written to a very strict template, something like “The love interest must be introduced by page 15. The antagonist must be introduced by page 25. There must be a crisis starting somewhere in pages 80-85, and another in pages 130-140. The end must come at page 190-210, and the protagonist must be happily married to the love interest at the end.” That kind of thing does not seem to me likely to enhance creativity.

  25. Theory: All entertainment is art, but not all art is entertainment.

    Put another way: if you’re writing (or composing or painting or sculpting or…) for commercial success, you’re hoping your creation will illicit a certain reaction from your audience. That’s a pretty good definition of art (with all allowances for the quality of the art). If you’re creating something for non-commercial purposes, it may also be art (e.g., Tolkien) but it may not be (e.g., Paine).

  26. My brother and I probably exemplify the two extremes of the art/commercialism dichotomy. He is an essayist and poet, and he writes beautifully. Although he does sometimes get published, he doesn’t even come close to making a living with his pen. I, on the other hand, make quite a good living — as a marketing writer for a software firm. There are tremendous constraints on what I write, although as long as I meet them, approval and “publication” are guaranteed.

    I doubt I will be able to really pursue my dream of writing fiction until I retire. (I’ve got a novel started, and many other ideas, but the last thing I want to do when I get home is write.) I enjoy reading and writing genre fiction (sci-fi and mysteries) so even when I write “for me,” the possibility of publication will be in the back of my head. I doubt my work will be extremely “arty”. It certainly won’t be anything like what my brother writes.

    And don’t worry. I will not be counting on my writing supporting my retirement. If the lightning does not strike, and writing “for me” is literally just that, I won’t starve. And at least I will still have scratched the brain itch.

  27. @John Scalzi: Was indeed? Thanks. If I am not badly mistaken, I have read it being quoted without explicit attribution by Heinlein, I *think* in one of the letter excerpts published in Grumbles from the Grave. Quite probably he assumed that his correspondent would recognize the quote. Anyway, like most epigrams, it simplifies to the point that it can’t be taken fully literally.

  28. @Brian Greenberg: I would suggest that there is artistry (or at least solid craftsmanship) in Paine’s writing, although it was art with a political purpose. Surely he intend to elicit a particular reaction from the reader, one of outrage. Many works of political propaganda are also works of art. Eamples: Thomas Nast’s political cartoons, and Kipling’s “rhymed editorials” such as “The Islanders” (for universal conscription) or “The White Man’s Burden”.

  29. “…when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no, I always was a writer.”
    –U. K. Le Guin

  30. Dana Lynne already pointed out the false binary of art/entertainment, so all I’ll do is recommend the PBS American Masters career documentary on Bob Hope I just watched. I know that some would label Hope’s work as “craft,” but that strikes me as one of those attempts to mystify the “making” part of art. My takeaway from the program is that Hope’s whole career as entertainer was a work of art in which the character “Bob Hope” was devised and elaborated and solidified into a performance that was his public life. (And just for fun, watch his failed chorus-boy character in “Here Come the Girls.”)

  31. David, as Mr Scalzi pointed out, its a quote from Sam J.

    I also dont know that I entirely agree with the sentiment verbatim. But the original question framed it as either/or.

    “How do you balance the commercial viability of your work and stay true to yourself or your “art”? ”

    Either you are commercially viable OR you stay true to yourself.

    And in that loaded question framwork, if those are my only 2 options and if they are indeed mutually exclusive, then what would be the point of writing something that no one reads?

    At which point, I think Johnsons quote gives you the answer. Write the thing that people will want to read. Because whats the point of writing something that literally no one ever reads. It gets tautological at that point.

    Its also intended a bit as a koan to go to the either/or assumption built into the question. Absurd assumptions give absurd answers. If the either/or assumption in the question is not absurd, then Johnsons response is not absurd either.

    If i have a film noir manuscript and a publisher says they will publish it if I change it to a hollywood ending, i have to “balance commercial viability” with “staying true”, but i have incomplete information. If i knew another publisher would publish it as it is, noir ending and all, then there is no question, i simply go with the other publisher. Put the bits on the scale and it tips to its natural answer.

    But the reality is going to be more like, one publisher offers to publish it if I change the ending, and I have no idea if there is another publisher out there who will publish it true to form.

    So the question is more like “how do I make a hard decision based on incomplete information?” And there is no answer to that. It is entirely personal. Whatever answer anyone gives will only work for them and has no guarantee of having any applicability to any other writer.

    All a person can do in response to that question is ask more questions and let the person find their own answer. Can you afford not to publish? If you cant, then publish, and maybe do the next one the way you want. If you can afford to wait, then maybe wait. If no other offr comes through, then why not publish a hollywood ending that someone reads rather than have a manuscript no one ever sees?

    The question starts out with assumptions that give blatantly obvious answers and as soon as one starts tearing down thise assumptions, it quickly becomes an entirely personal question that no one can answer for you. At most, they can give you some questions you ask yourself so you can figure out what you should do.

    Johnsons quote is the loaded-with-assumptions reply. Break down those assumptions, and you are left with a zen koan: more questions that may or may not lead you to enlightenment, but certainly no one else can answer them for you.

  32. @Greg: Indeed the original question did frame it as an either/or. I think that in many, perhaps most, cases this is a false dichotomy. Often the correct answer is “Both”. But, as your example demonstrates, sometimes a creator is faced with the need or apparent need to compromise to achieve commercial success, or perhaps more often to get past a gate-keeper to commercial publication. One can never be sure whether a different gate-keeper will accept the work without compromise. For the mater of that, one can never be sure how the proposed change will affect the work.

    I can think of at least two cases in which the addition of a “Hollywood ending” to a film based on a book was in my personal opinion an improvement. Those are The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The African Queen. In “Bridge” the final realization by Col Nicholson (present only in the film) made him in my view a truly tragic figure. In “Queen” he final (and highly improbable) destruction of the Louisa by the wreck of the African Queen put a fitting cap on the efforts and struggles of the two major characters.

    But I must admit that this sort of improvement seems relatively rare.

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