I was thinking the other day, as you do, of the plight of the Victorian composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. He considered himself at heart a serious composer, and though he made his living largely from light music and popular songs, he wrote serious music too. It is, of course, for the jolly, melodic, hummable music he wrote for the popular comic operettas he produced with lyricist W S Gilbert, including The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, that people remember him. The operettas are still widely performed and recorded, still hugely popular today. In his youth, Sullivan was hailed as a great musical talent of the future, but there is little doubt that the enjoyable popular music he wrote did his reputation no good, and probably impeded his wish to be taken seriously.
These days we might say that he had ‘sold out’, dumbed down his music, catered to the tastes of ordinary people (this ordinary person, by the way, is off to Cornwall later this year to see The Pirates of Penzance). We might equally say, though, that the quality of Sullivan’s compositional skills shines through, regardless of what kind of music he was writing.
All this is very pertinent to the struggling writer. Do those of us who want to produce good quality writing stick to our guns, even if nobody reads our work, or do we ‘sell out’? Do we give people what they seem to want – gruesome murders, explicit sex, mysteries, romance? These ingredients don’t necessarily make for bad writing, of course, but they are certainly limiting. Do we edit out ‘difficult’ words and concepts along with anything that might make the reader pause and think? Do we forget any pretensions to ‘good’ writing and simply churn out undemanding stuff that can be gobbled up at a sitting? If we do, will our writing skills shine through, even though we feel we’ve dumbed down? All good questions – but for a writer hoping to make any sort of a living from their books, they need to be answered. Is it more important to write something true to your principles than it is to sell a lot of books?
I’d dearly love to ask Sir Arthur Sullivan his opinion on this. His popular music made him a good living in a precarious profession, and much of it is still played and loved. His serious music is still played, too, sometimes – but it isn’t what he is best remembered for. I wonder if that would be enough for him? Perhaps, if he could, he might sigh and say that, with hindsight, anything that gets people listening to music is good.
And perhaps that’s the way the writer should view popular books, too – anything that gets people reading is good. It’s a thought I intend to keep in mind. I shall certainly think of it when I’m part of the audience enjoying The Pirates of Penzance.