Is a Story a Toaster?

I’m greatly disturbed by things I’ve read lately. That’s the point, though, right? Aren’t we supposed to be disturbed? Or changed in some way? Don’t we expect to open our minds and let someone else’s ideas in? And of course, once your mind is open, it’s hard to close it again.

I have been reading the theory of story as commercial product, readers as consumers of a product manufactured for sale, and we buy and sell and this interaction is governed by the rules and behaviors of commercial transactions. I have always thought of fiction as different, not a commercial product. I buy books not for the value of the paper and ink, but for the ideas inside, the potential for those ideas to change me. And while we set a dollar amount on those ideas, their value is not monetary, but in their potential. Their potential to change the world. This is a problematic idea at the moment, in the excitable culture we live in.

I decided to think this idea through to clarify my thinking. I want to make sure I know what I’m doing, and why, and if I’m deluding myself for some reason, what is that reason? It’s quite possible for me to be wrong. It’s happened before, and usually when I’m wrong, the reason rests squarely with myself. So I do not enter this discussion assuming I’m right. I am going to use the toaster for comparison, because I’m thinking about toasters this morning.

Specifically, where is the toaster? I have unpacked all the boxes marked ‘kitchen’ and the toaster has not appeared. And I have bagels! I do not plan, however, to write to the Cuisinart people and accuse them of making a disappearing toaster. My guess is it is in a box marked ‘books’.

Is a story art, or is it a toaster? I think back to the books I read as a teenager. Hundreds of them, of the genre known as Regency Romance. What I remember now, forty years later, is this: A) they took me out of myself when I needed an escape. B) after several years, they started to piss me off because they were not telling the truth, and I was looking to them for some truth. C) Several of them taught me something I remember to this day—Georgette Heyer would write characters that were both smart and incredibly stupid and blind to themselves. I cannot tell you how relieved I was! Even handsome brilliant wealthy Dukes could screw everything up! Victoria Holt taught me that nothing is as painful as betrayal by a close friend. And we can still love that person, even after the betrayal. I still remember the way that understanding bloomed across the heroine’s mind, and mine, at the same time. These books, the two or three I remember out of the two or three hundred, or thousand I read, were not toasters. I don’t know that the others were, either. What I think now is those writers were afraid to write the truth, or they hadn’t yet learned the truth. Maybe what they were writing was the truth for them, at that time. Or maybe they believed they were writing a product, for a consumer market.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
Pablo Picasso

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament.
Oscar Wilde

In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.
Albert Camus

An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.
James Whistler

Art is the proper task of life.
Friedrich Nietzsche

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.
Anais Nin

I believe fiction is art. I do not believe there is any difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. The intention is the same, or should be. It’s the IDEA. When we write a story, that’s 50% of the exchange of an idea. When someone reads our story, the other 50% is brought to bear, and the ideas of our mind enter your heads, and maybe they change you. Like those ideas changed us, writing about them. The way ideas resonate across the world is more powerful than any force ever invented or built or constructed in a factory.

So for me, this is not a commercial transaction. You are not the consumers of a product I am selling. I’m on a boat, rocking on the wild seas, and I am inviting you to step onto my boat. Let’s take a ride together. Either one of us could get a face full of cold salt water at any moment, or we could flounder and sink, but we might just figure out how to work that sail. Maybe we will fly across the waves, or fly across the moon. Anything is possible. I think it’s worth that chance or I would not be writing.

I don’t have a money-back policy if the toaster doesn’t work for you. And frankly, I could make more money selling blood than selling books. I have a job that is work-for-money. Writing is something different. It’s something more. And even if I could support my family on the revenues of writing, for me it will always be something more.

It’s a gamble, I admit. A gamble for me, to expose myself to this degree. It’s a gamble for you, to put your money down for an idea, and see if that story, that idea, resonates in your brain in such a way that it makes beautiful music. Maybe the tones will be flat and dull in your lovely brain. Maybe it’s me and maybe it’s you! I’m not selling you a toaster. I am selling you a chance to change the world, one story at a time. That’s what I’m trying to do, when I write a story. Change the world.

Now, where have I packed that toaster?
16 likes ·   •  25 comments  •  flag
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Published on September 08, 2013 09:20 Tags: art, fiction, genre-fiction, sarah-black, toasters, writing
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message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie Bozza Long may you gamble your heart, mind and soul in your wonderful fiction, Sarah!

