I’m not sure if I believe such a thing as “selling out” exists, even as I’m thinking of doing it.
Alas, the irony.
Over the past few years, I’ve desultorily pursued the history of the term. I wrote to The Word Detective about it. (He didn’t answer.) The Wikipedia article on the topic is tagged with warnings that its neutrality and factual accuracy are disputed.
The trouble with the concept of selling out is that it requires that you accept certain assumptions. If selling out is compromising artistic integrity for commercial gain, then you have to accept that there is such a thing as artistic integrity. And that making money automatically compromises it.
I had a great conversation last night, both on air and off, with two writers, Julianne Couch and Paul Bergstraesser. We were doing the final show of Speaking of Writing on our little community radio station. Julianne has been keeping the show going for five years now and I’ve been a co-host most of that time. Paul is a recent addition to the UW English Dept faculty and has been co-hosting also.
Julianne asked me to share my recent agent rejection. I thought it would be boring to read on air, but Paul — who I was meeting in person for the first time — jumped in and said I should, that “this is in the trenches stuff!”
I’ll just share this bit from the agent with you here:
I finally had the chance, over the long weekend, to give this manuscript my full undivided attention and see it through. You are such a terrific, vivid story-teller, and I really was absorbed by this fantastical world and intrigued by its bizarre rules and culture. However, though I could gush and say many wonderful things about this novel (and indeed I wouldn’t have kept reading at any point if I hadn’t been truly enjoying it) I want to say upfront that I don’t think it’s for me. I think that you are two kinds of writer in this prose. There is the Jeffe the Writer who is highly literary and has a beautiful, sometimes surprising turn of phrase that catches the reader off-guard, and there is the Jeffe the Writer who is more informal and intimate with the reader, with the classic approachable style that makes for great commercial fiction. I see both of these writers inside you, but they conflict pretty often on the page in this novel. You are clearly both versatile and professional, with a wide range and diverse capabilities, but I think that there’s an uneven quality to this prose that was disconcerting and sometimes distracting for me, as if you would have been better off sticking to one style or the other.
She went on to give me very specific plot critique, but this is the part that broke my heart. And caused my mini-crisis of this week. Plot stuff is an easy fix. My writing style though — should I consider altering the way I wrote this book to make it more commercial?
Paul stared at me like I was an idiot. “Of course!” he says.
After the show we retired to Bud’s Bar, official watering hole of Speaking of Writing, where they pour Jamesons with a very free hand. We wished that conversation had been recorded, too. We talked about whether there’s such a thing as selling out, as artistic integrity. We all agreed that making our living as writers is the brass ring — everything else is gravy. As Paul pointed out to me in a most pragmatic way, it’s still me writing it and, as authors, we often change our style depending on the audience, whether for a magazine article or an anthology. Then he asked what kind of fool was I to bypass an opportunity like this. Fix this to have a commercial style and I can write all the lyrical stuff I want.
Maybe it was the four fingers of neat Jamesons, but it felt like an epiphany.
So, I’m going to try it. The big question now is whether I can do it. I might have to look for a good critique partner(s) who can help me untangle the two voices from each other.
Anyone out there interested? I’m willing to trade anything but sexual favors. Even if you ply me with Jamesons.