Professor Wu's Rulebook

On the commercialisation of literature


Why do we write? Litterateurs throughout history have often taken time to reflect on this question. Yet with the advent of neoliberalism and the proliferation of commercialisation that has taken place within most capitalist countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, it often seems as though the only purpose of fiction, of publishing, of writing itself – is to make money and sell books.

Indeed, it often seems as though we have ignored Stephen King’s protestations that “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

Instead, our culture seems at times obsessed with bestselling novels, not because they are necessarily the best novels, or even particularly well written; but because they are best selling novels. And when the only metrics of worth we use to discern what has value and merit and what doesn’t is by casting an eye over how much something sells, it surely seems as though we are in danger of missing out on what is really, actually important.

Independent writers and authors have often attacked and railed against this commercialization of writing. In 2005, for instance, the Society of Authors raised concerns over the music retailer HMV’s takeover of Ottakar’s bookstore. And, as pointed out in this article from Litro Magazine, when all that matters about a book is whether or not it sells copies, the inevitable result is a contraction of ‘newness’; as publishing houses simply print copies of books that are copies of commercially successful novels (which themselves are copies of other best selling books).

And it doesn’t just affect the quality of the writing we read. Increasingly, capitalist power structures drive the commodification of literature, and literary icons. We now see t-shirts imprinted with the face of Jack Kerouac or quotes from Jane Austen novels. We hang posters instructing us to “keep calm and read on”. We dry our dishes with Charles Dickens-themed dish cloths. In this world, what does it say about our society when we choose to reduce these people and pieces of culture to mass-produced commodities?

Railing against such developments in literature may not seem particularly new. Indeed, fears over the direction we are heading, culturally, have been raised for decades (though these warnings have rarely been heeded).

Think of the words of one of the true literary masters, Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1970s discussion with Argentinian writer Fernando Sorrentino, Borges considers how the commodification of literature threatens to warp its metrics for success:

“It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.”


Borges – as he so often was – here sounds remarkably prescient. And as we continue to live with the impact such commercialisation and commodification of literature has had on our literary culture, it seems more than unfortunate we were not able to pay much attention to the author’s warnings.

But this is not to say we can do no more on the subject. Indeed, quite the opposite. By recognising what is and is not important in literature and writing, we – as both readers and writers – can discern for ourselves just exactly what constitutes literary success. As Neil Gaiman wrote: “read the books you love, tell people about authors you like, and don’t  worry about [which books are best sellers].”

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