Mickey Spillane, a crime novelist who sold over 200 million books, teaches us that pretension never gets us far. “Authors” he says “want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.”
Spillane started his writing career in the comic business. He helped write stories for Batman, Superman, Captain America, and other popular superheroes. But comics didn’t pay well so Spillane decided to give the pulp fiction world a shot. 9 days later he was done with his first book, I, The Jury and it was published soon after.
Critics hated it. Anthony Boucher, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote at the time of its publication, “Able, if painfully derivative, writing and plotting, in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.” The 25-cent paperback sold 3 million copies and Spillane made a name for himself instantly. It also marked the debut of Spillane’s popular character Mike Hammer, a hardboiled detective who fought for justice without following any rules.
Critics today still haven’t quieted down. Spillane’s work at its worst offends and at its best shocks. “It was just after the war and there was rough stuff all around” Spillane said in defense of his gritty prose. “That was the way it was.”
Spillane was also trying to hook readers, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” Spillane wasn’t in the business of finesse or thoughtful prose–his literary influences he once said were “dollars.”
“I’m a commercial writer” he boasts, “not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.”
Spillane frankly assessed his priorities and wrote for a wide audience without bothering to craft master works filled with literary themes and symbolism. “Hemingway hated me.” Spillane said, ” I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still… you look at all this stuff with a grain of salt.”
And this brings us to our point. Spillane found success by being direct and bold. He sold 200 million books by focusing on his audience–not his critics. He never let them get him down or tie him up. He was the Mike Hammer of the literary world–he did whatever it took and broke all the rules to make his audience happy and keep them reading. While it’s always sound to listen to critics and revise your approach to problems–it can, as Spillane proves, be better to stick to your proverbial guns.
But I’m not advocating bullheadedness–I’m just suggesting you assess your priorities clearly and go after them regardless of what high-nosed critics might say.
And if you make a mistake it won’t be so bad. “If you’re a singer you lose your voice.” Spillane said, “A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”
I think the same goes for the field of leadership.
Photo Credit: Digital Sextant (Illustration from Spillane’s book The Big Kill)