Dante, Gordian knots, and why creatives should learn to sell

Well, I sat down to tell you about this insanely long essay I read in the LRB about Dante and why his Inferno was Very Important (as part of my ‘read an essay a week and tell you about it’ schpeel), but the paper has gone missing and so you are left with the remnants of fragments of snippets of memory since I don’t have the piece to refer to. Here’s what I remember:

  1. It was about Dante and his Inferno.
  2. The Inferno was super important for all sorts of reasons.
  3. He was crazy in love with Beatrice although he only met her twice or maybe three times. Definitely not more than four. Lame.
  4. Pusillanimous, pronounced pew-sah-la-ni-mus, means timid. (I had to look that up.)
  5. He was exiled from Florence because he was part of the Black Guelphs (pronounced goo-elf) who were ousted from political power by the White Guelphs and in those days if you lost you were banish-ed.
  6. His wife – not Beatrice – stayed in Florence. (No big shock. Honestly, if my guy was writing odes to another woman I too would say ‘Fie and be off with you loser’.
  7. He died penniless, wandering around Italy, and sad.

Turns out, this talk of pennilessness and creative purpose was a bit of a theme in thoughts this week.

It just so happened that on the morning that I read this, Cathy Park Kelly sent me a snippet from Catherine Baab-Muguira‘s Substack, Poe Can Save Your Life, which I went on to read and where I learned that Melville and Poe had died as literary failures.

There are many stories like this (and it made me feel more kindly towards Dante), but I loved Baab-Muguira’s angle, which is about the importance of writers (and all creatives actually) taking marketing and sales seriously (something many are loathe to think about) since without sales the writer is more likely to quit. Writes Baab-Maguira:

‘Low sales don’t indicate a lack of literary or artistic merit. Not then and not now. By the same token, low initial sales don’t necessarily equal long-term failure, either. That’s the good news.

‘The bad news? Low sales do correlate with the end of careers (or with a “soft withdrawal” as John Updike characterized Melville’s career post-Moby).

‘If I don’t sell books, and you don’t move units of [whatever the product looks like in your creative discipline], then we may not be able to go on working in our respective fields. We may quit, or be forced to quit.

‘This is why I say that sales are our problem to try and solve, no matter how awful, capitalist and gross it may strike some people to care about these matters or even pay much attention to them. No—it’s not gross to sell your work. It’s a creative act, and the question of what moves units IS highbrow, IS professional, IS interesting, IS artistic. I will die on this hill.’

It’s such a great take. But I must say, even though I initially thought that not finding my readers (aka not making sales) would effect me and my motivation to continue writing more stories, I find myself undaunted by this.

It’s not gross to sell your work. It’s a creative act.

Catherine Baab-Maguira

Maybe going the self-published route has been a kind of boon in that regard.

When you’re traditionally published, it’s up to your publisher to decide what a success is and how many hundreds or thousands of sales they need to consider a continued relationship with you worthwhile (even though publishers in SA are more likely, historically, to treat their writers like disposable agricultural cows in the milking press that is their system).

That can be pretty disheartening for the author when they’re removed from the market as a marketplace and believe that it’s all on them and not what it actually is: a weird Gordian knot of luck and economics and trends and personal timing. No one can really make sense of what hits the spot with readers and yet the author is made to feel 100% responsible for poor sales.

Being self-published, however, I can get my hands dirty with the reality of it all and, if I never find my readership, have the freedom to shrug my shoulders and blame it on the learning curve and the Gordian knot and keep going. Even if my work sucks.

And I think that’s okay. We can’t all be Dantes and Melvilles and Poes.


Well. We can all be a bit of a Poes* sometimes, but that’s a story for another day.

So that’s that for my Let’s Read Thinky Things Again essay homework, although I must admit that two days after starting this post I found the journal but had gotten too far with this train of thought so just continued as I was.

I’ll pick up from the essay after Dante for next time.

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean
Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean

Happy week internet friend. Here’s the link again to Baab-Maguira’s piece. The rest of her Substack is a treasure trove of insights for authors and would-be authors.

*A very South African phrase the equivalent of which is ‘cunt’.

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Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay