You can’t have it all.

Everyone knows who Dan Brown is. Even people who aren’t active readers are familiar with his name, as they are with Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson and Jodi Picoult. Thesea re prolific authors, there’s no doubt about it, and you can find a whole shelf of them in nearly any bookstore. Authors like David Mitchell, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem, however, don’t have nearly as much name recognition, despite garnering amazing critical reviews in places like the New York Times Book Review.

Surely both sets of authors love what they do. All experience the glorious rush of inspiration and, conversely, the frustrations of writer’s block or dead ends. But what sets them apart from one another? Does either group feel better about themselves because they are invariably commercial writers or literary ones? Surely there’s no real distinction between them as writers­—they all write, they all call themselves authors and rightly so.

There are clear merits specific to each set, however. There’s obviously more money involved in being a commercial author, yet more prestige comes from fitting into the latter category. While I can’t imagine one can make the choice in writing style—a novel written by an author who forced him or herself to think and write differently to what came naturally would just not be that author’s best work, no matter how technically perfect it was or how imaginative the idea.

That brings me to my question—no, I’m not here to start an argument pitting the two sides against one another. This is simply something that intrigues me. If you had to choose a particular author’s career to mimic, whose would it be? Would you prefer to be widely successful, raking in money and selling millions of copies of your book, but maybe suffering derision from high-minded literary snobs and going overlooked time and time again by reviewers? Or would you rather stunning, eloquent reviews and intelligent, deep discussion of your work amongst a small few, seeing only moderate success sales-wise? While there are some authors who have managed to bridge the gap and have both critical and commercial renown, it’s a very exclusive club. What say you?

18 Responses to You can’t have it all.

  1. Sara Z. says:

    As a writer who falls more on the “literary” side of the equation, I confess I’ve dreamed of commercial success. When Sparks’ “The Last Song” came out, I got it from the library with the intent of trying to write a book like it. How hard could it be? Then I could line my pockets with cash! Of course, I couldn’t. The thing is: I am happy with my kind of success, overall. And I can only be the writer that I am. But, there’s never enough money, and I don’t know how long I can keep up writing the kinds of books I write, at the pace I do, without another source of income. I’d love a commercial hit and a big check. Because when I look at the amount on a check, I see time. And more money would mean more time to write the kinds of books *I* write, at the pace that allows me to do my best work. In other words: I’m conflicted!

  2. Lance Parkin says:

    I’m not sure it’s possible to engineer the choice, or it’s a choice a writer ever makes. Most ‘commercial’ writers aren’t making that much money, either. And most ‘literary’ ones don’t win awards.

    Michael Chabon’s done a nice job of unifying both belts, I think.

  3. Monica says:

    Part of me wants to say Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger, because if I could write one perfect novel and never write another one, I should be satisfied with that. But I cannot imagine never be able to write more and more and more (even if it’s less than perfect). So I like Dickens, who was immensely popular in his day and whose work is now considered literature. And much of what he wrote was far from perfect.

  4. RamseyH says:

    I honestly don’t care. I just want to write the books I want to write, and I hope that someone reads and enjoys them.

  5. Rhen Wilson says:

    I’ve actually thought about this a lot, Rachel. It would be wonderful to have commercial success; to make enough from book sales to make it your full-time job. But then again, it’s hard to comprehend writing books that critics see as fluff and lacking literary substance.

    Of course I also think about the old adage of writing for yourself, because you love it, not because of what a critic thinks of it.

    You could make that argument against the commercially successful writers, too. Are they not writing stories that sell well in order to feed their bottom line? Perhaps you could say yes if you want to be cynical.

    I, however, think it’s no different than anyone who loves their job and does it so well that they make a lot of money for it. Like a lawyer or doctor.

    I think the key is to write because it makes you happy. Write because you want to tell a story and that you want to share that story with others. If by doing that you make millions, then so be it. If, on the other hand, your writing gains a small following but critical success, then that’s your fate.

    I agree with your statement “a novel written by an author who forced him or herself to think and write differently [than] what came naturally would just not be that author’s best work.” That’s essentially my point. You write how you want to write, making sure to stay faithful to yourself. Whether that makes you a millionaire or an esoteric, Pulitzer-prize winner (like Lahiri), I think that’s outside of your power. Just go with the flow.

    Sorry for the book-size comment.

  6. Anon says:

    I can’t imagine one can make the choice in writing style—a novel written by an author who forced him or herself to think and write differently to what came naturally would just not be that author’s best work, no matter how technically perfect it was or how imaginative the idea.

    Dead wrong.

    Forcing myself to write outside my usual comfort zone and with a new style yielded the best writing I’ve done to date. Change can uneasy or uncomfortable, but it’s what leads to growth.

  7. EEV says:

    I think we’re dealing with two extremes. Brown, Patterson and Picoult are making lots of money. I’d rather be a mid-list with a faithful following and make a fraction of they do, and get stronger with time and each title add, than to write slowly and carefully and be worrying if I’m truly getting the story across, like most literary writers do. It’s about what works for you, and what’s unique from you to others. This way we can create something new. The rest, time will tell. Like Monica said, Dickens is a classic now. That doesn’t mean he’s commercial or literary. He’s Dickens.

  8. Kay Elam says:

    I’d just like to be read. Commercial or literary success would be fabulous, but ultimately, I want people to desire to read my work.

    If I had to select one author’s career to mimic, it’d be Jan Karon. I love the way she writes. She has commercial and, I think, literary appeal, and she’s still a delightful person.

