"Art is not art if only 14 people know about it"

One last letter: The author of the Oprah Book Club bestseller "The Deep End of the Ocean" decries the attacks on Jane Austen Doe -- and defends the honor of those who write for money.


Salon Staff
April 2, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "The confessions of a semi-successful author" by Jane Austen Doe.]

[Read the first round of letters in response.]

[Read the second round of letters.]

I am compelled to defend Jane Austen Doe in part because of the personal viciousness of the letters directed at her. I also am a writer who experienced early and unexpected success, undeserved in the opinion of many. I continue to write fiction, but also write journalism and lectures to supplement my income. The underlying suggestion (so very prevalent) that "writing for money" somehow befouls the sanctity of the work product is offensive.

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While I certainly would never do anything for money that I wouldn't do for free, I do support myself writing, as I did when I was a full-time reporter. I support my family as a working writer and rejoice when I receive an advance that will help me save for college or retirement (though I suspect I will never retire, unless readers truly drive me out of town). While it is in poor taste to bite the hand that (literally) feeds you, I know that Ms. Doe's woes often are experienced by other writers, and I sympathize. I have no personal reason to complain. I have had the same spectacular agent for 21 years, and have had the good luck to share my publishing experiences with the same team of singularly sensitive people at two publishing houses.

While Ms. Doe's tone may have seemed whiny to some, it sounded wounded to me. And what she says is righteous, to the extent that editors and publishers do indeed foster a sense of deep personal connection when you're riding the winning pony. It cools rapidly when your horse fails to show. I suspect the same sort of distancing must occur between a physician and a patient who is terminally ill -- perhaps a necessary prelude to a parting.

But if the writer was not as hurt by the distancing as she had been delighted by the warm reception, she would not be a writer. She would not have the personality of a writer, which does not come sheathed in body armor. If she had a normal ego that could be satisfied by a paycheck in the absence of "applause," if you will, she would be an accountant. She would enjoy a reliable income without having to sign up daily for personal acceptance or rejection.

Yes, writers must write.

And yet, it seems to me that those who are most disdainful of the economic aspect of publishing their work are in no danger of it, or believe their work is too exalted for the common herd, or have husbands or wives who are cardiac surgeons.

Writers are performing artists. As Joni Mitchell, an artist who has enjoyed popular acclaim as well as periods of less popular experimentation, says bluntly, "Art is not art if only 14 people know about it."

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Mozart wrote music for money.

Shakespeare wrote plays for money.

Their personal histories suggest that there were times when economic need sparked works of genius.

Writing, as we have seen from the careers of some extraordinarily popular authors, can be polluted by the goad to produce. But it is only in recent generations that we have come to believe that authors who write work that enjoys commercial success, and who wish to continue to do so, have made a devil's bargain.

-- Jacquelyn Mitchard


Salon Staff

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