For the Masses or For the Ages?

When I publish a novel or short story. Who am I writing for? The closest that most of the articles and blog posts about writing ever come to this question is in reference to genres. And success. The topic of finding your audience is almost always addressed as if we all aim for best sellerdom.

Most advice about writing, particularly that aimed at self-publishers, is about success. But unless the article specifically mentions best-sellerdom as the goal, we rarely have any idea what the definition of success is. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the goals of someone who’s out for financial success and someone who’s writing because writing is what they have to do are very different.

Here’s where we come to a divide that nobody wants to talk about. Stuff that’s politically incorrect. The sign of a snob. It’s a cultural divide that can be boiled down, in today’s terms, to entertainment vs. art. And it’s far from accurate. Unlike those who insist that writing is art, I know that art is something comparatively rare, and that we are not the ones to judge our own work. My books are unlikely to be considered art — ever. And that’s true for most of us scribblers.

The other side of the divide: entertainment, isn’t necessarily bad writing. You can write to entertain without having any illusions that you’re going to make a fortune. You can do it for your own pleasure and the pleasure of others. And the chances of making a killing are much higher for work that’s entertaining than on the other side. Most of the books that have ever been published were written to entertain. And most of them have been forgotten.

If you have a few decades of reading behind you, you’ll remember authors who were praised and feted, and who became rich, and whose names no longer ring any bells. If you ever have the chance to spend hours in a used book store, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the recognition that most of the thousands  of books will do nothing but collect dust until they’re finally triaged and dumpstered. Their authors? It’s unlikely that you know many of them.  Unfortunately, that state of affairs applies as much to serious books written for art’s sake as it does to those written to entertain.

To go back to the title of this post — There’s more money to be had in writing for the masses than for the ages, unless you happen to be that rare oddity, a genius, and are recognized as such somewhere along the line. Most probably after you’re dead. No matter how hard you work on your book, how serious you are about it, and, most frustrating, no matter how good it is, your writing will almost certainly not endure past your lifetime, much less down through the ages.

So much for being realistic. But don’t let it discourage you. Writing for the ages is a worthy goal. It will make you work hard, keep you honest, and give you something to live for when there seems to be no reason to go on. Not many people are that lucky.

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6 thoughts on “For the Masses or For the Ages?

  1. I have to agree: well said. I’ve struggled with these thoughts, myself, and have spent uncounted hours in used book stores. When people say that writing is a lonely craft, they are right, but having written is another thing altogether. So many of us have written, and a great many have made it to those used book shelves.

    I would love to reach beyond the grave with my work, but, like you, I do not hold great hopes. For me, it would be exciting to have a few rave reviews while I’m still cognizant enough to hear and understand.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your “kindred souls” remark, Catana. Even blogging shares in some of these issues. It’s always a thrill to find that someone has left a comment on a post saying they liked it or found it useful in some way.

    1. That’s why I don’t have any problem with contining to blog. Meeting people, exchanging ideas, learning things that I might not have learned on my own.

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