What a chameleon life so many writers live these days: crossing boundaries, changing their colours, putting on camouflage, hopping from one publisher to another, publishing online, doing whatever it takes to chase readers. Once the literati looked down their noses at this kind of versatility. A literary author indulging in genre writing was a grubby prostitution of talent, “selling out”.
Not any more. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to make a living writing exclusively literary fiction. For another – and here’s the surprise – writers don’t reluctantly or cynically turn to other genres just in the hope of making a buck or two. They actually enjoy the challenges to their creativity.
Kim Wilkins takes up this optimistic outlook in Do the Hustle: Writing in a Post-Digital Publishing World, her invigorating contribution to Writers at Work, a series of essays for the Sydney Review of Books. “We writers seem especially reluctant to talk about the commercial demands on our work and how they shape creative choices,” she says. But the reality is that “unpredictable incomes have ushered in the era of the hustle”. It’s a detailed analysis of a complicated marketplace, but it boils down to this: more writers are publishing for fewer profits. “These challenges condition the kind of creative work writers do; as the industry changes, so does the writing that is possible within that industry”.
There’s been a lot of lamentation and indignation lately over writers’ shrinking incomes, and calls for more grants and subsidies that would no doubt encourage wilting creativity to flower. But Wilkins doesn’t quite see it that way. In her own career, and looking at her peers, “I have never failed to be amazed at how capacious the imagination can be when faced with an opportunity after a long corridor of closed doors”.
Her own projects have included a series of successful children’s books; a decision to reboot herself under a pseudonym and write a “commercial women’s novel” that has been published in 21 languages and an award-winning book with a small press: “Hardly anyone bought it but I’m very proud of it.” In all these cases, she invested her imagination readily and passionately and had fun. “Maybe from the outside it looked as though I was selling out, but to me it felt like art.”
Nobody wanted a publishing industry in turmoil, but that’s what we got, and Wilkins can see the advantages. Commercial pressures don’t stifle art, she argues: they can provoke innovation and imagination. She’s excited to see what we produce next, and so am I.