  9. Ciara says:

    I’m liking the direction Amy Reed’s career is going in. Popular with her target audience but still beautiful writing. No she’s not raking in Rowling type money but I suspect she’s doing alright for herself. Of course she’s only two books in so I won’t sell my soul for her career just yet but it looks like a promising compromise.

  10. Oliver Yeh says:

    I’d like to mimic the career of me, mistakes and all. Seems more exciting this way because I still don’t know where everything’s headed.

    I will admit I’ve thought about the literary vs the commercial when it comes to writing style and I agree with Lance Parkin in that I’m not certain you can choose to write in one or the other. I think before long, the one that suits you most as a writer will emerge to fight the one you are trying to mimic.

    My only real want is for the work to endure.

    • Lance Parkin says:

      “I agree with Lance Parkin in that I’m not certain you can choose to write in one or the other”

      I’m wasn’t quite saying that – I think you can make a conscious decision to write ‘commercial’ books, I just don’t think you can choose that they then go on to sell; you can decide to write literary fiction, that’s not going to guarantee you the respect of the establishment and a string of awards.

      I have gone into bookshops, seen that some author has got Book III of their Raven Leatherpants: Vampire Hunter/Sleeper With series out and thought ‘wouldn’t mind a piece of that’ … but if you dream of a life of wealth, then a paperback original every year for three years isn’t the way to get there.

      I think the world a writer lives in now is a multimedia one, one that involves journalism, essays and articles, fiction and non fiction, and across books, magazines, radio/spoken word, TV, web stuff. It’s always been that way, I think, it’s just that now writers are encouraged to use their own names when they switch markets, not encouraged to use pseudonyms.

      I think it’s the same for readers. We have a balanced diet. At the moment I’m reading Umberto Eco’s new novel, a translated Egyptian science fiction novel, a 1937 book arguing that the USA should remain isolated, and Grant Morrison’s Superman relaunch. At the moment I’m *writing* a science fiction novel, a non fiction book about a TV show, a biography, a few articles for magazines and I’m researching a YA book and a historical novel.

      There’s nothing stopping the author of vampire hunter paperbacks from also writing literary fiction, just as there’s nothing stopping their readers from reading other types of books. It’s almost certainly healthier all round if they both diversify.

  11. Thomas Wolf says:

    I’m not sure the goal should be either making a ton of money or collecting wonderful reviews. The goal–what an individual writer can actually aspire to and control–is just good writing and effective storytelling. A good book will find an appropriate and appreciative audience. That should be satisfaction enough for any writer.

    What author’s career would I mimic? One of the brilliant and acclaimed masters? Toni Morrison? Saul Bellow? Alice Munro? Or writers–some famous, some not so famous–whose work I have always admired? Patricia Hampl. Stuart Dybek. Jane Leavy. Edward P. Jones. Bernard Malamud. Jonathan Eig. Tobias Wolff. Laura Hillenbrand. Kent Haruf. Ward Just.

    If I could pick just one writer, I think I’d choose David Halberstam, simply for the consistent quality and excellence of his work.

  12. When I was first starting out, I wanted to be one of the Literary Greats with SF and fantasy novels. As time has progressed and I’ve come to appreciate the craft more, I realized the commercial side isn’t so bad, even if it isn’t as lauded. I know I’ll never be one of those commercial authors who puts out 2-3 books a year, simply because I don’t write that fast and can’t imagine I ever will. I think I still lean a little more toward wanting to be well-reviewed, but most of all, I would just like to write one book that endures and stays in print, like Monica said above. Of course, the importance of being in print is diminishing as e-books gain more traction, so perhaps I should say I’d want one book with sales longevity.

  13. Colin says:

    My writing style comes from who I am. If I try to adopt a writing style that’s not me, I lose my authenticity and integrity as a writer. That comes first. I don’t want to spend my writing career churning out novels pretending I’m someone that I’m not. Regardless of money and prestige. I’d sooner have people that love my work for what it is than try to write to cater to the kind of audience I would like to have. If that makes sense?

  14. Sarah Henson says:

    I don’t really care as long as there are people out there who read and enjoy my work. I think if I had to choose between high profile and highly acclaimed, I would probably take high profile. Not because there is more money to be made, but because that would mean more people would be reading my books. Also, I just don’t read that much literary fiction, so I couldn’t imagine being a literary writer. Not that I think I’ll ever be in the realm of Stephen King or John Grisham either though. I think I’d just be happy to see people engrossed in a book and then realize it’s MY book.

  15. Emily says:

    “Writing careers in fiction” occupy a foreign land for me — but I do like certin fiction enough to read the books over and over. Frank Herbert’s DUNE series, for example.

    But I have found that writing has an internal mechanical structure and that mastering the structure leads to the ability to ‘choose’ a way to write prose.

    So my writing career has stretched from academic, to governmental, to journalistic, to travel and fun stuff, to script structures, to the new web style.

    Next for me: figuring out what fiction structure to use. I guess that’s a difference between commercial and literary. so it goes…

  16. Anonymous says:

    Show me the money. I’d take the commercial popularity route any day especially when it comes to the monetary rewards. Crtiques could poo-poo my books all they want. Me? I’d be enjoying the fruits of what all that popularity would bring me. Yeah, I went there.

  17. M.E. Anders says:

    Rachel, you proposed some essential questions for aspiring writers. Each of us must consider which writing rewards we prefer.

    If we are seeking literary success, our writing process and career plans should match that ambition. The money will probably not come in buckets of Ben Franklins.

    If we are intent upon Stephen King popularity and J.K. Rowling income, then we should expect snobbery from the literary pundits.

    Personally, I would prefer the more commercial route as success. I would rather be read widely than acclaimed by the literary magazines of today. To each his (or her) own.

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