Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fans v. customers -- why do writer's write?


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of a writer who called his books "the chewing gum of American literature." That's crime novelist Mickey Spillane (books by this author), born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn (1918). His Irish father was a bartender, and Spillane grew up in a tough neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He worked odd jobs, including as a lifeguard, circus performer, and salesman. He was selling ties at a department store when he met a coworker whose brother produced comic books, and he was convinced to try writing some himself. Spillane worked writing comic prose for a year, then left to join up with the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor. After the war, he returned to comics. He said, "I wanted to get away from the flying heroes and I had the prototype cop," so he invented a private eye hero named Mike Danger. Danger was a flop, so Spillane renamed him Mike Hammer and wrote a novel instead.

I, the Jury (1947) took him just three weeks to write, and it was an instant hit. He turned out more than 30 novels, most of them featuring Mike Hammer, including Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), The Girl Hunters (1962), Body Lovers (1967), and The Killing Man (1989). His novels were incredibly violent, usually ending with Hammer executing people. The critics panned Spillane, but he didn't care. He said, "Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar." He said he never had a character who drank cognac or had a mustache, because he didn't know how to spell those words. He said: "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends." Spillane was incredibly popular - his books have sold more than 225 million copies.

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And there is this personal postscript:

Consider Mickey Spillane's comment -- "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers." Moreover, I recall reading somewhere that Spillane claimed to be a writer rather than an author. The distinction is worth pondering.

All of this has me thinking quite a bit about the four Kindle purchases I made this morning: complete works of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.

I don't know what selections I will read in these collections, but I really could not resist the price -- zero -- so I eagerly became a "customer" even though I might not be a "fan" of the four authors.

Don't misunderstand me. In varying degrees of enthusiasm, I admire much about each author, but I am not whole-hearted in my endorsement of each author's "complete works".

Each is a very different writer (or is one or more an author?), and each -- according to literary critics -- can lay claim to having written (or authored) masterpieces. At the same time, each -- according to literary critics -- wrote (or authored) some substandard, perhaps even execrable pieces (i.e., Poe and Twain come to mind).

This leads me to different ways of looking at these four authors:

Why did each author write fiction? Austen's motivation does not seem to be the same as Poe's; Twain's motivation has much in common with Poe and Dickens; and, being more provocative, I would suggest that Twain and Dickens might be more like Spillane.

And at the root of the foregoing question is this question: did these people write in the pursuit of art, perhaps hoping for but not necessarily needing "fans," or did they write in pursuit of money and "customers"?

Oddly enough, the foregoing issues are much on my mind. Yes, I wonder why writers write. And I wonder why so many people are head-over-heels fans and customers of these writers.

Is all of the foregoing much ado about nothing? Am I bogged down in muddled musing? You tell me.




33 comments:

  1. I definitely wouldn't call it 'muddled musing,' Tim. I think authors do write for a number of different reasons. And, a given author might write some things for one reason, and other things for another reason. It's actually a really interesting topic, and I think the reasons an author has for writing impact the sort of story the author tells.

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    1. Good point, Margot. A writer sometimes writes for different reasons in the course of her career: fame, fortune, aesthetics, family, self, etc. Jane Austen seems to have been motivated not very much by fortune, but I might be mistaken. Dickens and Twain wanted fame and fortune. Poe was an artist who needed money. In all cases, I have probably oversimplified.

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  2. This has been credited to Twain: "My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."

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  3. My point being (forgot to add) is that Twain was probably closer to Spillane about what he wrote. He did want to use humor more than to make people laugh; he had a very strong component to it that, he thought, was the reason why he outlasted popular humorists of his time such as Bret Harte and Petroleum V. Nasby. He also wrote for money as well, such as his around-the-world lecture tour after he went bankrupt.

    Even though I've read his works for most of my life, and many of his bios, it wasn't until recently that I came across the fact that Twain did not particularly like novels. He read some of the classics, but he had no interest in contemporary fiction, unless it was by his friends.

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  4. Olivia Ann Burns (author of Cold Sassy Tree) commented in her unfinished sequel and its notes that the difference between an author and a writer is that a writer writes, and an author speaks. That can be applied to Spillane's line, I suppose, but I think she was referring more to the difference between mere prose (nonfiction or fiction) and a profoundly meaningful story that touches the heart or stirs the soul.

    I haven't read Cold Sassy Tree or the unfinished sequel since 2003, but I still remember that line.

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  5. this subject has been in the back of my mind for some time... i like Stephen's quote except i'd turn it around: an author writes and a writer speaks... i've read quite a few Spillane's and it's like he's telling you a story that appeals to the active side of human behavior-easy to read and to become engaged with... authors: like Tim's four, not exclusively, but primarily, attempt a relation with the moral sense of the reader, or the intellectual side: they try to influence thought, not, like Spillane, try to create a physical reality... both kinds of book are interesting, if well done... but i must say it's a whole lot easier to create a book about cops and robbers than one about psychological analysis, or the character development... interesting questions....

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  6. Certain prose I read as a customer: typically this is documentation for software produced by firms such as Oracle, Microsoft, and Red Hat. Sometimes it's the manuals for my lawn mower or water heater. I can't think what I read as a fan, unless it be the liner notes for some of Mozart's operas, and then I would count as the fan of one or another of the singers. Mostly I read as a reader.

    Spillane is onto something, in that readers will look for a known, consistent product. Some of any author's readership will read that way, and can count as customers. But in that sense, I'm not sure that one can distinguish them from fans, unless one imagines the fans to be taking a closer look at the product.

