‘An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The distinction between high-brow and low-brow – between obscure and popular, or unprofitable and lucrative – is a source of tension and insecurity in all fields of the arts. Among writers, however – people who tend to be sensitive and pretentious at the best of times – thinking too much about this distinction can cripple your creative output and tie your mind in knots. The impact it’s had on my writing career has been profound.
When I was eighteen, I proclaimed to all and sundry that I would not be going to university, as expected, and instead would become a writer.
‘You won’t be able to support yourself,’ snapped my A-level English Literature teacher in front of the whole class. ‘I know many writers – they all have other jobs. The only way to make money is to write pulp.‘
She practically spat the last word, the implication being that dusty high-brow literature is somehow more worthy and honourable than low-brow, yet popular, commercial fiction. It is better to be Marcel Proust, writing a ginormous book that next to no one has ever read, than churn out formulaic hit after formulaic hit like Clive Cussler.
‘Well I’m going to write quality fiction,’ I replied, in my arrogance believing myself to be the next Ian McEwan or Sebastian Faulks. To my teenage self, that was the compromise, the dividing line, between my literary pretensions and my pecuniary ambitions – something that would keep my English teacher happy but would be successful enough to buy me a little apartment in Richmond.
And so I spent years trying to write ‘quality’ fiction. I fell in love with the idea of the sophisticated literary intellectual, and started wearing trendy scarves and sewing elbow patches onto my suit jackets. I was adamant that writing was an art form, an expression of the intangible essence of the heart. And that was why everything I wrote was plotless, navel-gazing, self-indulgent pap that was so boring, even I didn’t want to read it.
When people suggested that I study the craft of writing, I scoffed – art can’t be taught, I said. I saw the distinction between literary and commercial fiction the way a sculptor sees that between a statue and a chair. One is created by an act of will, the artist wrestling an image from out the marble as he pours himself into a work that will stand before others as a testament to the divine in man; the other is created by a craftsman in a workshop for people to sit on. And fart on. And use for firewood if he gets cold.
In truth, I wanted to be special. Our society has elevated the artist to the position of mythical genius, and denigrated the craftsman to a manual labourer. Learning the craft of writing seemed to imply that anyone could do it, and if that was the case, there was nothing special about me at all.
I gradually came to realise that such a view of writing – dividing fiction between literary and commercial, worthy and worthless – between art and craft – is not only the result of ego and insecurity, it’s also utterly wrong.
Writing is both an art and a craft. In the same way that painters, no matter how ‘artistic’, have to learn the basic techniques of holding a brush, applying paint with different strokes, understanding perspective and creating balance, so writers have to learn the fundamentals of the craft. Character, setting, structure, pace – inciting incidents, pinch points, climaxes – these are not things that block our intuitive connection with the Muse, they are the fundamental building blocks of writing. And how you use these tools is down to you as an individual.
I also realised that the literary/commercial distinction is pretty arbitrary anyway. Whenever I go into a bookshop that has a literature section separate from the general fiction section, I’m always amazed by the titles the staff have deemed to be ‘literature’. And who is to say that literature has the monopoly on big ideas? I’ve found profound, life-changing notions in books of all genres, from horror and science-fiction to fantasy and crime. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write it well.
My advice to all aspiring writers out there is to forget about whether you’re writing literary fiction or commercial fiction and just write what feels right for you. I spent far too long writing as somebody else instead of writing as me. I like writing stories with a high body count, lots of explosions, and enough guns to start World War Three. It took me forever to realise that there’s nothing wrong with that.