From: Lily James (playgrnd@AIS.NET)
Subject: Politics of Selling Out

Get Paid to Play

"Serious writers" do not expect to become rich. Why? Serious writers need a real job, or a spouse who has one, or generous friends or inherited wealth or else they expect to dramatically starve. Why? Are we really that virtuously Marxist? Do we not WANT the money? Or do we not think we can get it? Let me explain what I mean by a serious writer, because "serious" isn't really the word I want. There are plenty of serious people out there for whom I have no sympathy. A serious writer is a new writer, because writers of new things are the only people that we really have to take seriously. A writer may be hideously serious but not really new. I can think of a number of novels, for example, about women who have gone to the lake to recover from the victimization of divorce and end up having renewing sex with a water nymph, written by very serious people, which are wholly ignorable. Of course those people aren't getting rich either. I guess the category I wish to address could be called avant garde, experimental, contemporary, or "on the edge. These words may invoke for you worlds of negative connotations. Perhaps some of them have been flung at you as literary slurs. I think you know what I mean, though. I'm talking about people who are innovative with language and theme, doing something interesting and new with fiction, whether that means avant-pop or postfeminism or hypertext or whatever. The poor ones. The ones who are struggling to get published and noticed and read.

Who is making money? Writers of genre fiction. Why is this so? Because that's what most people like to read. Why don't people like to read serious fiction? Why don't they like to read what we write? Is it bad? Is it uninteresting? Why aren't people buying it in droves? Why are these questions never discussed among writing groups? I think we should care about the answers. I propose that writers should quit thinking as isolated artists churning out tortured holy texts which aren't meant for mass consumption. There is no sanctity in unpopularity. I'll say right here that I think writing for the sake of art instead of audience is pretty much bullshit. Saying that you want to be a noble misunderstood starving wreck of an artist is like saying that you don't want to be popular in high school. A nice fantasy but nobody believes you. Why not admit that you want to be cool and loved and bought and read? If writing is a true and worthy profession, let's make it a profession at which one can support oneself. I think that new writers as an industry should analyze what is necessary to become viable, decide what must be done, and follow that plan. It can be done.

Look at the music industry. I think we can compare mystery and horror writers to pop music stars such as Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Gloria Estefan. Now these people used to be the rich rock stars, and the underground "new" or "experimental" music used to be underplayed and underpaid, published on small record labels and played only on non-commercial college radio. Nowadays, alternative music stations are frequently in the 100's on the dial, and are marketed heavily in print and television ads. Artists like Pearl Jam and Nirvana are rich as fuck, and even the "underground" industrial and punk acts are pulling in the bucks like nobody's business. The Mark Amerika's and Euridice's of rock and roll are now the making as much money and getting as much attention as the Victoria Holts and John Grishams. What happened?

Was it MTV? Maybe. Was it the radio? Maybe. Was it the fashion industry? Perhaps. Whatever it was, let's figure it out and apply the same practices and procedures to our own careers. Why not? It can't be that bloody difficult.

Music gets distributed on the radio, on TV, and on compact discs. Writing, to this point, gets distributed in books or magazines. Now we have the Internet. It's kind of like radio, in that it's free if you have the hardware. You don't get paid for people reading your stuff on the Internet. Writers seem to resent this. I don't think that musicians resent their songs getting air play on the radio. Of course they are getting paid for it, but that's not where their money really comes from. That's where they get their publicity. The money comes from CD sales and live appearances. I think that writes could use the Internet the same way. You're not going to publish every word you write on the web; you'll just "release" a single. Then when someone reads you, they'll want to own the CD equivalent - your book. They'll want to see you live when you do your tour. No one's going to do readings of your work on the radio. You should be grateful that the Internet can circulate your material to so many people. Think of it as advertising. Think of it as air play. Then get ready to market your real product.

Alternative Music : People listen to it over and over. They replay their favorite CD perhaps every day for a week. It gets stuck in people's heads. They find themselves humming it in the elevator. Trends are set around popular musicians' attitudes, hairstyles and dress.

Alternative Writing: People read it once and then put in on the bookshelf or maybe give it to someone. It is read to understand, not to enjoy, so people think they are done with it when they put it down. Trends are recorded in fiction as writers report, not create the world.

I read my favorite stories over and over. I've read some stories to the point that I can recite bits of them. I'm sure you're familiar with this. But can you recite things from "contemporary fiction"? Is it Melville and Forster you remember best? The stories you read over and over are not hard to read. They are not inaccessible puzzles of language that take concentration and deep thinking. Maybe they are funny, or maybe you like a certain character. Mostly, it's because they're easy. You like rolling them over in your mind. They're comfortable. Do we write comfortable fiction? Comfortable does not equal boring or plot- centered. I don't think anyone smart reads genre fiction over and over. Once you find out the ending, that's pretty much it, unless you forget the ending or you're stuck on the train in need of entertainment. But it's got to be entertaining the second or third time. I think maybe something that we lost in the divorce from plot and linear narrative is ease of reading. Now we have to struggle along with fucked up time sequence, characters that don't have names, and surreal landscapes. Sometimes it's a chore to read, and once you're done you feel finished. You don't feel like "let's go back and read that again." I propose that what we write should be revisit-able. It should be pleasurable to reread. When was the last time you got a piece of fiction "stuck in your head"?

Something that I've always noticed about "new" writing is its high "zinger" content. There are a lot of individual lines in these stories which really zap you, great lines that are funny or interesting all by themselves. They are hooky. If you know music, you know that writing a good hook is 99% of writing a hit song. Well, new writing is full of hooks. Often I find myself reading along through the perhaps-boring dream sequences just to get to those good lines that frequent the ends of paragraphs or the transitional apostrophed-off sections. Genre fiction doesn't have this. Genre fiction is homogeneously bland, for the most part, but then you're not reading for the innovative language; you're reading for the plot.

Trends are set by movie stars, musicians, and fashion designers - the royalty of our democratic little colony. Why can't writers be among this highly visible and dramatic set? Well, maybe we're shy. Get over it. Maybe we're frumpy. Get a mini. Maybe we're too noble. Get real. It's the way things work these days. If you never thought of a reading as a "live performance" then maybe you should consider that you're competing for audience with rock bands where sweat and noise are a very distracting variable. Don't care to raise your voice? Don't care to put on the lipstick and hike up your skirt? Turn on the television. Those are the people that are taking away your audience and your attention. Wake up and get in the game. If you think you're an artist and a valuable contribution to our cultural consciousness then turn up the volume on your product. Martyrdom and noble anonymity is getting you nowhere, baby.

Lily James is co-creator, with author Susannah Breslin, of
The Postfeminist Playground


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