And I hope you soon find that toaster... You and the bagels should not be kept asunder.


message 2: by Shadowspawn (new)

Shadowspawn Excellent post! You've very well described what I've felt about writing but wasn't able to articulate.


message 3: by Vanessa (new)

Vanessa North Sarah, i just read your work for the first time this weekend. One of the very first things that occurred to me was how obviously you were writing for the story, for the characters, for all the reasons we *should* be writing, and not for the "market" or for what others say the genre should be.

The result is a superlative piece of fiction. A book to enjoy and savor and re read because it works, because it made us think, because it made us have all those darned feelz, because it was beautiful. And it was art.

The oven can be a decent substitute for a toaster when all else fails. ;)


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Julie wrote: "Long may you gamble your heart, mind and soul in your wonderful fiction, Sarah!

And I hope you soon find that toaster... You and the bagels should not be kept asunder."


thank you- and I found the toaster! It finally occurred to me to ask for help, and my kid knew exactly where he put the toaster.


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Shadowspawn wrote: "Excellent post! You've very well described what I've felt about writing but wasn't able to articulate."

thank you- I've been having this discussion with myself for way too long- I needed to write it down. And plant my flag.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Vanessa wrote: "Sarah, i just read your work for the first time this weekend. One of the very first things that occurred to me was how obviously you were writing for the story, for the characters, for all the reas..."

thank you for the kind and thoughtful words. I'm so happy you read it! You and me together made a good story!


message 7: by Lauraadriana (new)

Lauraadriana Writing is something different. It’s something more.

That's exactly why your writing is as wonderful it is Sarah.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Lauraadriana wrote: "Writing is something different. It’s something more.

That's exactly why your writing is as wonderful it is Sarah."


gracias, amigo- now if I will only stop talking and go write!


message 9: by Adrianamae (new)

Adrianamae I believe that a writer and a reader have an intimate relationship. An author writes because they need to write -it is that need most of all that separates writing as an art and a "need" than any commercial transaction. A writer will be that person that scribbled stories to share with friends and even strangers before they even thought of print. God bless them because writers are some of the bravest people in the world.

Books have been my solace. My friends. They make me laugh, cry, and mostly, they entertain me -and that's invaluable.


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Books have been a great solace to me as well. I can't imagine how I would have gotten through some of those rough times without books.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Sorry. I'm going to be the voice of disagreement here. The ideas, the words, the writing? Those are not a toaster. But once that artistry is turned into a book that is assigned a money value, mass-marketed and sold, then it has been turned into a commodity.

Some people may find enormous lasting impact in the book, some people may use it to line their birdcages, some will return it to Amazon and ask for a refund. Because they purchased an item and expected a certain amount of value for that transaction. What each person sees as "value" will be different, but that's not the point. The point is by the buyer giving the author (seller) an agreed amount money for the transaction, the expectation of quid pro quo is established. That isn't the realm of ideas, that's the realm of trade. Of something for something. And that something has been given an exact price. Just like the toaster.


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

"The point is by the buyer giving the author (seller) an agreed amount money for the transaction, the expectation of quid pro quo is established."

Not sure what this means- what expectations by the reader are being guaranteed by the transaction? Does the author have an obligation to fulfill emotional expectations by a reader? Because reading fiction gives an emotional experience to a reader. Or in our genre, does the price of a book guarantee an orgasm or two? Is there a disconnect between why the writer is selling a book, and what the reader believes she is buying, what she is entitled to as a result of the transaction? I'm not sure I start to read a book believing that the writer has to give me what I want, or I want my money back. Art is riskier than that, and I don't mind gambling.


message 13: by Lauraadriana (last edited Sep 10, 2013 05:53PM) (new)

Lauraadriana Sarah wrote: ""The point is by the buyer giving the author (seller) an agreed amount money for the transaction, the expectation of quid pro quo is established."

Not sure what this means- what expectations by th..."


To add to that, is then a painting that is commissioned from an artist because his or her work has impacted or a patron less of a piece of art because it has a buyer? Or someone creates jewelry to sell is not still using/exercising his artistic talent? I think the absolutely are...It's the same thing with a book and its writer.


message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm not saying that books come with a guarantee. Nowhere do I say that. What I said is that a sale of ANYTHING creates expectations, and some of that expectation is of value received. I gave you my money, you gave me your book in return. So now I expect to get something that was worth my money.

What that amounts to will vary in every person who reads one of your stories. If people feel cheated, whether it's as silly as they thought the book was an erotica and it didn't even get their panties wet doesn't matter. They will still feel that way and think they "paid too much". Because they paid their money. Because the act of paying money makes it feel like a trade. Because selling a book, especially in an open market makes it just the same as when you by a pair of shoes...or a toaster. You want to feel you got your money's worth.

