When it comes to the question of how to write books for money, much has been written. The most half-hearted googling will unearth a treasure trove of titles purporting to teach you how to write the next bestselling novel or screenplay. Everyone in this confidence game appears to have a formula, not seeming to have ever stumbled upon Somerset Maugham’s dictum that “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”
Far less has been written about whether one should write for money. But a few have weighed in.
It was Dr. Samuel Johnson who opined that “Only a fool writes for anything but money.”
A few short centuries later, Jonathan Franzen offered his more jaundiced view of what kind of literature is written for money and which isn’t: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” Take that, genre writers.
Literary writers tend to turn up their noses at the world’s beloved mystery and thriller writers who athletically give birth to a book a year and earn millions of dollars for their labours. John Grisham is a favourite target.
Some wizened souls even wag their literary wands disparagingly in JK Rowling’s direction, blaming her for singlehandedly ruining a generation’s literary taste and expectations. In the darkly pensive minds of such critics, there’s also something untoward about being a writerly billionaire. It’s the kind of mercenary enthusiasm usually reserved for visionary warehousers or software whisperers. For their part, genre writers are quick to point out that their books are actually read. And it’s often hard to really argue with enjoyment.
John LeCarre, one of the few writers who both excelled in a popular genre while writing fiction that was unabashedly literary, was proud of both his writing and his earning prowess, including in the biographical note that accompanied each new novel the number of years he had “lived by his pen.” (Fifty-five years was the number he listed in his last novel.)
It’s a rare writer nowadays who could make the same boast of making any sort of living by his or her or their pen. And the idea of such a thing is manically laughable for poets, unless they are winning Nobel Prizes or the equivalent on Instagram.
But it was perhaps Robert Graves who offered the best render-therefore-unto-Caesar take on the relationship between writing and money with his observation: “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”
Graves’s comforting aphorism reminds me of the conversation I had with one of my Grade 8 pals when I told him I wanted to be a poet. He looked at me in sad bewilderment and asked, with a straight face, whether I wanted to make any money.
A few odd decades later and I found myself telling a friend – a different one – about the publication of my first novel. The first question he had for me was not about its theme or characters or even its plot, but what was the size of my advance. When I told him, he couldn’t help laughing in my face.
As the average writer’s income continues to plunge in the wake of our latest technological revolution and its unthinking bloodying of assorted innocents, the questions of how and whether to write for money are ones that most semi-serious writers ask themselves at one point or another. The questions are up there with what to write about, and how, and for whom, and why.
Over the years, in between writing poetry and literary novels, I’ve secretly tried my hand at science fiction, at a spy thriller, at a sci-fi literary thriller that turned out, despite my best efforts, to be neither sci-fi nor literary nor thrilling. What all these failed novels had in common was that I wrote them under the illusion I was going to make some money off them. Writing for money, dear readers, is much harder than it looks. Thrilling you is not an easy art.
But like an alcoholic, the temptation is always there and sometimes it surfaces in harmless daydreaming. What it must be like to have been LeCarre, able to politely boast into one’s late eighties of having made a living from one’s pen for over half a century. Not to get rich mind you, Only to have more time to write.
So my somewhat inexpert advice – earned at the unforgiving altar of experience – to young aspiring writers wondering if they should write for money, is this: by all means, do it if you can. We will always need well-crafted mysteries and thrillers to keep us entertained as the world lurches from crisis to crisis and useful books of non-fiction to help us think about the big things. But if you can’t, then don’t.
Those who write for money are blessed in more ways than one. They can choose what to write. The rest of us poor lot labour under an often embarrassing mess of mysterious constraints and compulsions. When you don’t write for money, you don’t really have a choice of what to write. Your story chooses you. In other words, surrender to your destiny.
Find a career that you enjoy and get up early or stay up late to write what you have to. Let the chips fall where they may. Write in your spare time, the way others run ultramarathons or travel to exotic locales or rebuild antique cars when they’re not doing their part to help make the world go round.
In the end I’ve come to believe in the sturdy wisdom that early twentieth-century writer Sherwood Anderson entrusted to a letter to his eighteen-year old son who had just gone off to study art in Paris: “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”
There are worse ways to spend your time.