Ship Comes In: The Artist and Practical Concerns

"..go on and send this one out..I am not so sure that any place will take it..however, the purpose of sending it around would be to show various people that you CAN write stories. After reading this they will remember you and be interested in the next one. Somebody might even take it."
~Flannery O'Connor

"When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job."
~C.S. Lewis (quote from "On Good Works and Good Work", contributed by btanaka)

"...whether I like it or not, the ability to sell writing is an important aspect of the writer’s life. Do you carve out a special time for this aspect of writing—say, Wednesday afternoons to research and marketing? Do you wait for inspiration to strike? Do you dream of something working out without any effort on your part...?"

In my happiest writerly daydreams, Enya is my hero. From Wikipedia (yeah, I know):
"Enya was quoted as saying: 'The success of Watermark surprised me. I never thought of music as something commercial; it was something very personal to me'... An American businessperson has coined the phrase "enyanomics" to explain Enya's ability to sell millions of records without giving any live performances."
In other words: yes, like most introverted artists, I dream of succeeding without having to do the difficult and distasteful work of selling. As a musician, I already know what live performances are like, and I can tell you that my hand shakes when I give autographs (er, autograph... I've done it once) and I nearly misspelled my own band name in marker on a young girl's cell phone. This does not bode well for book signings. Though I could probably manage blog tours without difficulty.

Unfortunately, it's just shy of a hundred percent deadly, speaking careerwise, to depend on the whim of the fates for success. We all know that, but most of us—myself included—have trouble with proactivity. Masha's questions of the week cover this subject:
"How do we meld the practical side of making art with the creative side? Do you think about audience, about saleability, about all the non-artistic aspects of writing, or do you just write and hope for the best?"
The questions consist of two basic issues: first, to what degree the artist should consider his audience in the process of artmaking; and second, what sort of time and effort the artist should put into selling his finished work.

Regarding the first matter, what I think Lewis is claiming in the above quote is that art is not a self-indulgent, freeform release of mental and/or emotional pressures. The goal of art is to create recognizable, communicable beauty. As Aquinas puts it, beauty requires "integritas, consonantia, claritas"—integrity/perfection, proportion/harmony, brightness/radiance (translation courtesy of NewAdvent.org.) These things require technique and effort, as well as an intention to actually convey something to the audience.

While it's true that—as Christie points out in Masha's combox—some artists are more consciously influenced by audience than others, it's possible to create a false dichotomy between writing for yourself and writing for an intended audience. Most of us choose to write a particular sort of book (or poem, or essay, or story, etc.) because it's the sort of thing we enjoy; i.e., we're already part of our own intended audience. Some universal, or at least common, part of ourselves responds to that sort of work, and we can write for ourselves as long as we write for the common or universal part.

As for selling created work, the process and requirements differ so greatly from one artist to the next that there's simply no straightforward prescription for success. Some ideas are more obviously marketable than others. Some writers send queries; others attend conferences and pitch in person; many do both. Some break in quickly, and others rack up hundreds of rejections. Some self-publish and succeed that way.

There are no guarantees, no proven paths—only vague directions and a vast range of possible routes. When we've created good art, we really just have one responsibility: to do what it takes to get our work where it needs to go.


  1. Interesting ideas, Jenna. I think that very fact that you manage and frequently update a blog is a pointer to your understanding of the audience. This may not feel like marketing or self-promotion, but it is networking and so is those things implicitly. I've always been uncomfortable with selling myself, but I've found blogging and commenting on other writers' blogs a remarkably fun and relaxed way to accomplish this. As something I've only come to recently (long-time lurker, here) I'm sorry I didn't get into it sooner. It seems to me that much of the practical work is done here (though albeit a fun medium in its own right) so that when/if we do publish, we've laid a base. It's nice to see that knowing your audience can be about connecting with like-minded people, not just shameless salesmanship.

    1. Great thoughts, Kat. It's so true. When I look back over six years of blogging and commenting on blogs, most of my writing opportunities have come from there, and some encouraging friendships and critique partner relationships as well--definitely worth the investment of time and energy.


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