Tell her to make it short and spicy. And if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.
– Mr. Dashwood, Little Women (2019)
One of the focuses in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women is the publisher’s insistence that Jo’s main character be married by the end of the story. This parallels the actual story of Louisa May Alcott who reportedly had zero intention of resolving Jo’s story with a romance but relented at the insistence of her publisher and thus created the Bhaer ending.
Times changed, to be sure, and I’m not sure that men ever dealt with quite the same level of social expectations on their writing. Remember, there was a time when the very thought of a woman writing was abhorred. If they were going to write, they were going to write in a narrow lane.
Whether the writers of today face a similar pressure from publishers or its a matter of preference, media feels dominated by the unnecessary.
Jack loves Jill. Why? I mean, it’s fine that he does, but does it serve the story in any meaningful way? In some cases it does, in other cases it feels like someone pressured a romance into the story to appeal to an audience that might find the story uninteresting without one.
My opinion: this story is not for that audience.
Professional writing requires a degree of commercialism. After all, an artist should receive compensation for their effort and if anyone is going to go to the trouble of publishing an artist’s work then they should receive compensation as well. It is important then that the work sells.
I do not consider that a cynical view. The basic idea of receiving compensation is natural – we’ll get to the mercenary part shortly.
And trade-offs are part of the deal. Describing something requires a necessary balance of concision and comprehensiveness. Prattle on too long about something to cover it in detail and people lose interest. Race through without providing enough description and people will never gain interest or they will proceed with a poor understanding. Writers must find a balance between the two forces.
When I write, I do it with an audience in mind. Yes, I write for myself because I have a passion for it, but I also have a passion for sharing it. Part of the joy is someone else responding to the writing in a way that connects us.
I am reminded of this scene from Immortal Beloved, a 1994 Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman:
Beethoven: Music is a…dreadful thing. What is it? I don’t understand it. What does it mean?
Schindler: It – [begins to write it] it exalts the soul.
Beethoven – Utter nonsense. If you hear a marching band is your soul exalted? No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So, now… What was in my mind when I wrote this? Hmm? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage has broken down in the rain. The wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This… is the sound of his agitation. “This is how it is… ,” the music is saying. “Not how you are used to being. Not how you are used to thinking. But like this.”
The reader will bring interpretations and meaning to the story that the author did not intend, but it’s still the author’s story. A reader may not bring any meaning they wish; they must use what was provided by the author to build a case for that meaning. You, the reader, are subject to the mental state of the writer.
So why should I compose my writing to appeal to any reader? I compose the story and then help it to find its audience, whoever that might be.
(As a brief aside, I assist myself on that path by imagining a specific audience, usually one or two people, and writing the story in such a way that they would find it enjoyable.)
When composing a story, even a character-driven one, it has a premise and every detail of the story should serve that premise. One of the greatest challenges a writer faces is trimming all of the fat off a story to maintain that focus.
The idea that one should then adulterate the story with subplots and side adventures purely as a commercial hook is where things become mercenary. I don’t malign writers who would do this; making a piece as marketable as possible is a great way to achieve publication and therefore earn money off the work. Doing this repeatedly is how one makes a career.
James Patterson and Danielle Steele are two names who come to mind. I do not consider them bad writers – far from it – but I would also not consider their books as high art in a conversation alongside literary classics.
Again, that’s fine. This is the debate, just as Scorsese described the Marvel films as “popcorn flicks”. I agree with Scorsese and I love the Marvel films. Some of them are among my all-time favourites. The storytelling and mythology is fantastic. They are well acted with fantastic visual effects, costuming, sound editing, and the like. Taken altogether though, I do not think the artistry warrants the same discussion as other films. They are blockbuster films designed to entertain and they do precisely that.
Or, for the more visual, I might liken this to the way that a photo-realistic drawing of a subject does not itself constitute high art. It requires tremendous skill and I would still consider it art, but it lacks the accomplishment of works that balance multiple elements with single purpose.
Even a painter like Jackson Pollock who focused so intently on subconscious creation still qualifies as “high art” because within the boundaries of a particular piece everything served a single purpose. The palette, the balance, the lines – they all combined to tell a story beyond what any individual element or even a simple snapshot of the complete piece could tell.
This is why a picture is worth a thousand words (and music perhaps even more).
I recognise that I will never be an author not due to lack of skill or because of cynicism about the commercial aspects of artistry, but because I recognise my process with and passion for writing does not complement the commercial aspects well.
The idea of tracking trends in the literary world or including specific elements within a story holds zero appeal for me. I get into a mental state and develop a premise related to that – everything about the writing then serves that premise. If that mental state deteriorates (for example, I become passionate about a topic when first learning about it, then disinterested as I learn more), I abandon that project altogether. If I have no strong idea or motivation, I do not force one.
That’s not a great approach if the goal is enough economic stability with writing to make that a career.
The reason I share this with you is not to discourage your writing career. Rather, I want to highlight the need for a consciousness about what matters to you. Some people say they want to be writers but refuse even to put in the work necessary for that. Perhaps it is a bit Dunning-Kruger where they assumed they would be brilliant about it and things would just happen.
Other people may want to write for a living. What I’ve recognised in my young career is that this is not necessarily the same motivation as wanted to write. The skills are the same. As I said, I do not consider commercially successful writers who produce large numbers of easy-to-digest books to be inferior writers; they write with different purpose.
Your goal might be to entertain people with such stories. That’s a noble effort. People need entertainment and crafting any story requires dedication on the part of the writer.
I want to challenge people. I have an obsessive, analytical mind that needs to dissect things. I want my stories to be things that encourage readers to do the same. I want people to walk away from the reading with scores of ideas about complex themes. I want readers to obsess about my choices with the composition the way I did when writing it (“He uses the passive voice here despite using an active voice for most of the story – what is the significance of that?”). I want readers to do that because that means they are empathising with the ideas just the way I did while writing it.
It is the power of the writing to carry the reader directly into the mental state of the writer. I do not want to create a piece of entertainment that divorces itself from me the moment I finish writing; I want to compose something where the reader feels a connection on the pages.
That is why I know I will likely never be an author, but I am most definitely a writer.