Starving Artist, A Writer’s Fate?


I confess, I occasionally fantasize about writing a book which completely panders to an audience just for fame and money. However, will the Faustian bargain result in having to discard my personal pleasure in storytelling, can I have it both ways. We all know of big best selling books we consider crap and are perhaps a bit jealous. I jokingly threaten my family about “doing it” one day.

Well, upon reflection, there have been some wonderful and noted authors who began by writing ‘junk.’ Raymond Chandler and John O’hara come to mind. Even Jacqueline Susan and Harold Robbins, while not exactly respected, are acknowledged for writing some of the best guilty pleasures around.

I want to discuss the conflict between struggling as a starving artist and selling out. We writers who strive to be full-time authors must make decisions each day about how to develop our art and market our products. We began as artists because we loved the art and thought bringing our visions to life would be fulfilling.

I asked author Diane Morrison about this question. Here were her thoughts, “I think if you don’t love what you’re writing, your reader will be able to tell. So I think the first order of business is to create a story you really want to write. Then try to get someone’s attention from there. I think that the truth is that good writing shines through. Everyone said Stephen King was a hack but now his book on writing is used in almost every major writing course. Eventually, people will see good writing for what it is – IF they see it. And that’s the rub. I don’t judge anyone else for their “Faustian bargains,” as you put it, but I know I couldn’t do any justice to something I didn’t want to write. I’ll just have to try to get noticed in other ways.”

Greg Alldredge gave me some feedback, “Your question made me think. Forty-five years ago, the books I read were considered crap by many. In my younger years, the likes of Steinbeck and Hemingway never appealed to me. I couldn’t connect with their style of writing. The other day I found a blog post, Hemingway only wrote on a fourth-grade level, yet I found his writing difficult to read and honestly boring. “

“I look back at the books I did read, they were popular modern-day swashbuckling adventures. Alistair MacLean caught my attention early, though I would guess many would consider his books pandering to a certain audience. In me, he found that willing audience. You can’t argue with success, at least seventeen of his books were made into movies all with big-name casts. When I was little older, I discovered science fiction and fantasy. Before e-books, I was a member of the science fiction book club. Many of the writers I discovered in my early 20’s were simply because the covers looked cool. Later I found out some of them were giants in science fiction writing. It was the 80’s what did I care.”

“I don’t know, I’m sure many people consider my books pandering to someone, even though I didn’t mean for them to be. If a writer didn’t appeal to an audience, they wouldn’t be a writer for long, or they would end up like Melville, a critical failure but wildly successful a hundred years later. I didn’t start writing to become a millionaire. The chances of that were slim to none when I started. I started writing because I had an idea in my head, that stewed for over a year. When I sat down and wrote “Lights in the Night” I did it in less than a month because I had already played it in my head for so long. I wrote the book for an audience of one, me. A few people have read it, some of them liked it. I hope more find it, and like it. I do have a dream, of living like Arthur C Clarke did. Finding an island, with a hut nestled on a beautiful beach, however, mine will need high-speed Internet. That is how I want to write. I’m going to look for one in Cambodia soon.”

J. I. Rogers told me, “I think most writers have the ‘when I get famous’ dream, but, for most, it has caveats. Mine includes maintaining complete control of the work and not sacrificing what I believe to be its integrity for the sake of sales… or box office appeal. This may be why I never see conventional fame.”

“Deliberately writing something, or creating something with wide appeal is often referred to as ‘selling out’ and for some it is, but in the light of day (with bills to pay) perhaps a better way to phrase it would be ‘bread and butter’ work. Is it a ‘Faustian bargain’ to create something with wide appeal and not pursue the purity of your dream at all times? Agatha Christie is rumored to have hated Hercule Poirot. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle despised Sherlock Holmes… The popularity of the characters kept them writing the stories.”

“History is filled with writers, poets, and artists who have sold their skills to feed themselves – patrons seldom just threw money at talent without expecting something in return. As an artist who works on commission, I have done this too.”

As writers are engaged in a profession, we all need to think about how to successfully market our creative products. The future for writers is a continuing juggling act between retaining loyalty to artistic purity and attempting to achieve success in business. Each author must make the personal choice on how much energy to place in each aspect of their career and art.

J. I. Rogers:

Diane Morrison:

Greg Alldredge:

S. A. Gibson:

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