“I do it for the art, not the money.”
Anyone who takes their own writing seriously has probably said or thought some version of this statement at one point. It’s a way to justify hours of toil—research, drafting, and editing—for a dividend that might end up being pennies per hour. It’s also a way to reinforce, to yourself and others, that this “hobby” is serious. That there’s a reason for choosing a life of writing over another.
But when you claim that you’re only interested in art, not compensation, some very strange definitions of art arise.
Art is simultaneously valued as an ultimate achievement while not being valued at all. It’s placed on a higher plane than grubby things like “entertainment,” an area of content that’s only produced when paid for and is aimed at the lowest common denominator. But art is also something that, if you’re a “true” artist, you’re taught never to expect fair compensation for.
The oppositional language is everywhere in the writing and publishing world. Is your book “commercial” or “literary?” Chances are, in trying to decide, you’re thinking about more than just commerce. You’re deciding whether you think your book is artistic or not. Whether it’s going to be read or not. Whether it’s worthy of winning awards or not.
Even after several generations, art vs. entertainment is a split this industry hasn’t yet come to terms with. On the one hand is writing, which challenges us emotionally and intellectually; on the other is everything else, the content for the masses who seek only to be mindlessly entertained by an exciting story.
So then, in this split, every book becomes a paradox. Good art isn’t good unless it’s consumed, but in consuming it and producing that coveted marketing “buzz,” its value as art is diminished. These book-sized paradoxes exist because we, as agents, editors, writers, and readers, pretend to ignore a simple truth that impacts everything we do: publishing is a business. Its singular goal is to make money. It makes money by putting content out into the world that engages people enough to buy that content. All books are cogs in that machine.
When we elevate poetry as art while saying the romance novel is commercial pulp, we do both a disservice. We’re saying that the poet should not think about things like royalties and copies sold because the mere fact of having produced a piece of “art” should be compensation enough. The act of declaring something as “art” is a cudgel used to drive down the financial value of an author’s work. We see this all over the place: writers are encouraged to write for free for “exposure” in places that have been granted a reputation of prestige. Too often the simple designation of “literary” can be a euphemism for “barely financially viable, if at all.”
Meanwhile, we don’t have to pay the romance writer any intellectual consideration—their sales in mass-market paperback more than make up for how we turn our noses up at them. But when we decline to take certain types of writing seriously despite their sales, we’re artificially closing ourselves off from understanding what it is that draws readers to popular genres and the value therein. Just skimming the surface, a reader will learn that sci-fi and fantasy help people examine why their world is the way that it is, and visualize change; children’s books are tools that help kids explore their values and who they want to become; and so-called “chick-lit” is revolutionary simply for the fact that it allows female readers to see women who are supportive and affirming of one another.
As we’ve written before, it’s tough to fit art into industry, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be successful in both. Entertainment doesn’t have to hold the connotation of mindlessness, and whatever we designate to be sophisticated shouldn’t by definition mean that no one likes it. Pushing against this idea is important not just for the artists in a world that demands they pick between being paid and being taken seriously, but for the readers. We deserve the art that’s created when we reject this dichotomy because it’s when we strip away these artificial boxes that our best work occurs.