My introduction to the realities of book sales came in junior high school. I was one of two finalists for a story contest in Language Arts class, and my competitor’s story was a literary masterpiece. I don’t remember the plot exactly, but her story involved an orange cat and the writing was so offbeat and lyrical and deep that I knew she had a special talent and deserved to win.
My story wasn’t even good enough to be considered ordinary in my own mind. But my characters were named after each student in the class, and I put the girls in situations with their guy crushes and made several of the jocks fall face-first into a pond, plus other giggle-inducing drivel. So when the class voted for the winner, I won by a landslide.
I felt horrible about it. Apparently, I still do. That story represents to me the epitome of selling out. Not because it was entertaining to the class–I believe pure entertainment has an important role in life, and I love to giggle. Not even because the best story didn’t win — readers will always have their own criteria for what is “best”. No, I felt like a sell-out because I had originally written a different story, one straight from my heart, but changed my contest submission at the last minute to something I threw together to get votes. I felt like a sleazy politician.
I don’t think it’s wrong to strive for popularity. Popularity is the axis of the world. (That might be the most important thing I learned in junior high school.) So when skyrocketing book sales come from a story that resonates with people enough that they tell others about it, that is quality success. When a political candidate is elected because his or her message honestly reflects the viewpoint of the vast majority, that is the way representative government is supposed to work. It’s all about the integrity of the process.
I recently realized that politicians and writers have a common challenge to their integrity — the constant tension between a desire to be true to their own driving vision and the reality that no vision can come true if they’re oblivious to the audience they need to engage. So where is that tension line crossed? I think politics become corrupt when a candidate delivers a message to get votes while harboring a different agenda. Similarly, I think book sales would approach “selling out” if I wrote the stories that made money at the expense of the book burning in my soul.
But maybe that’s easy for me to say because I have a day job. What do you think?