Sell Out – How I’d Love to Be Accused of Taking the Easy Route

Dear reader,

I haven’t written in several days.  I’ve been pursuing my “other” life – helping my researcher girlfriend track down her beloved killer whales along the Northern California Coast.  It has been a very good week for killer whale science.  It has been a bit slower for this fiction writer.

My hiatus has been good, though.  The last thing I read before I got busy with science was an article on selling out.  Selling out – it’s a concept worth discussing, because when I think of sell outs I think of my favorite rock band selling my favorite rock song for use in a commercial.  I think of sell outs as those who didn’t have talent enough to get past their first success, and decided the money they could get for giving up their dream was enough to buy the happiness they once hoped to get being successful over a life long career.

This article I read by Charlie Jane Anders got me thinking – not about selling out so much as about getting published.  Charlie picked a good topic, I think, and I enjoyed reading it and the accompanying comments at the bottom.  What got my attention more than anything, however, were the graphics in the article (you can see it here which depicted classic pulp sci fi and crime novel images from a bygone era.  The suggestion, if not the explicit argument, was that those who write popular fiction are sell outs on a dream they once had to write something more sophisticated.

Most of you know that I am currently working on a science fiction novel with the intent to perhaps establish a short series.  Some of you also know that I think of myself as a literary fiction writer who is struggling to put together the literary story I am trying to tell.  In fact, I completed a literary novel last year and have made no small effort to sell it.  More recently, though, I set it aside and began writing this sci fi stuff.

Now, I am not a fan of pop culture.  My closer friends know how much I shy away from anything “pop” and that I am a religious proponent of kitsch.  So here I am, formerly committed to “high-brow” art, cruising through a pop-fiction genre far removed from my literary root.  But how far my root am I actually getting?

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that I am having fun with my science fiction story.  My characters are coming along, my plot is solid, and the intrigue is sufficient that I have been able to follow my own story line without ever having the feeling that I was getting lost in the middle, that I had made a mistake or created a disjointed effort of any kind.  I am more confident at this stage of the book than I ever was with my literary novel.

The next thing I realize is that I am learning more about how to write my literary stuff by writing science fiction – that is, plot-driven fiction – than I did doing pure literature.

I also (third) realize that my science fiction story is still a character-driven novel regardless of the themes of science, fantasy or whatever other popular motifs might be present.

But to the question of selling out.  Am I selling out because I am at risk of having more success writing speculative fiction over realism?

really don’t think so and here is why: I am of the mind at this point in my writing efforts that any writer who can publish in any professional capacity (not vanity press) is successful.  The publishing world is so competitive, so inundated with volumes of written words and overworked agents, that anyone who can break through is worthy of being called a success.  While it is true that there are gradations of quality among writers, among all artists, there can be no arguing the success of formal publication.  From Chekov and Updike to Rowling and King, these writers have penned something that has inspired masses of readers regardless of what I think of them as writers myself.  Props must be given where props are due.

I would accept being labeled a sell out at this point if that’s what it means to successfully publish my fiction.  Good writing only looks easy anyway, and the “easy route” is nothing more than being successful in a genre that reads like fun.  Sign me up, o’ Muse!

I intend to get back to literature soon.  How soon, I don’t know for sure.  It depends on how well I do at selling out.  Meanwhile I am still a writer, and I’ll take any progress I can get because, dammit, writing is hard work no matter what you write.  I no longer accept that writing in one genre over another is selling out.  We write what we write, and we succeed at what we’re good at.  Some famous actors wanted to be rock stars, and some rock stars wanted to be country stars.  We continue to try what we love, but it doesn’t mean we’re good at it.  But I believe we’re all good at something – so go do both.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes on my end.  Let me know how it goes on yours.




15 comments on “Sell Out – How I’d Love to Be Accused of Taking the Easy Route

  1. Piscis says:

    I’ve never really bought into any arguments on which is superior between genre and literary fiction (I would even go so far as to say literary fiction is just another genre). They both have plenty of merit, so I certainly wouldn’t consider dabbling in the other side ‘selling out’. And like you imply – writing in one style can help you do better with the other!

