Roundtable: Commercial Writing

Rachel Swirsky

I think that probably more often it’s love, passion, and believing in what you’re writing that gives the lightning a chance to strike.

Being cynical, when I hear people say that, I sometimes wonder if it’s… well, okay, it’s an appealing thing to say. Is it true, or do we overestimate its veracity because it’s comforting to believe that passion wins out in the end? Believing that puts the lightning back into our control, at least a fraction. It gives us a measure we can affect–passion.

Also, though, at least personally, I have a tendency to fall in love with what I’m writing while I’m writing it, even if my initial inspiration wasn’t love. I’m not fond of romance novels qua romance novels, but I’m sure that if I started writing one for cynical reasons, I’d eventually fall in love with it.

Cecelia Holland

Writing a novel is like a love affair–the long period of wooing, begging, pleading, often desperately and without much hope, the warming, the fulfillment, the postcoital satisfaction. Then the long declining discontent that leads to the next affair.

And it helps to remember that, as in all love affairs, failure is the default.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

And, what’s worse, fewer and fewer publishers are nurturing mid-list writers over several books to get them to that breakthrough novel or popular success. Not only do a lot of mainstream authors look with envy on Martin, Rowling, Pratchett, Gaiman, and company–they look with envy on genre writers whose small but devoted readership guarantees the sale of at least several thousand copies of each new book.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Stefan and I are drinking in the same bar, clearly.

But really, when people comment on mainstream authors being jealous of NY Times bestseller sales … what does genre have to do with it? Rare to find writers who don’t want to be there, in any format! It isn’t envy of a genre writer, it becomes envy of a commercially successful one, period. That’s my point about the artists upset that less artistic sell better, and the bestsellers wanting literary esteem. Hmm, maybe genre makes it easier to have both? A thought.

Gary K. Wolfe

I think Gardner & Cecelia have nailed a couple of important points to keep in mind:  people write SF or fantasy or historicals or horror novels or novels about anxiety-ridden suburbanites in the 50s because those are the stories they think up.  There are examples of writers who seem to have turned cynical about their own formulas for success–James Patterson comes to mind, and I remember having conversations with the mystery writer Robert Parker who, long after he’d lost any real interest in Spenser and Hawk, kept at it because they were easy to write and people kept throwing money at him.  (He started the Jesse Stone series, he told me, just to give himself a chance to write in third person.)  But I suspect that even Patterson and Parker began with the kind of passion Gardner is talking about.

Jeffrey Ford

Gardner makes a great point.  It also made me realize that in the sf/f/h genres, our most popular writers are often wonderfully good writers — King, Gaimen, Martin, Pratchett, LeGuin, etc — whereas I can’t say the same for the most popular mainstream books.  Am I being prejudiced here?  Maybe.

Cecelia Holland


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