Yesterday, I was accused by an unnecessarily combative and extremely supercilious friend-of-a-Facebook-friend of being a "sell-out." His particular reasoning was that, by Not Literally catering to what was "popular" in our parodies, we were just jumping on bandwagons, milking the fandom for all it was worth. His posts reminded me of all the other times in my life when I've been called a "sell-out."
This happens to me kind of a lot. I suspect it's because my dad raised me to be an entrepreneur, and to turn my passions into things that I not only enjoy, but that also benefit me in some tangible way. That's why at age twelve, after attending the local Renaissance Festival for the first time, I planned and hosted my own Renaissance Festival in my backyard, barbecuing turkeys legs with help from my dad, setting up carnival-style games with prizes I bought from the Dollar Store, my brother even offering $1 "dragon rides" around the cul-de-sac on his go-kart, which we decorated with streamers and cardboard wings. That's why when I got into Harry Potter, for years in middle and high school I hosted increasingly elaborate week-long "Hogwarts" summer day camps, with tuition (to cover the cost of lunch, primarily), classes, homework, tests, and backyard Quidditch. I've always been a person who turns my interests into projects, which is why I have often been the target of people who seem to believe that doing so makes me a less genuine fan.
I think the concept of "selling out" is a very important thing to discuss in regards to any creative process, from writing to visual art to music and beyond. For writers, the concept of being a sell-out can be a major stressor. It can tinge every part of the process, from conceptualization to editing.
All writers know at least one writer who reacts violently to critiques, often defending errors or issues as "personal style." Some of us may even know that particular breed of writer who refuses to edit because that would "taint their original voice." I call these writers elitists, excuse-makers, or simply "unpublished."
At heart, writing is a form of communication. Your goal is to communicate a story, a message, a thought, or even just a feeling, to your reader. If you don't want to write to a reader, keep a diary. The goal of getting published is not a sign that a writer is greedy, or is writing for "the wrong reasons" — it's a sign that a writer has ambition and wants to share their stories with the world. And getting published, let's face it, is hard. There are things you have to do in order to be published, and one of those things is to change your work.
Now, I'm not going to try and claim that you shouldn't have boundaries on what you are willing to compromise. If you write a story with strong intent to have a POC main character who defies stereotypes and gives your POC readers representation, then your editor saying "you should make the main character white" would obviously be the kind of change you would reject. But if changing your writing voice to be more approachable will help your work reach your audience, then refusing to do so ("I don't care, I only want the readers who are smart enough to interpret my voice," I was once told in response to a critique) is arrogant and a sure way to set yourself up for failure.
Look, you are a great writer. You are. But you're not a perfect writer. Being able to accept and work from critique is a necessary skill. It's easy to reject a critique right off the bat because it sounds like too much work to change, or because it doesn't match the original idea you had in your head. But if you are willing to try it, you might find that you arrive at something way better than what you came up with alone. People who critique your work are there to help, not to insult you.
When somebody calls me a sell-out, it makes me feel crappy. It makes me feel delegitimized as a creative person. But choosing to tailor my writing to my audience, making plot and character and style choices based on what I believe my readers will want and will connect to — that's not selling out. That's what writing is about.
Have you ever been called a sell-out? Do you think it's okay (or necessary) to change your work in order to make it successful? Tell me in the comments!