    • emperort says:

      Thanks, Piscis,

      In many cases genre fiction and literary fiction overlap. There are many science fiction works that are considered great works of literature (A Clockwork Orange, for example) and I guess in the long run it’s all opinion. But I don’t mind soliciting the paying opinion when I can!

  2. Sue says:

    Okay so this is what I’m thinking. If one helps in the achievement of the other is that so bad? Isn’t a truly good writer someone who can write out of their area and (as you put it) dabble in others? If, for conversation sake, you are successful at publishing the sci fi stuff wouldn’t (perhaps) it be slightly easier to move your literary book under the nose of agents with an already published work on your resume regardless of genre? Just a few crumbs to nibble on….

    • emperort says:

      Absolutely right, Sue. Success builds upon success. 2013 just feels right, doesn’t it?

      • Marisa says:

        perhaps, but when one has a brilliant mind such as yours it’s more eating from the fruits of your various & diverse muses than ‘dabbling for the sake of sell-out.’

  3. adm22 says:

    Frankly, I agree with your notion of selling out. I’ve typically heard it when talking about music – musicians who write a couple of pop songs after espousing beliefs of artistic merit trumping monetary gain. I don’t think genre makes one a sell out. I do think that writing something similar to a story that’s proven successful – chasing YA dystopian lit. stories remarkably similiar to the Hunger Games due to it’s success – that’s selling out and obviously hedges plagarism. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a wider audience.

    • emperort says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, selling out is a problem of ethics, not one of talent. I like your example of chasing a popular story idea to the point that it risks plagiarism in an attempt get lucky on the momentum of someone else’s work. I wonder how many Harry Potter knock offs are still being written.

  4. Jer says:

    “I, met a boy, wearing Vans, 501s, and a dope Beastie T, nipple rings, new tattoos and claimed that he was OGT, back in 92, and the first EP, and in between sips of Coke he told me that he thought we were selling out…”

  5. Marisa says:

    Not sure I’m following the “sell-out” thread in your case. You have diverse & powerful mind…somewhat of a renaissance man perhaps? May I offer these cross genre kindred spirits: Laura Esquivel and her Like Water for Chocolate then Law of Love; Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose then Foucault’s Pendulum; Michael Crichton and Andromeda Strain to Timeline—just to name a few off the top of my head. Eh…on second thought, nix my Michael Crichton example…those two books were more similar in genre than I thought at first.

    • emperort says:


      Thank you for your kind sentiments and also for the references to cross-genre writers. I am familiar with some of the writers, and/or some of the works, but there is a lot to explore here that I am not familiar with.

      • Marisa says:

        Add to my list Ian Fleming who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!?!?! Most bizarre factoid I learned last year. (Though he didn’t write it as a musical and likely puked in his grave when it came out as such.)

  6. John Henry Beck says:

    I agree that selling out is a relative term. If an author gets something published that is a success and should be seen as such. I have read alot of great genre fiction and some really boring literary fiction. As a writer it is important to love what you write and that love shows on the page.

    Very good post.

  7. I’ve been such a successful sell out in my teens (not in writing unfortunately), that I’ve become allergic to a certain type of success: success too soon, too fast. Not a chance with writing (A million words bah!). I am at present experimenting with a cross-genre type of writing between self-help, essay, poetry, high and low , it’s all self-expression, and there will always be someone to relate thanks to social media. Social media has also made writing not only legitimate to the elite. Awe inspiring the breath and depth of writing out there! This is obviously a good omen.

  8. You know, when I ended up writing a thriller midway through what I thought was a “literary” novel, I had to continually remind myseld that a mystery/thriller can be literature and that we can elevate what we write in a particular genre. My crass reminder was telling myself–it doesn’t have to suck and be ‘predictably sophmoric’ and then slap myself for acting snobbish! 🙂 Nice post!

    • emperort says:

      So funny! When I wrote my “literary” novel last year I kept wondering if it was just a soap opera I had going on there. As John notes below, there is some really boring literary stuff out there. Good for us if our thrillers, sci fi, and soaps end up considered literary as well. If not, no biggy. I used to be anti-Stephen King because of my own snobbishness. Er, but hasn’t he defined a form through his huge success? Writers just write – even despite our specific intentions for the work at hand. Thank you all for your comments.

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