Choose Your Poison

As the Publishing world shrinks (you knew that was happening, right? If not, sorry for the leading spoiler alert) we find that authors are growing increasingly frantic about how to craft their pitches, and how to effectively communicate the nature of their work. The motivating reason for this is completely understandable, how does one accurately convey the project without placing it into an easily defined (and easily recognized) category? The danger here is in beginning to think about your work as if it can only belong in one category. And lately, we’ve seen a lot of authors give themselves either the Commercial badge or the Literary one. We know that authors feel immense pressure to project one identity or the other… but this isn’t “Dirty Harry”, No one is pointing a gun at you and growling, “Well?! Are you an artist or a businessman? Which one is it gonna be, punk?!”

If you’ve been describing yourself as a Commercial Author, be aware that while you are busy trying to hit the note that implies, “My books are easily read by the masses and will therefore be imminent bestsellers”, you are simultaneously sounding alarms for the agent/editor that are along the lines of, “Is this another author churning out crap that they merely consider publishable because it follows a formula? Why did I get into this business if I can’t find any literature worth championing?” Commercial Authors, you chose that term perhaps because you define yourself in opposition to the (sometimes) negative connotation of literary work, wherein “nothing happens” or “it’s indecipherable”. But be careful there—you don’t want to tell us what you are NOT, because to rely on those stereotypes can and will work against you.

If you’ve been describing yourself as a Literary Author, keep it in perspective. Presenting your work with the suggestion that you count Dickens and Dostoevsky among your latterday counterparts is like wearing a red t-shirt with EGOMANIAC printed on the front. You hope that the term “literary” will prepare your reader for the quality of your writing, but remember that these terms are subjective. Yes, you will weed out the agents/editors that are looking for fast-paced, mass-appeal fiction BUT if you raise the expectations you are more likely to disappoint. Let’s not forget that commercial fiction doesn’t sell because it is “crap”, it sells because in some aspect of storytelling, that author has hit a perfect, golden note. That’s something to acknowledge, even if you don’t choose to read their work. There’s a grain of salt in even the most buttery of popcorn literature. Figure out why a book is reaching readers. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to emulate it, but it’s good for you to understand it.

The title of this post is “Choose Your Poison”, but perhaps what it really boils down to is the simple act of not forcing yourself to remain rooted in one neighborhood. By embracing the best of both poisons, you may find the antidote. More importantly, when you are attempting to interest some publishing professional in your writing—don’t tell us where it should fit, tell us why we will love it!

One Response to “Choose Your Poison”

  1. Sarah says:

    Here, here! Well said. An excellent post!

    Authors who already have a foot in the publishing door need this reminder, too. The struggle between literary and commercial is never more apparent than today when the economy is a factor and authors are desperate for book sales. Years ago, one of my writing mentors posed a similar ‘pick your poison’ question. “What gods will you bow down to?” she asked. Now, I can answer: Why bow at all? I choose to sit up straight at my desk each morning and write my stories. Plain and true. I choose to write the best darn way I know how, and if I keel over mid-sentence, well, so be it. The poisons win. But in the sheer act of genuine creation, I believe authors can find natural immunity.

    It’s wonderful to hear literary professionals championing the virtues of simple, good literature. No labels attached.

    Yours truly, Sarah

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