One of the greatest biographies ever written was James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. The biography contains a quotation from Johnson that many writers repeat: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” I must confess that, per his universal claim, I am that blockhead.
Giving the benefit of doubt to the great Mr. Johnson, I do believe he meant something far more subtle and layered; writing, after all, is a broad term. It is a skill that applies to many occupations, including those of journalists, copywriters, screenwriters, commercial writers, and nonfiction and fiction writers in all categories.
My own understanding of what constitutes writing is literary fiction writing: the novel, the short story, the play, the poem—the kind of writing that is often referred to as an art form. Those of us who are readers have no trouble with that definition and can easily provide a long list of suitable authors and books. If this is what Johnson meant when he referred to writing, then I must respectfully take issue with him, because he is suggesting that literary writers can avoid blockhead status only when they are paid for writing.
Must literary writers, including me, quell the urges of our pens unless and until they relate to a monetary transaction? Does he mean that literary writers should not be published unless they are paid for it? This implies that our writing must be bought before it qualifies as real writing.
Believe me, I am not against other writers performing their art exclusively to the dance of the coin. If I followed that course, I may have greatly enhanced my personal wealth. My assertion is that no literary writers who respect their art should consider money as their first objective.
My failing, I suppose, is that I just can’t write to order. It’s not in my DNA. I confess I have tried to do it in the past with very spotty and unsatisfying results. The fact is that I, like many of my fellow writers, have found that I can only write what I want, when I want, and how I want. Thankfully, I had discovered this preference early on, and I have spent the better part of my life writing works
dictated to me by my personal muse. If others are willing to pay for reading my material, then fine. If they are not willing to pay but want to read it just the same, they can check it out from a library. I might cry inside, but I’ll never shed a tear.
Early in my career, the beloved late Clyde Taylor, the wonderful editor-in-chief of Putnam, asked me to send along my second novel, based on a two-paragraph mass mailing. Banquet Before Dawn is a story of gentrification in Brooklyn in the 1960s. He published it with few changes. It was not a bestseller by any means, but the satisfaction of seeing it published was enough for me.
Taylor also supported my book Trans-Siberian Express. I told him, “I want to write a love story that takes place mostly on the Trans-Siberian Express, which goes from Moscow through Siberia to the Sea of Japan.” I remember him biting into his sandwich, chewing for a moment, and then saying, “Write it.”
He did arrange an advance—not very much as I recall—but that, for me, was simply a bonus. I would have written it anyway.
Ironically, it was immediately bought for the movies for the sum of $225,000, a bonanza in those days. As it happens, it went into development hell and never reached the silver screen. But it did get published all over the world and continues to be read to this day. It is having a resurrection through digital publishing, which I embraced in the late 1990s, when the rights to all of my published novels were reverted to me.
I know my opinion will not be universally hailed. As they say, we don’t live by money alone, but we can’t really live in our contemporary society without it. The image of the uncompromising starving artist composing in a cold garret is a classic example that points to the fearsome fate of the unrecognized and unheralded. I doubt if such an outcome ever inhibited the true artist, whose real nourishment comes from his or her work.
For those of us who aspire to the high art of literary writing, we will always put creation over the clink of coinage (just like painters, actors, musicians, and others who prize, above all, discovering insight into the human condition). It is, of course, a romantic notion, but I have a feeling that Johnson’s blockhead assertion doesn’t apply.
What are your thoughts on the struggle between commerce and creativity?
Warren Adler is best known for his novel The War of the Roses, which was adapted into a popular movie. His newest thriller is Treadmill.