Deanos dilemma (being accused by a dead Homer Simpson in heaven of wasting his talent) is quite frightful for the creative soul. The implication is that Deano sold out.
Most of us wish for such troubles; if you “sell out”, it means that (a) you had talent in the first place, and (b) people wanted to pay you a lot of money.
But what does selling out mean? And can you sell out without being successful?
I’ve attended (and even taught) my share of creative writing workshops. Inevitably, there is always at least one student who wants to know what the secret is of selling his work. He comes to class hoping to find the secret formula, the magic knowledge that will land him on the best seller list. The answer, of course, is quite simple: write good stuff. And then send it out. Repeat.
This need to know the secret formula is all too human, especially when you see what makes it onto the best-seller list. I mean, there has to be magic involved somewhere! This student doesn’t really like the simple answer, so he starts to formulate theories. I can distill all of the theories I’ve heard over the years into one question: “will it sell?” This question taints the rest of the workshop for such students. They’ll make comments about other people’s work such as: “I think your story is written well, but I don’t think there’s a market for it,” or “people are interested in Chinese coin collected right now, so why don’t you make the main character a Chinese coin collector?” or “using those types of words (swear words, 50 cent words, foreign words, etc.) will turn people off, so you should cut them out.”
These theories effect this student’s writing as well. He’ll copy what is selling write now, be it Clancy-like, Grisham-like, or King-like, and he’ll do as good or as bad a job as they do. But he won’t make good writing. What ever you think of these writers, on thing is certain: they didn’t set out to copy anyone or write to the market. They wrote what they wanted to write. But this poor guy spends his time trying to time the market. He might have talent, he might not. Whatever “talent” is (and I’m not sure), it’s not as important as working hard and believing in what you write. How can you believe in what you write when are trying to write for some amorphous “market”, and not for yourself?
The question “will it sell” spells death to creative writing. We all struggle with self-censorship as it is, ranging from “what will my mother think if I write this?” to “will I be labeled a big fat jerk if I say that?”
Are people like Clancy and Grisham and King sell-outs? I’d argue that they didn’t have much talent to squander in the first place, so they aren’t. What about the poor guy in my writing workshop? If he really has something to say and the drive to work hard, but keeps getting stuck on “will it sell,” he’ll never be a sell-out, because he’ll never be successful. He’ll simply waste any talent he has, and lots of time.
I had a creative writing teacher who said “if you really want to make money, go sell drugs. Or play the lottery. Don’t waste your time writing.” Clancy and Grisham and King hit the lottery. But they also wrote what they wanted to write, market be damned. So did Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston, but they didn’t hit the lottery, at least not like the other three did. I’d argue that none of the six are sell outs.
So which of them are good writers, which of them are bad? Which of them used their talent to its full potential, and which of them didn’t? Which of them helped create a better world, and which of them didn’t? I have no idea. The only thing I know for sure is that some of them wrote books I like to read, and some of them didn’t.