We all know William Shakespeare appealed to the common man, with stories that touched on moral truths built upon jokes about sex and farting. He followed a path well paved by giants like Euripides, who in a tragedy about the slaughter and enslavement of a population slips in a fat joke. I can imagine a theater critic attending the premiere of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and scribbling on his papyrus, “The playwright aspires to immortality, like our gods, but his words call upon our basest natures. This play will be forgotten in a fortnight.”
I’ve never met a creative who didn’t undergo a regular wrestling match in her head between the desire to create lasting art and the need to reach a more commercial audience. So often it is presented as an either/or. But so often in life it isn’t as simple as making a choice. When I was young I was struck by the powerful debates on the “60 Minutes” segment Point/Counterpoint, but Saturday Night Live’s Dan Ackroyd taught us how artificial the “debates” were with his four-word catchphrase to Jane Curtin: “Jane, you ignorant slut.“
(Two side notes: One, after first seeing Ackroyd say that line as a kid I repeated it everywhere, until my mother taught this 10-year-old boy what the word “slut” actually meant. Two, SNL at its best has the erudite claim to art while appealing to our basest natures as well.)
Imagine if you had a creative partner, and each inhabited one side of that debate. It turns out there are Artist Road readers who fit that description. In response to my previous post, The Balance Between Authenticity and Creativity, a commenter with the unusual name of Inion N. Mathair explained in her comment that she is the mother of a mother/daughter writing team. The mother likes to ask if what they’re writing has a market, and the daughter likes to respond “I won’t sell out, just to sell a book.”
I had to check out Inion’s blog, and learned that Inion N. Mathair means “daughter ‘n’ mother in Irish Gaelic,” and is a pseudonym for the daughter and mother writing team of Ginger and Natalie Perrone. I’ve enjoyed spending some time exploring their blog, but it seems they’re depriving us of some really good content. Many of us creatives would get a voyeuristic thrill out of seeing the debate that goes on every day in our head played out by two different people writing the same work!
I grew up with someone close to me who wrote genre fiction, and now I’m in an MFA in Writing program now where every instructor has published beautiful prose, but in some cases the sales an instructor’s total body of work might fall short of the number of copies sold of one of that genre author’s many novels. I don’t think that you could say that the genre novelist made the “right” choice in ensuring her writing reached a broad audience, any more than you can say the literary novelist made the “right” choice in focusing most on producing a work of art that might or might not find readers.
Perhaps it comes from working in Washington, D.C., policy for a quarter-century, but too often we wish to polarize debates, when the truth involves a little bit of both. I’m learning everything I can from my MFA instructors on how to instill in my prose lasting literary value. And I intend to work to get that prose in front of as many readers as I possibly can, and am not afraid to pay attention to what readers crave. It worked for Shakespeare and Euripides. That’s pretty good company.
Do you find yourself torn at times between creating what your heart tells you is art, and what the market might not have as much interest in? The question truly does touch on the authenticity post I wrote last week, while taking it to a more practical level.