Sell Your Books but Not Your Soul

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’m currently reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi as research for my next book. Although I’m enjoying it, I was finding the structure confusing.

There are many places in Life on the Mississippi where Twain appears to have thrown in material that doesn’t belong. In one instance he even admits it, stating at the end of Chapter 35 (as a lead-in to Chapter 36), that:

Here is a story which I picked up on board the boat that night. I insert it in this place merely because it is a good story, not because it belongs here—for it doesn’t.

At least he was right about it being a good story. But in Chapter 52, he tells a story that I didn’t even find interesting. Although he tried to connect it to the Mississippi River by placing some of it in St. Louis, the story itself had nothing to do with life on the Mississippi. As that example shows, Twain always manages to find a way to transition to the extra material, but the insertion is still jarring. This is especially disconcerting because Twain is contemptuous of writers who use what he sees as unnecessary words.

Almost by coincidence, I’m also listening to a Great Courses lecture series on Mark Twain with Dr. Stephen Railton from the University of Virginia as lecturer. My confusion cleared up when I listened to Lecture 4 on “Marketing Twain.” Now I know that he sacrificed creativity to make money.

According to Dr. Railton (and to other sources I’ve read in the past), Mark Twain loved making money more than he loved writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible business man. But the one business decision that did bring in an extra profit was selling his books by subscription—using direct door-to-door sales to customers rather than selling through bookstores. He liked subscription sales because they brought in more money, but those customers also demanded longer books and lots of illustrations. The illustrations may have added lasting value, but I believe the padded material in the text detracts from it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mark Twain’s humor, and he deserves to be called the greatest American humorist. But imagine how much greater he could have been if he hadn’t sacrificed creativity for money.

I don’t have a problem with writing for a popular audience, and I’m glad Mark Twain’s writing was a commercial success. I wish my books would do a tenth as well.

But I won’t sell my soul for it.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain because of its age.

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