Years ago, when we had the misfortune to have some rich friends, one of them was walking with my wife and asked: "Does Crawford write potboilers?"
If only my novels really did boil pots, instead of raising a thin steam!
But I understood what our rich, dim friend was getting at: the distinction between hack writing aimed at a popular audience of people who read until their lips get tired, and Art. Literature.
It's an old and tedious argument. Jonathan Swift poked fun at it in The Tale of a Tub, about the 18th century's endless quarrel between the Moderns (bad) and the Classics (good). At its core, the argument is about who is to be master, and thereby impose a particular taste on the rest of us.
We forget that Charles Dickens was considered a vulgar sensationalist in his own day. Far from being forced on highly educated grad students, he was snapped up by ordinary readers looking for thrills, suspense, laughs, tears, and gore...not to mention sex that was all the steamier for being implicit. The "serious" writers of his day are totally forgotten, even by the grad students. Their pious attitudes and conservative platitudes made them politically correct but doomed to oblivion when their society vanished along with the social values they promoted.
I well remember various authors who appeared on the cover of Time in the 1950s—guys like James Gould Cozzens, who were hot stuff then and not even literary trivia items now. No one in the big media paid any attention at all to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers when it first appeared back then (serialized, like Dickens), but guess who's still in print and provoking debates?
"Mainstream" literature gets most of the media attention these days, but few media articles note how this year's epic, life-affirming novel is next year's remainder-bin special...and as dead as James Gould Cozzens the year after that. By then, someone else will come along to affirm life as it is wished to be lived by the ruling classes.
Meanwhile, the rest of us live our own lives and find them reflected in downmarket genres like romance and thrillers and science fiction. God knows that we, like our literary betters, obey Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of science fiction is crap, and so is ninety percent of everything else. Today's literary genres (including "mainstream") were the cheap entertainment of working-class boys and girls before movies and TV came along, and genre fiction is still despised as much for class reasons as for its lack of invention. That's why Orwell foretold novel-writing machines in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and why the Newspeak word for their products was "prolefeed."
(Poor Orwell! He still imagined the proles would actually read, instead of watching wrestling and Fox News on their telescreens.)
While Orwell was ostensibly writing a kind of prolefeed himself—a science fiction novel—we all recognize that his dystopia was also art. In fact, it's art of a very high degree, a magnificently constructed literary palace full of symbolism. Every paragraph carries the intense meaning of a poem, and not an easy poem either. Very few readers have realized that Winston's half-assed revolt against Big Brother (including his romance with Julia) is entirely scripted by O'Brien, who's been feeding him directions via the telescreen: "We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness." When I understood that, I felt as if the world were falling out from under me...the sure sign that I was reading real literature, not prolefeed.
So are we writers also creating art? Will future grad students pore over our Harlequins, our spy thrillers, our Tolkien hommages, hoping that their world will fall out from under them? Statistically, probably not. But that's not the point.
The Greeks said: "Call no man happy until he is dead," meaning that something awful can happen to even the richest and most powerful. ("Happy" and "happen" both come from an Old Norse word, happ, meaning chance or luck.)
So call no writer an artist until he or she is dead...and still read. If what we write still makes sense to the next generation, or the one after that, then we must have conveyed our message with some skill that survived us. We weren't just chattering in the slang of our particular moment; to paraphrase Ezra Pound, we reported news that stayed news, and we had something to say to people of a different era and culture.
In the meantime, we are fully occupied with just mastering the goddam craft of writing, never mind the art. I love writing because I will never, no matter how long I live, learn it all. Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, the infinite variety of writing. The craft itself is as beautiful and surprising and scary and enigmatic as a lover we don't deserve—we should be grateful for even a one-night stand, and we can hope for maybe, just maybe, another night.
We can be proud just to be good at our craft, whether or not we end up on the cover of Time. Leave the judgment of art to our grandchildren.