Intellectual calibre isn’t just defined by the academy

A few years back the managing editor at Penguin New Zealand, who I knew quite well, suggested I needed to be careful about some of the titles I’d been selling.

Wright_Books2At the time I wasn’t just writing serious histories for him – I was also writing more superficial books for one of the major book chains, under their own brand. He suggested that I wouldn’t be taken as a serious historian if I wrote that sort of stuff. My counter was that the money I was making from the weetbix books basically subsidised the other stuff I did, which made it possible to write his more technical books freelance.

There was also the point that – well, I wasn’t in the writing game to earn status with New Zealand’s intellectual history community, variously university and public-funded, but all supported by me as a taxpayer. They had already made clear that my efforts to earn an income commercially for myself and my publishers, all on my own enterprise and merit – but in the intellectual territories of the academy – was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic.

Quite. I’d have been happy had any one of these strangers had the guts to approach me in person and obtain the facts. None have. Not one. So from my perspective – who cared? I was going to be publicly crucified by them no matter what I did, all while they cowered behind their status and asserted position. So why should I compromise a commercial income, which I was earning on enterprise, that these taxpayer-funded academics were going to try and destroy anyway?

The wider thing is that authors are often viewed as being only capable of what they are seen to write. If an author writes a history book pitched, by design, for a specific audience – let’s say the widest slice of the reading public, who’re interested in accessible history that doesn’t bog down too much in the self-referential arguments that exercise the academy – there’s a high chance they’ll be viewed by the academy as knowing only how to write fluff – seen as personally incapable of tackling what are actually socially-mediated technicalities that they used to define their place.

For my own part, I’ve written high-horsepower material from time to time, including various technical papers and the odd book that unleashes the necessary historical techniques, up front – Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011), for instance, which was designed to extend a historiographical argument within the academy, and said so. Of course I still got ruthlessly kicked by the academy for doing it – but more to the point, sales figures reflected the intellectual density, underscoring the fact that it’s better to write something more accessible, because more people are likely to be able to read and enjoy it.

The take-home lesson? Writing ‘fluff’ doesn’t imply ignorance of technique or inability to do it. Those who allege that’s the case are like classical musicians who deride rock musos as being apparently incapable. Really? Here’s Epica – a Dutch-Belgian metal band -playing the third movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


19 thoughts on “Intellectual calibre isn’t just defined by the academy

  1. Yes People like this fail to remember that Shakespeare was a hard working playwright who put in funny stuff to please the punters. Snobbery is everywhere.

    1. It is indeed. When I was at high school, the Immortal Bard was presented as an academic exercise which, by nature, was boring. Neither of the two English teachers I had ever explained that the plays were meant to be fun, entertaining, and more than a little bit rude.

  2. I suspect that this is why quite a few writers assume a pen name for when crossing genre boundaries. I wonder if they were more concerned about their loss of revenue rather than yours. Unless they are prepared to pay you sufficient to maintain exclusivity they have no say in the matter.. you have to live and pay your bills.

    1. My understanding is that publishers tend to evaluate an author’s next book sale by what the previous book sold. And that’s fair enough; absent any other evidence, it’s probably reasonable to suppose that an author is going to sell whatever her last book sold.

      The trouble is that some markets are naturally tiny, while others are enormous. A science fiction writer can sell literally hundreds of copies of a book, while a fantasy writer might sell thousands, a mystery writer tens of thousands, and a romance novelist a million books. That’s no reflection on the author’s inherent ability, just that the genres have different sizes.

      So here’s the problem: Matthew Wright might publish quite respectably for science fiction, but if his new book is a romance? That’s not even going to sell enough books to be a failure in that line. Skip it for someone with non-failed track record.

      But — and here the magic of marketing comes into play — the new M J Wright romance? That’s a different thing, different track record, different expectations.

      1. Mainstream publishers absolutely judge ‘the next book’ by the number the last sold. This has happened to me many times. I also find a tendency to consider authors by whatever they are known for. It thus becomes very difficult to be versatile. An M J Wright romance novel that sells 1,000,000 copies? You betcha. The only problem is that to write one I would have to first research the genre by reading some… and therein is the problem. But 1,000,000 copies sold and the income that follows.. hmmn….

  3. There are two types of authors: writers and people who write. I’ve been churning out original, quirky history books for years, and the best thing anyone said was that they hated history but they love my books. I get some nice words from academics, but they generally treat me like a dancing bear. I love what I do, and people seem to like it too. I’m happy to keep dancing. It gets me out of the house sometimes.

  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I agree with Matthew. I think you can write in different genres and still be accepted. My first book is a regular mystery/romance. My next novel will be the first in the Christian series. There are a few cuss words in the first novel said by the criminal. The Christian series does not accept any cussing or sex. Since no one has read the first novel, maybe there won’t be any complaints. I do expect to hear ‘How can you write Christian if you cuss?’

  5. I have some understanding Matthew of the attitudes of academia. My Christian historical fiction series might be well-researched, but I don’t have a bunch of letters from a university after my name.
    Sadly, sometimes are judged by that, not by talent. Why not cross genres? I do when I am reading, why not when writing?
    Plod on Matthew. Some of us appreciate you 🙂

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