In defense of market-friendly writing

I’m participating in a creative writing workshop this semester.
Yesterday, the teacher tried to get us to think outside of the box by proclaiming that he didn’t much care for work that’s market-friendly. That we shouldn’t follow any rules, a statement that, in itself, is a little ridiculous. (Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)

Fellow writer and my partner in crime Sara said:

“That depends on what writing, for you, is about. For me it’s about communication. It’s not this super-encoded thing that’s only geared towards a few hyper-intellectual people. I mean, it’s okay if people do that. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to communicate.”

Why do academics constantly feel the need to defame popular culture? Despite the fact that various zombie movies perfectly encapsulate the fears of a society steeped in technology, capitalism and overpopulation – something Shakespeare definitely can’t achieve – Sci-Fi and YA are still looked down upon.

Literary events scare me more than zombies ever could. I imagine a bunch of thirty-somethings in fancy costumes sipping red wine, throwing around words like “bourgeoisie” or “mélange”, eating cheese cubes and congratulating each other on being “avant-garde”. I guess French people scare me, too, but the true horror isn’t the cheese cubes, or the red wine, but the notion of what a writer is: someone special. Someone better. Definitely not someone to be read by the vulgar masses. They wouldn’t understand.

Of course I was prepared to fight about this.

“Let’s look at it this way,” Mr. Huelle said. “If you go through the history of painting, you have everything ranging from stick figures to Realism to Expressionism to really fucking abstract stuff. And that’s great! What do you have in Literature? Well, you have Realism. Then you’ve got more Realism. You’ve got the whole basic plot structure of inciting incident, rising action, climax and resolution over and over and over again.”

To which I replied: “Well, what if I’m really into cave painting? Because I think there’s something raw and real and true about human nature in there?” I don’t usually go for explanations like if it’s always been like this there must be something to it, mostly because they’re completely untrue [1]. In this case, though, I’m utterly convinced that the structures of storytelling we’ve employed for more than 4,000 years still ring true.

Star Wars is so successful all over the world precisely because it was modeled on a structure that is ubiquitous, that most existing cultures on this planet are familiar with. This is no coincidence. When George Lucas came up with Star Wars, he took inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”[2], a survey of myths throughout different cultures that crystallises a shared pattern, what Campbell calls the Monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[3]

You might think of Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from the Gods. Or you might think of Harry Potter, another sacrificial Jesus-figure. Even Katniss fits neatly into this framework.

Ultimately, these myths aren’t just about heroes slaying dragons. They’re a perpetual coming-of-age story, rooted deep within human psychology. After crossing the threshold separating the old world of childhood from the adult mysteries, the hero has to face a series of trials, each of which will see her grow stronger and ease her into a new role. The Hero’s Journey becomes a transformative event: a rite of passage.

We don’t seem to have rites of passage anymore. This was a real problem for me after school. I did not know how to grow up. When I was at the very bottom, in the middle of a depressive episode brought on by complete stagnation, I used these myths to facilitate personal growth by booking a flight to Japan, where I lived for three months on my own. Writing. Thinking. Evolving. I ventured forth and slew the dragon.

Don’t take this to mean that I agree with every piece of popular Literature on the market. I’m neither a fan of heterosexual love triangles nor of the Hero Gets the Girl. But I believe that in order to do something new, you have to be sneaky. You have to dress the expensive red wine in a beer bottle. That way, people won’t see the headache coming, they’ll go buy their beer and get their mind blown.

There are books like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, which at first glance looks like a typical YA heterosexual romance with some magic and ghosts involved. Ah, but what’s this? Feminism? Gays? Dead Welsh kings? Actual character development? Philosophy? Daddy-issues? Dealing with domestic violence? Men crying? Sign me the fuck up.

There are books like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is stylistically so simple that even an eight-year-old should be able to understand it. Doctorow’s novels are political manifestos clad in plot and prose to serve the message. This unhealthy looking candy of YA has spinach filling. I love spinach. Doctorow’s novels are so good, they made Edward Snowden whistle-blow[4].

And then, of course, there is John Green, patron saint of teenagers and the man who has made it his mission to repeatedly dismantle the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope.

All of this writing is market-friendly. It’s also really subversive, political, creative, original, poignant and powerful.

I don’t want my writing on a syllabus. I don’t want my metaphors analysed, or professors to wax poetic about some distant analogy. I don’t want to cater to a hand-picked few of the educated elite.

I want to be read. I want my writing to change the world.


[1] fun fact on the ‘natural’ gender divide: skeletons of Neanderthal women show the same injuries as those of rodeo riders, thus it’s now assumed they did participate in hunting mega-fauna –

[2] The Mythology of Star Wars, an Interview with George Lucas and Bill Moyers:

[3] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press. 1993. p.30


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