My expectation when I buy a book is a certain level of quality in the writing, how the ideas are conveyed, basic editing and proofing. I have returned exactly 3 books to Amazon out of the literally hundreds I've bought. One because I bought it in error, and two because the writing was so atrocious that the books were essentially unreadable. I feel no guilt about booting those not-ready-for-prime time stories back and demanding a refund. They should never have been published. I'm not going to demand refunds because the author told a different story than I wanted or because I failed to see what they were trying to convey. But some people might. And when you've asked them for money, some of them are going to feel free to demand it back if you didn't give them exactly what they wanted or expected. That's the nature of trading.

I guess my point is that how you or I might respond individually doesn't matter. What matters is that many people see books, especially genre books, as a commodity and they are going to ask for their money back if they feel they were cheated.


message 15: by Emma Sea (new)

Emma Sea Yeah, what Kate said. While stories, in themselves, are of course not commodities, once you package your words and trade them to us in return for money, then congratulations, you have now commodified your skill. It is a product in the marketplace. Yes, it's a special kind of commodity, and everyone who loves words would agree stories as commodities ideally transcend the nature of other material goods, but we need to be honest about the nature of goods, capital and labor to have any kind of interesting conversation about the expectations of readers and authors (or any other kind of seller-purchaser relationship).


message 16: by Julio (last edited Sep 10, 2013 08:16PM) (new)

Julio Genao I'm not sure the ideas on this thread are mutually exclusive.

I agree with your thoughts, Sarah, on the nature of art—its function and value to our species—but I also agree with Kate and Emma, that anything that can be assigned a value is subject to commerce.

When someone buys a book, it is with the expectation that it will provide value for their money—in whatever way it is they choose to view such things.

Some will value the very same things you do, as an author, and so their purchase will reflect their expectation of being rewarded as such.

Others will value other things—other aspects of the very same book. Like humor, or sex scenes, or characters named Bob, or whatever.

I don't think it is possible to conclude (not that any here yet have) that an instrument of human art cannot exist as completely different things to different people.


message 17: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao An addendum:

Just as with literature—I do not distinguish between the value of the meanest, most embarrassingly unrefined smutromanze novel and some great big literary playground like Infinite Jest.

Both reward me, and both cost me money. I value them in different ways—but they arrived in my life by exactly the same means.


message 18: by Crispy (last edited Sep 11, 2013 06:51AM) (new)

Crispy Sarah wrote: ""The point is by the buyer giving the author (seller) an agreed amount money for the transaction, the expectation of quid pro quo is established."

Not sure what this means- what expectations by th..."


"Or, in our genre, does the price of a book guarantee an orgasm or two." Wow, that is so incredibly condescending to readers, it makes me spitting mad. I read exactly what I want because I enjoy it, with or without orgasms. I pay the same grubby money for a work of "literature" as I do a work of genre fiction. The gamble I take, and this is always subjective, is that the "product" will be enjoyable to me in some way. I don't care if the book is short listed for the Man-Booker prize or if its a gloriously smutty tale of werewolf insta-love. Books are not toasters, authors aren't slaving away in toaster factories producing identical utilitarian products, and hey, I'm not....toast. Er, something, something, profound. I feel better now.


message 19: by Lillian (new)

Lillian Francis Crispy wrote: Books are not toasters, authors aren't slaving away in toaster factories producing identical utilitarian products, and hey, I'm not....toast.

Phew, that's a relief because otherwise I'd be a toaster and toast with not only split personality disorder but a huge inferiority complex. FYI, my stories don't come with an orgasm guarantee.

A book's content will always be subjective depending on the reader, however I'm sure we all agree that what is required if we are handing over cash is a high standard of speeelong. puncuation and granma.


message 20: by Julio (new)


message 21: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao Juuuuuuust kiddin'


message 22: by Crispy (new)

Crispy Lillian wrote: "Crispy wrote: Books are not toasters, authors aren't slaving away in toaster factories producing identical utilitarian products, and hey, I'm not....toast.

Phew, that's a relief because otherwise ..."


What, no orgasm guarantee?! You are toast, sista.


message 23: by Crispy (new)

Crispy julio wrote: "Delusions of Grandma by Carrie Fisher"

Viscous behemoth, I won't be knitting you any smutty socks for Christmas.


message 24: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao *cackles happily; flees*


message 25: by Melanie (new)

Melanie That was excellent and you mentioned two of my early favorite authors, Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt. Too often the books that come across my computer look as though someone has filled out a checklist. Sex scenes 6 check, breakup check, instant love? check. But where is the understanding of writing as an art form? Where are even the writing basics? How to format a sentence and then make that sentence sing? sigh.


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