Caveat to Fiction Writers: Keep Your Day Job

Writing and publishing are often fraught with difficulty and frustration. Most serious writers of fiction do care about the money but there’s historically a better shot at making serious money playing the state lottery. Nathaniel West earned something like $400 total from The Day of the Locust. Faulkner would have starved on his novels until the Nobel struck him with the klieg light of great writer; he made money knocking out scripts and daydreaming of drinking and writing back in Oxford, Mississippi, instead of Hollywood. Reader research shows most people who claim to have read the classics of literature haven’t really. They maybe started the Sound and the Fury but never made the finish line; the same with Joyce, Proust, Woolf and on and on.

It’s a pleasure to be involved with a group of genuine readers who do “read the goddamned books” (as one of my grad professors challenged us!). But the point is well taken that fully formed literary fiction is only vaguely associated with genre formulae. But it’s the genre formula fiction that sells. And all basic principles of good dramatic writing are nicely summarized in essence in Aristotle’s The Poetics.

Here in our inflationary times, the first question facing an agent and a buying editor at one of the big trade houses that pays advances is…will this novel or whatever sell? It’s not, is this a well-written book?

Think of the numbskull celebrity books; editors create, and package and ghosts polish these profitable fluff texts. In the meetings, marketing and sales put in their two bits on that profitability probability. Add a senior publishing exec and the accounting/legal department’s latest sell-through figures, and hear the booming voice of major corporate ownership (Gulf & Western) demanding a 15% profit rate of return…and you’ve got today’s publishing mentality.

Literary novels of great aesthetic achievement get rejected every week in New York and around the world. So, if you don’t write genre stuff, or filmscripts, or knock-off ghostwriting gigs (all of which I tried when I wrote fiction to pay the family bills), odds are you’re going to need a day job, e.g., teaching or editing or parking cars…

There’s clearly a kind of graded spectrum of quality in writing fiction but if you take a genre and get too clever in language and execution…you pass up the quality scale out of the genre money making realm into faux genre works. Not much interest. Also the same is true if you mix or cross genres, say, romantic suspense (one agent said, to a bookdoctor client of mine with a fine book, that’s considered too “soft” a market, toughen it up, make it more noir). Another agent agent told me once in the late 90s, I can’t sell anything with a boat in it…not since Titantic hit big; wait awhile and try later…and don’t sink it! Blow it up!

Truth is, for the literary writer, those novels and stories that come from the soul, the heart, the guts…that’s why you keep going. It’s the juice that makes it all worth while. It’s a magical experience to get inside a uniquely rendered story or novel and bring that into the light of day; you do hope after that to share it with an audience that enjoys language and moral-aesthetic actualization.

And the good news is there are more opportunities with POD and ebook publishing to do what you want; also there are quite a number of smaller presses. But believe me, it’s a brutal world of rejection at the level where there’s competition for pay…the trade press level. Keep your day job and write for because your soul demands it, not your wallet.



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