Once More With Feeling: Revisiting The Art v. Commerce Debate

Crumbling Wall

Last Christmas I watched the 1938 Henry Fonda movie called I Met My Love Again. The plot: A woman returns to her Vermont sweetheart ten years after running off to Paris with a writer. Those dang writers! Love ‘em and leave ‘em!

Joan Bennett plays the woman. She meets the writer during a snow storm. Her sleigh overturns and the horse runs off. She finds a cabin and knocks on the door. An Errol Flynn lookalike answers. He has a roaring fire going and a page in a typewriter.

Joan comes in and warms herself. They talk a bit, and he tells her he’s renting this cabin to get some writing done. This dialogue follows:

“You’re a writer?”
“Do people really publish what you write?”
“Yes, the wrong people. You see, I’ve got to make a living, so I write trash to keep alive.”

She looks down at the page in the typewriter and reads:

Then I picked up the knife and sank the sharp steel blade into his chest. He sighed gently, and turned his great eyes – those eyes I once loved so – to mine. That was my first man.


I Go Straight

The writer admits:

“That’s the trash, a confession story, slated for the March issue of I Tell All. It’s the true story of a gal named Lyla Rigby. I am Lyla Rigby.”

I snorted. What a great example of the old bias against “writing for a living.” Such a “trashy” thing to do! A real writer wrote novels, labored over them, and did it mainly for art’s sake. Those who slummed in the world of pulp fiction were to be scorned, which is why many of them hid behind pseudonyms.

That kind of thinking was certainly widespread back in the day. But its tentacles still exist, as evidenced by the hissy fit Harold Bloom threw several years ago when Stephen King was given a major literary award. There is also a steady vibration of snark in articles such as The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. Here’s a clip:

Yet the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date. So out of date, in fact, that the model that replaced it is itself already out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of—even what art is—just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of “art” as such—that sacred spiritual substance—which the older one created.

The article posits that the concept of the artist changed drastically in the 20th century. “As art was institutionalized, so, inevitably, was the artist. The genius became the professional.” This awful turn of events has led to the crumbling of “mediating structures” like publishing companies, who were once the gatekeepers.

[W]e have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.

Which, the article concludes, leads inexorably to the death of art itself:

It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.

There it is, the old “art v. commerce” angle, complete with hidden assumption that something popular cannot be art, and something artistic should not be popular.

Yet Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky—The D Boys—all wrote great artistic works for a popular audience. Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe certainly desired a wide readership. In the pulps, Chandler and Hammett and Dorothy Hughes had the readers, but also said meaningful things about the mean streets and the human condition.

None of these authors wrote without the desire for financial return. As Dr. Johnson so eloquently put it, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Out on the edges, sure, you have the solo artist who doesn’t give a rip what others think. And so creates experimental pieces that don’t sell, except on rare lightning-strikes occasions.

On the other side of this divide are those who “write” monster porn (yes, it really exists) and somehow find people willing to pay for it.

But in the great in-between are those who want to entertain an audience. For some that is enough. Others want to add a little more heft to their style or theme, and that’s a good thing. Still others want to transcend genre conventions and reach for the stars. I especially like that.

So isn’t it about time to put the “art v. commerce” debate to bed? It was okay for cocktail parties in 1965—“Honestly, are you comparing Mailer to Hemingway? How droll.”—but was it ever really a substantive discussion?

How many artists are there, truly, who don’t care a fig about income? (By the way, if you do want to “suffer” for your art, it’s very easy not to make money, so have at it.)

Is the disdain for “popular art” productive or even valid?

And here’s the big one: how concerned should we be about the “crumbling” of the mediators—publishing companies, critics, agents?

The discussion may now begin.


15 thoughts on “Once More With Feeling: Revisiting The Art v. Commerce Debate

  1. I’ve never been able to figure out what the literature snobs mean by “literature”, anyway. Books published before 1900? Heck, I learned more about the human condition from Terhune’s collie books that I cared to learn from, say, Gatsby or Heart of Darkness. The schools eat up trashy message books, but utterly ignore fine, fine literature like Bob, Son of Battle. (Possibly because the Scottish brouge is hard to read?)

    Why does no one study Good books like Girl of the Limberlost, or Freckles? They are fantastic stories, and well written, with memorable characters. Isn’t that literature?

    What passes for literature these days–thinly disguised message fiction–I wouldn’t grace my trash can with.

    • Don’t beat around the bush, Kessie! Tell us what you really think!

      I certainly wouldn’t call great literary works “trashy.” There is much to appreciate in Gatsby, for example…though I am on record as advocating replacing it with The Maltese Falcon on high school reading lists!

      My point is that great literature need not be tendentious, and great pulp need not be simplistic. Thus, we shouldn’t have either side saying the other side isn’t legit. That’s why I say put the debate to bed.

