“Sellout” is such a loaded word, as Steve noted last year. It’s hard to find any one word that’s crammed with more distrust for the creative marketplace—but who did this cramming, and under what conditions? What is it about selling out that provokes such an allergic reaction amongst creative types?
In the time that’s passed since Steve wrote his essay, I’ve mulled over the whole issue of selling out, and come to the same conclusion he did: we need more sellouts, not less. But we need them on our own terms, and for the right reasons.
I need to drop back a few yards before I punt, and start with a definition of terms. From where I sit, because the word is so emotionally loaded, it’s best to use as narrow a definition as we can. A sellout is someone who deserts his ethics or professed position on something when there’s an easy, ignoble road to take. It’s when a novelist turns around after decades of keeping Hollywood away from his door and then sells the rights to one of his most beloved books for six figures. It’s when an actor takes a role, because his paycheck has a lot of zeroes in it to the left of the decimal point. It’s when a graphic designer best known for his counter-cultural, borderline-underground and transgressive work gets a job as a production designer for a movie based on a major kid’s franchise. It might well also be the Sex Pistols getting back together for another tour, 25 years after the fact, because there’s money to be made from such a venture.
Now I’m going to try an experiment on you. Let’s take each one of those very situations and surround them with context:
1) The novelist in question is selling the rights to his book, because a director with a superlative reputation with geekdom has come knocking, and because there’s precious few other people the author—or the fans—trusts with the material.
2) The actor taking the role is financing the cost of his drug rehab and his return to acting.
3) The designer has a young son who loves said franchise, and begged him to take the chance to work on it.
So: are they still sellouts? Even the Sex Pistols’ reunion is dubious: John Lydon himself made it clear that it isn’t a rip-off if you know it’s a rip-off, as he postured for the cameras during the press conference: “We want your money, suckers!”
It’s easy to cry sellout when you don’t know what the circumstances are, and even easier to not know the circumstances—or what they mean to the lives of those involved—when your entire exposure to being a creative professional is the news columns of entertainment sites or third- and fourth-hand word.
This isn’t to say sellouts don’t exist. But the label, by and large, gets thrown around far too freely by people who choose to ignore that the creative life is also a matter of making calculated business decisions.
Natsume Sōseki, one of Japan’s first truly modern novelists, wrote both in serialized form (a popular, “sellout” form of publishing for the day) and as a more conventional “literary” author. In an afterward to his widely-ignored novel The Miner, translator Jay Rubin noted, “In a lecture he delivered in 1911, Sōseki declared that if an artist cannot derive an income directly from the public, ‘then all he can do is starve to death,’ and that is probably what would have happened to Sōseki if he had continued writing novels like The Miner.” Sōseki put all his money where his mouth was: he gave up a good teaching post to write for a daily newspaper, publishing at least one novel a year there (The Miner among them) from 1907 until his death in 1916. This wasn’t about selling out, but about finding an audience wherever he could, however he could, since an author without an audience—especially a paying one—was not much of an author.
What people get hung up about is what they think they have to give up to reach a paying audience. The truth, as I’ve come to understand it, is that you have much less to give up than you think. We’ll go into what exactly that is next time.