We all talk about this a lot. One side firmly states that you write for yourself. Of course, this has to be true, as you’re the one up in that sequestered (hopefully clean and well-lit, as Hemingway would suggest) place, toiling away. If you don’t like your people and story, odds are no one else will either. It’s funny, I see a lot of manuscripts where the villain is all villain, and all the evil gets pinned on his shoulders, which is not only unbelievable but belies that the writer hated him to the core. And that has the paradoxical effect of flattening out the character so that his effect is minimized. But that’s another discussion! The point being that the essence of writing, especially fiction, stems from your own inspiration and connection to your words. To your people. Your story. All of that has to be interesting enough so you keep stepping into that writing room.
But I ran across this quote recently that tweaked me, from Walter Lippmann: “It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.” That got me to thinking about the dumbing down of our society, and how publishers have gone from targeting books to an eighth-grade reading level, to a sixth-grade one today. Gulp. The former statistic has always been disheartening but the latter is downright distressful. How do we write for such?
We’re tempted to say screw it, I’ll write for myself and whatever audience is there, so be it. And that’s a noble position. One I take fairly often, before returning to reality. We don’t, in the end, want our stories and people to languish, unread. And yet, I confess that I’m more comfortable with that position in nonfiction (I had to rewrite Five Keys for Understanding Men five times, in order to make it accessible for the market, and many reviewers said it was still too highbrow). Fiction is a bit too close to the soul for that to sit well.
We all have to find our own personal balance, based on goals and dreams, on financial and family situations. I’m not sure that’s a fixed balance, but one in which the pendulum swings to and fro as occasions and our own hearts change with the ebb and flow of writing and life. Many authors use pseudonyms for different genres, which I like for its firm boundaries, and have thought at times to adopt. But I never actually do it. I like the idea of owning my work, no matter how well or not it does in the market.
In the end, no right or wrong answer exists to the question. There is no shame at all in writing to the market—that makes authors successful. And no fingers need be pointed at folks who stick to their guns and write what their hearts dictate, whether their stories sell well or not. The only answer is within each one of us, our own personal pacts with the universe. Once we make peace with that, creativity gets freed again to soar.
Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally-published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at: MaloneEditorial.com