I‘m reading The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stephenson. In it, a bible-thumping Christian stands on a high Scottish ledge in a gale, baying laughter as a poor schooner tries to tack out of a bay surrounded by murderous rocky reefs (the “Merry Men” of the title). And why is he doing this? Pride? Nationalism? Personal animosity?
When you think about it, it comes down to the fact that this weasel wants the ship’s cargo on the beach, where he can pick through it and make it his (he might even loot the bodies of the dead sailors should they be fortunate enough to wash up). And the reason this is all so is because he wants money for nothing. He wants stuff to be his, magically. He could get this same gain by labor, such as digging a ditch. But no, Scottish soil is rocky, not good ditch-digging there. He’d rather gain it at the expense of the misery, terror, and extinction of others (and yes, it is a horrible scene).
But when you think back at the wars nations have fought, of slavery and thievery and pimping and murder and most horrors inflicted by a human on a human, it’s because someone doesn’t want to dig a ditch. They would rather steal credit card numbers, knock over old ladies, and drop napalm on refugees rather than ditch digging.
Writers are no different. Oh, I’d love to get the recognition I crave. Occasionally someone comes up to me and tells me they liked a book of mine. I’m referred to, at work, as “that writer guy”. I even once had a person out of the blue recognize my name and tell me how much he loved Fire and Bronze. Yes, it’s a nice ego boost. But it doesn’t keep me out of any ditches.
So there is that fantasy, the J. K. Rowling one, where you become one of the richest humans in the world because of five simple books. Somehow your words catch the morlock population of the world (who wouldn’t know true literature if you snapped a copy of Lord Jim on their nose) and suddenly the printers can’t keep up with demand. Money is flowing in. You can watch zeros stack up behind your wealth on a daily basis. And from your Malibu beachfront, you look out at the setting sun and marvel in your wealth. And out by the road out front, a bunch of work trolls set out their cones, quarter their ground, and raise their picks. Better them than you.
I’m not sure what this says about us as writers, if we set out to tell a story, not because we believe in it but because we want to avoid nasty work with it. Does this mean in our effort to stay out of that narrow trench (with the flies and heat and heavy tools) we’ll not give the audience a true story with the telling it should have, but rather a pandering tale that appeals to them and doesn’t challenge (or shock or cause reflection) on them. If we are all pushing for that big sale, that ding-ding-ding success, are all we producing popularistic bullshit?
This is the sort of thing writers think about. Kill a character and anger the crowds? Or have the same vampires and wizards and secret agents going through their poorly-written motions?
What can I suggest here? Keep your day job, keep digging that ditch, and write your tale unhampered by commercial desperation.