  2. Hey, find me a “patron” and I’ll gladly be patronized (unless it’s Patricia Neal ickily patronizing George Peppard in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”). Until then, I’ll gladly plug away between bill-paying endeavors and crushing family obligations. As, I suspect, would most of us.

    I like your description of the “middle ground,” Jim. I aim to write crime novels that come from my unique voice and unique experiential filters and sensibilities. I’ve often said that I want to sneak a little literary spinach into your Applebee’s dinner.

  3. Jim, great post. Great discussion for this “entrepreneurial” age.

    I agree with you that the debate was never really a substantive discussion. Even before the “mediators” (publishing companies) existed, real artistic geniuses (Michelangelo, Bach, Beethoven, etc, etc) had patrons to support them financially.

    And as to the concern for the “crumbling” of the mediators (especially in regards to the setting of standards for “art”), do we think the acquisition committees at the “mediator” companies sit around discussing potential manuscripts as to their contribution to the advancement of art…or is it, “Will this sell?”

    In the end, it always has been, and always will be, that the buyer (and demand) will influence what is sold. We, as artists, can always strive to make our product stand out because of quality. And those artists at the fringe can (and should) continue to look for that “new invention” that will open up a whole new market.

    • Good point, Steve, about the committees (where the most power comes from the marketing side). Once we did have great editors, like Max Perkins, who did perform some real curation. But those days are gone.

  4. Heinlein had a digression in “Stranger in a Strange Land,” where crotchety Jubal Harshaw railed against “art,” whatever that means. Art is art when it connects with the audience, when it reaches something inside the recipient. But we built up this culture where art was something special and refined, spoke in a language of its own and if you didn’t get it, if you didn’t understand the code, the problem was with you, not the art. So art began speaking only to itself, not to the viewer/reader/listener. It was, to borrow Woody Allen’s phrase, mental masturbation. Art was somehow “good for you,” and if you didn’t like it, well, tough.
    I recently reread “Stranger in a Strange Land” after a couple of decades and have to say I was disappointed, but that’s a different rant for a different time.

  5. It seems like the debate is fueled by fear, competitiveness, jealousy, envy, snobbery, a need for a particular identity, and so on. But it rarely seems based on reason.

  6. The “art vs. pulp” debate has always annoyed me, especially now that the “gatekeepers” are shifting. It reminds me of the medieval era where the Church told peasants they had to talk to priests in order to be able to talk to God.

    It’s funny how centuries later, we’re touting Dickens as a literary genius (which he is), but at the time he was writing for money too. He was a popular writer, lucky enough to sustain himself with his writing and he too was *gasp* an entrepreneur.

    I don’t understand why people feel like they have to form walls around what is literature and what isn’t. Speculative fiction does a wonderful job of exploring society, in a way literary fiction has a difficult time doing since it’s set within society. Crime fiction does a wonderful job of exploring themes of corruption and innocence, right and wrong. Just because it’s not about a white dude having a mid-life crisis doesn’t mean there aren’t deep and heavy themes being explored. Heaven forbid we enjoy reading the book while exploring such things.

    For the record, I enjoy literary fiction, but it sometimes falls prey to it’s own self importance (just as genre fiction can feel shallow). There’s always a trade off, and so long as some one is being entertained and perhaps seeing the world in a new light, what’s the big deal?

    Just my two cents! I’m going back to writing my commercial trash. 😉

  7. Take away the “Then”, and start with “I picked up the knife…” and IMHO it’s a good start to a story. Who wouldn’t want to know what happens next? (Could make a great exercise: what would you write after that? Who is this character?) Literary fiction it’s not, but who cares.

    Literary fiction is written in a distinctively different style than genre fiction. When it’s good it can be great, but when it’s bad, it can be painful.

    The art vs. commerce argument will never end. Not in our lifetimes, not centuries from now. I have come to the conclusion that how one views that argument, which side one takes, is indicative of one’s personal intellectual development, how he or she sees the world and his/her place in it.

  8. Bravo. This point should be made more often.

    I simply want to entertain readers with the commercial fiction (and make a living some day!). I also want to help aspiring novelists learn how to entertain their readers better (and I’m sure most of them would love to make a living doing that, too!).

    And yep, this debate will never end. But it deserves more discussion. Thanks for throwing it out here JSB.

  9. The market is in flux, but I think it’s too soon to say that publishers are crumbling. Best I can tell, they have been consolidating and maintaining sales while slowly increasing profits over the past decade. The e-book revolution has enabled them to reduce costs while maintaining overall sales, despite the ever-reducing numbers of retail bookstores. Interestingly, two of the major retailers for the publishers, Amazon and Barnes&Noble, reported minuscule (or negative) net profits, whereas overall, the publishing industry still has a profit margin in the neighborhood of 10%.
    Lots remains to be told on this story. Here’s an interesting article on the subject. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/how-much-money-the-biggest-publishers-actually-make/

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