Think of the mighty Vincent Van Gogh — the beautiful paintings, the idea that he cut off his ear due to illness, the many hours people have spent staring at his art. Think of Van Gogh sitting in a floating rubber tube, sipping on a champagne cocktail while enjoying fresh escargot. Only one of these thoughts has any relation to reality, and it is distinctly the first one and not the second. While his artwork has been enjoyed by generation after generation and people spend money without even thinking about it about works like “Starry Night” on t-shirts, postcards, etc. Van Gogh did not actually make a viable living from selling paintings.
Now let us think about Emily Dickinson, the brilliant poet. Her poetry is published in countless books. Schoolchildren around the country pore over her poetry and study word by word, line by line, deciphering meaning where they think it may be found. One would think that might mean that perhaps Emily Dickinson was successful as a poet, given the quality of her poetry. Rather, she too was not only unsuccessful as a poet during her lifetime but she locked away the majority of her poetry in a chest, not to be discovered until well after her passing. A true collection of her poetry was not to be found until decades later.
It is exactly this kind of philosophy I take with me when on the lookout for new art — new literature, music to listen to, and films or television shows to watch. Out of all of the music I have on my iPod, I doubt any of it is there because is necessarily more commercially successful than other music out there. This is similarly the case for the other forms of art — I don’t watch 30 Rock because it is a top rated show and I don’t go and see every Woody Allen film that gets put into theaters because he makes blockbusters that pack the theaters.
This is actually considerably easier now for people with not too many friends like me than it would have been, say, twenty or so years ago — the Internet has made it much easier for like-minded people to find one another. I recently found a small independent magazine distributor that is headed by a woman who lives in Pennsylvania. When I added her as a “friend” on Twitter I was not too shocked to find that she was also a fan of two musical groups I really enjoy.
In short, it’s not about how many copies of a book you can sell but how good that book ultimately is that matters. While it is quite true that an author needs to have food on the table in order to be able to go on writing, sometimes it is necessary for the author to do other things to get that food there in order to be able to continue writing somewhat comfortably.