Is Art Marketable?
Before I wrote my first play, I wrote, or rather I started writing a novel, which I’ve since finished several drafts. The book is a literary mystery set in the 1980’s in the rust belt of the northeast not far from where I grew up.
Upon completing the manuscript I queried a handful of agents, several who requested partial manuscripts but ultimately rejected the book. Later a publisher requested the complete manuscript, responding with three pages of detailed feedback. This particular publisher believed that the story, language and characters displayed some of the strongest craft she’d seen in recent years, but that the book presents challenges from a marketing standpoint and that I would need to implement a couple of significant revisions in order for them to bring the book to market. However, she warned me, the haunting aspects of the book would likely be sacrificed if I applied these changes and that I should be careful not to alter the tone of the book because the voice was what was so attractive about it. I took this advice and spent the next six months revising the manuscript.
This process made me ponder: how do we make art marketable? And are those two things even synonymous.
Being that my book has a literary bent, I’ve written a narrative that has a smaller audience than popular genre fiction, but does that mean that it isn’t marketable? I wrote the book I want to read, and if I want to read it then surely there is an audience for it, albeit perhaps not a mass audience. I tend to be drawn to Dickensian stories filled with offbeat characters and rich dark prose where blackness results in resilience. However I’m also attracted to plot driven narratives that don’t sacrifice character and language for page turning suspense. In other words I don’t believe that literary equates slow. And on the flip side I don’t think popular fiction has to sacrifice language and character for the sake of plot. Yet in the book world, the gate-keepers need to group you into a genre in order to market books. So how do literary writers out there navigate this challenging terrain of publishing where it seems that often a marketable book seems to win out over a quality book? The answer, I think, is with a lot of guts, a thick skin and a little (or a lot of) luck.