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    1. Mudpuddle, George, et al: perhaps the problems are built into the terms, fans and customers. There ought to be better categorization. Yes? Ideas?

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    2. commercial versus cultural reading...?

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    3. Reading v. literary criticism?

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  7. Well, think of the expression "fan fiction", which has been around since at least the Harry Potter books: one takes characters from a book, and writes new fiction around them. That bears some similarity to what I said about operas, where one might go to an opera less from love of the composer than to hear (for example) Deborah Voight sing.

    But I think that what Spillane meant was that his readers looked for a consistent product: n pages, m violent acts, so much titillation, plot twists but no real surprises in the way of new thoughts or hard words. He did not have readers who came back to the same book looking for excellences overlooked or forgotten, or simply worth looking at again. There are pieces by Mark Twain that I return to now and then. But I have read just one book by Mickey Spillane, and doubt it would hold up to re-reading.

    Obviously it is possible to read Jane Austen as a fan in my sense--a couple of years ago the fan-fiction Elizabeth Bennett and Zombies came out, and isn't there a Return to Pemberley? It is also possible to read her as a customer, taking comfort in a world of small towns, parsonages, gossips, and so on. I don't think either way of reading the best use of one's time, though reading as a customer might be a better way to spend a long airplane flight than watching a movie on a tiny screen.

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    1. George, I recall being told by an English professor that my enrollment in the English program would ruin me as a reader: I would never again innocently read for pleasure because I would be seriously reading as a literary critic. Little did the professor know that even though I tried to become a member of the club, I never bought in to the LITCRIT mantra. I've remained a naïve reader.

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    2. R.T.,

      I wondered about the same thing while I was in grad school, but, fortunately for me, I was too old (42) when I entered and couldn't overcome those many decades of "bad" habits.

      Actually, the years I spent teaching freshman comp had more of an influence on my reading as I then became very sensitive to grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. in others works, unfortunately not so much to mine.

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    3. Fred, teaching composition also saved and helped me. I quickly forgot about lit crit and theory. Reading and enjoying good writing trumps theoretical considerations.

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  8. You had me at COMPLETE CHARLES DICKENS FREE.

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    1. Same here! I "bought" a bunch of those. Now we I am reading Austen, no one has to know...

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    2. Jeffrey, Stephen, et al: I do wonder about the marketing involved in these free Kindle books, especially since I believe "there's no such thing as a free lunch." Amazon and the compilers of these free collections must have some $kin in the game. 'Tis is a mystery to me. But perhaps my skepticism and cynicism are getting in the way of the "free lunch." Any thoughts about the marketing and motivation behind these free collections?

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    3. Tim,

      Pardon my cynicism: are these the complete works or abridged versions?

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    4. Fred, you can determine that better than I can. See for example this Amazon link to the Austen collection, and check out the preview.
      https://www.amazon.com/Oakshot-Complete-Illustrated-Footnotes-Classics-ebook/dp/B01LZVLEVG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489163447&sr=8-1&keywords=Oakshot+Austen

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    5. Tim,

      ???

      How could I tell if you can't?

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    6. Well, Fred, in the case of Austen, for example, you know better and more than I. Does that make sense? I guess only an expert Pyle know. I sort of trust the editors of the collections. Mistake?

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    7. Correction. Delete Pyle and substitute would.

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    8. Two thoughts on why these books are being offered. First, to draw new Kindle readers in, or to encourage more use of the Kindle by offering so many loved authors for free. Two, two introduce people to the publishers, who may have done other books in another style (with annotations and essays, etc) that are offered commercially.

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    9. Stephen, sounds right to me. Thanks.

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    10. Tim,

      I have no idea if trusting them is a mistake. I don't view ebooks, so I can't answer that. Aside from sitting down and comparing two works, one can't tell whether one's abridged or not, unless it's mentioned.

      I have purchased abridged books unknowingly and didn't realize it until I got in a discussion with someone about the book. However, in those few cases, I did find a notice later in small print that the book had been abridged or "edited."

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    11. Fred, I had no idea that some Kindle offerings would be abridged (except in cases where that label is clearly attached to the online catalogue information). I will be more wary in the future. Thanks.

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  9. You ask very good questions RT.

    I think that often people pursue things for various reasons. I think that many writers do so partially for commercial success and partially for art. I think about the person who works primarily to earn an income, but still loves their job and gains a lot of fulfillment from non monetary work related accomplishments.

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    1. Brian, I guess poets are a breed apart; some novelists might be motivated by fame and fortune, but I think all poets have quite different motivations.

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  10. I write because I love novels so much that I wanted to make my own. I think it's that simple for a lot of writers. The whole art/commerce thing is posterior to the urge to create (not for all writers, of course, but probably for a lot of us).

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    1. Scott, I really appreciate your perspective as a writer, so thanks for adding to the discussion. How does the need or hope for readers factor into writing? Surely that matters. Otherwise you have tree falling in the forest without witnesses metaphor.

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    2. The need for readers is also posterior to the writing. I don't need readers to write a novel; I just need pen, paper, and time. But of course every writer wants readers once the writing is done, which is why I've started to just give away novels for free via my blog. But the novel--the thing itself that's being created--is at the center of the activity. Everything else--including the idea of someone else reading the thing--is just a distraction. I might have different answers if I was paying my mortgage through my writing, though. I have the luxury of being a hobbyist writer.

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    4. I've never had an interest in writing novels so much, but I think for those of us who love books, writing becomes an un-ignorable itch.

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