To Sell Yourself or to Be True to Yourself?

“You need to write what sells,” a lady tells me. “I would rather write what’s in my heart,” I reply. “You’ll never be successful if you do that,” she adds. My blood boils. It was such a lovely conversation up until now. “Whether my book sells or not isn’t up for you to decide or me to decide, but for the readers” I say a bit more testily than I mean to. The conversation ends on an awkward note.

There are a lot of issues that get on my nerves, sometimes little ones. Telling authors what they should write and then threatening them that they won’t be successful if they don’t follow this formula is one such pet peeve of mine. It’s not that I don’t think the woman was right in some aspects, or many aspects for that matter. There certainly are bestsellers out there that the reading audience devours. But just because a book is beloved today, doesn’t mean that it is destined to go down in history as a classic. The reading public is fickle, with loyalties that can change as the years pass by.

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with Herman Melville and his literary masterpiece Moby Dick. Melville has been lauded as the Shakespeare of America, a title well deserved. His work is very poetic, comical, tragic, and explores the human soul, much like William Shakespeare did with his plays. But though praised in literary circles and academia now, there was a time in which Melville was an obscure author. Moby Dick was a commercial flop when it was published in 1851. If Melville dreamed of fame, it would have to wait until after he died, in which his work would be discovered in the 20th century.

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The Disowned by Bulwere-Lytton

The opposite of Melville would be Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Don’t know who he is? You’re in good company. He has been largely forgotten. Yet you probably use his phrases more often than you think. Phrases such as “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and the “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” as well as the infamous “it was a dark and stormy night,” all come from him. While he is virtually unknown today, or mocked for that matter, he was a bestselling author in the 19th century, beloved by the reading public.

Herman Melville and Edward Bulwere-Lytton are but two examples of how popularity when it comes to a writer and their books can change. It’s possible to write a story that the audience wants, only for it to sink into the quicksand of obscurity in the future. Likewise, it’s possible to write a book that fails to sell, only for it grow to critical acclaim as the years or the centuries pass by. Still, it’s only fair to mention that some books may be popular when they were written and still be classics now while some books may always be unknown. One just can’t tell.

Certainly many of the editors who turned down the works of J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss probably didn’t see their work as becoming popular or profitable. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone would be rejected twelve times. Dr. Seuss’s first book, To Think That I Saw it on Mullberry Street, would be rejected twenty-seven times. But Harry Potter has become a cultural phenomenon that has spawned movies, spin-offs, and a theme park. The works of Dr. Seuss are still resonating with children today, having turned into a yardstick in which all children’s literature is measured in terms of quality.

Now, I’m not naive to think that my writing is going to become classic literature, beloved by millions. But I’m not so pessimistic to think that it can’t happen either. I acknowledge that writing in the hopes that others love your work is a gamble. There’s a chance that my work will never be heavily successful. But what if I were to write “what people want,” only to produce a flop? I would much rather take that gamble and write what I want to write about, to put down on paper what is in my heart and soul. Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true.” I would rather be true to myself, regardless of where it takes me.

 

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Cover of 1980s re-release of “Moby Dick,” published by Readers Digest. A once obscure book, now a classic.

 

4 thoughts on “To Sell Yourself or to Be True to Yourself?

  1. I agree. The advice to write what sells is often offered in a helpful tone, the speaker assuming that the writer wants to make money through their writing. Making money, enough to live on, by writing would be incredible, but is a difficult proposition for writers of fiction, even for writers of commercial fiction, in whatever form that takes.

    I didn’t ‘get into writing’ to make money. I have, from childhood, always wanted to write, and tell my stories. That is what I shall continue to do, while trying to maintain the highest quality in my writing as I do so. I shall try to court an audience, hope an audience finds me, but I’m not going to radically cut my cloth to fit a presumed audience’s expectations, because then the story I write won’t be the one I wanted to tell and the presumption of what the audience wants may well be wrong, so I’ll have mutilated my work on a false premise. Sod that.

    I am okay with this. If I get no recognition now, or ever, I’m okay with it, because writing the stories I feel most moved to create fulfills me. I believe I’ll find an audience by maintaining quality. If I don’t (which isn’t unlikely in today’s saturated market, something I am also okay with as an outccome), I’ll still have the satisfaction of knowing I produced my best work, that I can be proud of. If that is foolish idealism, so be it.

    Liked by 1 person

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