Skip to main content

Thinking About Writing Literary Fiction?

Go for it. The time has never been better.

By James McWilliams


James Patterson at the Aol Build Speaker Series. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

In 2013, James Patterson, the paperback writer whose volumes are typically consumed somewhere between 25,000 and 32,000 feet above ground, made $90 million from book sales. Ninetymillion dollars. With publishers finally quashing the old-school idea that big-name authors should release no more than a book a year, Patterson opened the floodgates. After assembling a 16-member gang of ghostwriters (provided by Little, Brown and Company, his publisher) and sketching a series of boilerplate plot lines, Team Patterson started cranking into the lowbrow literary universe two to four “BookShots” a month. He says he looks at writing “the way Henry Ford would look at it.” He also says he’s responsible for about one-third of his publisher’s overall book sales.

The established literati, as you might imagine, wasn’t impressed. When Patterson’s 2013 windfall earnings made news, Bill Morris, a staff writer for the literary website The Millions, deigned to sample the Patterson oeuvre by reading (while on an international flight) Pop Goes the Weasel. It didn’t go well. “Books like Pop Goes the Weasel,” he wrote, “are for people who don’t really like to read but love to be able to say they have read, much as fruity cocktails are for people who don’t really like to drink but love to get knee-walking drunk.” Alcohol analogy notwithstanding, the assessment is fairly standard among readers and writers who prefer Proust over Patterson. The man’s literary bona fides are, in short, nil.

But according to Clayton Childress, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and author of the forthcoming Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel, the smart set might tone down its snobbery. Big-name writers such as Patterson, he tells me, are “doing the literary world a favor.” Noting that an estimated “85 percent of a publisher’s titles fail to return on investment,” Childress argues that the income generated by Patterson-like authors (J.K. Rowling and Stephen King come to mind) subsidize the risks publishers take on unknown writers who show literary promise. “The system of book advances,” he says, “are redistributive.” Patterson’s success subsidizes the dreams of future Saul Bellows and Toni Morrisons.

Given that Patterson, the world’s best-selling author since 2001, could easily self-publish on Amazon, it seems appropriate — if not obligatory — for struggling novelists with literary ambitions to send him a brief but sincere thank you note.

Nobody goes into the business of novel writing to get rich. Throughout American history, even the most well-known writers, at least early in their careers, had to earn a living beyond the bounds of books. As Childress reminds us, Herman Melville was a customs inspector, William Faulkner a postmaster, and Kurt Vonnegut a car dealership manager (Saab). Even Patterson worked at an advertising agency.

Noting that “85 percent of a publisher’s titles fail to return on investment,” Childress argues that the income generated by Patterson-like authors subsidize the risks publishers take on unknown writers who show literary promise.

Still, many young authors today complain about not being able to make a living through a singular emphasis on writing. Childress thinks this complaint is more mythology, if not entitlement, than a legitimate gripe. There was never an authorial golden age. The employment history of famous writers — Octavia Butler was a quality control inspector of potato chips! — is therefore critical to framing Childress’ most compelling claim: Novel writing in the United States today — that is, the production of high-end literary work — is “perhaps more profitable than ever before.”

In addition to the big-name trickle down affect, Childress highlights the rise of MFA programs as the other development essential to the fate of working novelists. The first such program — the Iowa Writers Workshop — was founded in 1936, but it did not start to take off until the early 2000s, when MFA programs exploded to accommodate an upsurge of students who, facing an uncertain economy, took out loans to enroll. “More MFA programs in creative writing have been founded since 2000,” Childress writes, “than were founded throughout the entire twentieth century.”


J.K. Rowling signs copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for 1,600 public-school children on October 15th, 2007. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

These programs have tangibly and systematically helped struggling writers. They “provide income to novelists, short story writers, poets, and other creative writers,” enabling them, according to one writing instructor Childress interviewed, “to earn a living while writing.” Again, no one in this scenario is breaking the bank, but MFA programs, according to a Stanford University English professor, comprise “the largest system of literary patronage for living writers the world has ever seen.”

Grading student papers takes time but, for the aspiring novelist, it’s better than assessing the quality of potato chips (at least as a long-term professional endeavor). The students of MFA programs, despite the burden of loans, end up doing relatively well, too, with a high percentage landing real jobs in the arts.

There are other advantages to the MFA model beyond steady literary employment. As Childress explains, writing programs shelter experimental authors from culture war crossfire. Prior to the rise of MFA programs, novelists primarily turned to the National Endowment for the Arts for economic support. But with the aggressive interference of ideological firebrands such as Jesse Helms, the South Carolina senator who condemned Erica Jong’s NEA-supported feminist novel Fear of Flying as a “reportedly filthy, obscene book” (and with Allen Ginsberg bragging that he used his NEA grant to by a Volkswagen bus for a friend), the NEA decided to pursue another tact.

Essentially, it adopted a “conscious strategy” of funneling money into MFA programs. As Childress explains, the NEA’s “solution to the problem of critical conservative legislators … was to ‘hide’ the funding of writers through institutions.” The outcome, as Childress shows in his profile of the writer Cornelia Nixon, a novelist and Mills College writing professor, are often careers that nurture rather than compete with the novelistic endeavor.

In a disruptive economy that seems intent on decentralizing all forms of service and production — publishing included — there are plenty of writers who understandably take their talent directly to the market through self-publishing. Childress is not necessarily averse to such an option, and he notes how some writers have done well by that path. But, as he told me, “in self-publishing the outsized rewards of the lucky few never get redistributed back down.”

As his elegant book demonstrates, the current model — big-name writers sharing wealth with unknown counterparts who enjoy the prospect of MFA employment — is a more cooperative arrangement that, while not ideal, has a better chance of ushering into existence quality literature by writers who have a shot at being able to change our lives with words.